The Navajo-Hopi dispute has its roots in an 1882 presidential order that set aside the 2.4 million-acre reservation for the Hopi and "other Indians" that might be settled there. Thousands of Navajos were living on land within the newly ceded reservation and for decades both tribes used the same lands. Occasional conflicts between the tribes led Congress to designate certain areas exclusively Hopi and others for "joint use" in 1962 and then--after a court challenge by the Hopi in 1974--to partition the land between the two tribes. As a result, nearly 10,000 Navajos were left on the wrong side of the line and faced the prospect of eviction from lands their families had inhabited for generations. About 150 Navajo families are still living illegally on Hopi land.
In November, the federal government announced a tentative settlement to the dispute. The proposal, which requires congressional approval, would give the Hopi an additional 400,000 acres of public land in northern Arizona. In exchange for the land, the Hopi would agree to grant the disenfranchised Navajo families 75-year leases.
Benedek's book focuses on the period between the summer of 1985 and spring 1986, as the deadline for relocating pressed down on the Navajos. Benedek writes about the clash of two different cultures as well as the legal and political battles, alternating chapters of history with observed scenes and interviews.
Benedek, a 1981 Harvard graduate, first covered the Navajo-Hopi dispute for Newsweek, and she lived and worked in Arizona from 1988 to 1990 while writing and researching the book, which is her first. While she agrees that the book--released a few weeks before the tentative settlement of the dispute was announced--was released at a fortuitous time, she attributes the timing to "dumb luck."
"The truth of the matter is that it was finished in 1990 and Knopf held it . . . to coincide with the Columbus quincentenary for marketing purposes," she says. "This is more than two and a half years after I finished, and I'll tell you that wait nearly sent me to the insane asylum. As it turns out, you couldn't have picked a more perfect time for it to come out."
She says she's currently working on a second book that will preserve the oral history of one of the families featured in The Wind Won't Know Me.