By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Lena Goldtooth Canyon sits on a sturdy dinette chair, rubbing worn thumbs together and watching her feet tap on the linoleum kitchen floor. Below her long skirt, she is wearing white socks and black sneakers, laced but not tied. Canyon is 76 years old, a heavyset Navajo woman whose life has largely consisted of herding sheep and raising children. By reputation she does not gladly suffer strangers.
Reed Tso stands hat in hand before her, as he has done many times before, wearing the passive look of a supplicant and asking questions in Navajo on behalf of another stranger. Tso is 40. Like Canyon, he grew up on the northern Arizona reservation of the Navajo Nation.
As she answers, Canyon begins to gesture with small snatches at the air. She is talking about land, to her and many Navajos the most precious of things. Specifically, she speaks of the land south of her current home, the place where she grew up and would like to return before she dies.
"We had homes and livestock out there and had a good life," she tells Tso in Navajo, as he interprets. "My father was one of the first people that went into that area. There is a place called Pull the Water Out, and he developed that well and used it. He would pull the water out for uses such as livestock and other needs."
For more than 20 years, Canyon, her brothers, their children and grandchildren have not been able to live on their family land, she says. Although they still graze livestock on it, they have been forbidden to fix up old houses and hogans as they fell into disrepair, or from building new ones to replace them.
Instead, they live in a collection of trailers and square homes several miles north of the family land. Canyon's house is cinder block, painted pale blue, with a a crooked stovepipe jutting from its roof.
"We would wish to go back," she says. "Our children wish to go back."
Time, and a federal judge, should soon tell whether Canyon will get her wish. Like thousands on the western portion of the country's largest Indian reservation, Canyon's family has spent the last quarter-century suspended in uncertainty as Navajo and Hopi leaders argued over which tribe is entitled to use different parts of the reservation.
Eighteen years after it was filed, a lawsuit brought by the Hopis against the Navajos is on the verge of being decided. U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll may hand down his decision at any time, designating some amount of land to be used exclusively by the Hopis and giving the Navajos the rest.
The court fight has even outlived the Hopi tribal chairman who filed the original suit. In an interview two weeks before he was killed in an August 7 car crash, Abbott Sekaquaptewa expressed frustration over the Navajos' "propaganda war." "They say I'm just a bitter man," he said. "I can't judge myself, but if I'm a bitter man, I have a damn good reason."
When the suit began, more than seven million acres of land was in dispute. Over time the contested area has been whittled down to about 100,000 acres in the area of Moenkopi and Tuba City, including where Canyon lives.
Members of both tribes hope Carroll's ruling will free them to go on about their ways. But the enduring legal struggle, they say, has done more than just cost the tribes millions of dollars. It has taken years from their lives, changed their ways and forever marked their families.
Navajos say they have seen their families undermined and their way of life distorted. They blame the Hopis, saying their greedy lust for Navajo land has brought about their lingering hardship.
Vastly outnumbered by their neighbors, the Hopis say they are the victims of the land dispute. They view the Navajos as nomadic latecomers who are using their larger numbers to push them out of their sacred grounds.
The roots of the tribes' disagreement date back hundreds of years to when the Navajo first began arriving in the Hopi area, and two distinctly different cultures began sharing the same swath of land. In modern times, courts have become the battleground as the two tribes attempt to fashion an elusive peace.
The judge's approaching ruling should go far toward establishing which tribe, in the eyes of the law, is allowed to use which land. But some doubt the two tribes will ever stop their turf battles.
"What you have is two tribes who have been locked in this dispute so long they don't know any other way," says Lee Phillips, a Flagstaff attorney with many Navajo clients. "[The land fight] has become almost an institution that has drained blood and money out of those tribes and has prevented the tribes from providing for the day-to-day needs of their people."
@body:Land ownership is not the goal of either the Hopis or the Navajos in their long-running dispute. The issue is use--whose sheep and cattle can graze where, who is free to use sacred sites for religious ceremonies and where new houses can be built as children marry and have families of their own.