A controversial federal program to relocate about 10,000 Navajo Indians from reservation land claimed by two tribes has more than tripled in cost since its inception in 1974, and the Navajos are renewing their pleas that the effort be abandoned.
The first federally appointed director of the program quit last February and joined forces with the Navajos against it. His replacement, who supports the relocation as the most reasonable of the alternatives, nevertheless calls it "a real negative program" that is probably "racist as hell."
At issue in the highly emotional dispute is title to 1.8 million acres of land in Arizona and New Mexico that the Hopi and the Navajo tribes have been feuding over since 1882.
In 1974 the federal government decided to split the land between the two tribes, relocating thousands of Navajos to their own reservation--the largest in the United States--and a handful of Hopis to their piece of the land. Congress approved, and in 1980 President Carter signed a relocation act.
Initially it was estimated that only 3,500 people would be moved at a projected cost of $57 million. So far, 350 families have been relocated, but the task is expected to drag on until at least 1986 at a cost that even conservative estimates put at more than $200 million.
Leon Berger, who resigned in late February as executive director of the commission established by the federal government to oversee the relocation, says the cost will be much higher, approaching $500 million.
Berger, who now works with the Navajo tribe, said in a recent interview, "After the experience of having moved a number of families and seeing what was happening, I felt the program needed to be reexamined and looked at carefully. It's not working and it won't work. The impact is far greater than anything I imagined. The costs have escalated ...and the problems of relocating the native people are far greater than anything I anticipated. There's been an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars and there's nothing in return but more human misery."
Supporters of the program call it the best solution to a lingering and complex problem and dispute Berger's $500 million cost estimate. But no one is certain of the cost--not even the staff members of congressional subcommittees, who have already held hearings on the commission's $13.4 million request for fiscal 1983. "I don't see at this point how anyone can come up with good numbers," said one congressional staff aide.
Steve Goodrich, Berger's replacement as executive director, said spiraling housing costs and a low initial estimate of the number of families subject to relocation were the primary reasons the relocation has gotten more expensive.
Ironically, the recession is helping minimize some of the rising costs. "The housing market has been flat as hell this year so we haven't had to raise the benefits," Goodrich said. "We haven't had to make any adjustments for inflation." When the program was conceived, a 12 percent annual housing inflation rate was factored in, he said. Each relocated family receives about $68,000 for a new house and a cash bonus.
The cost of the program is only one of the concerns of its critics, who say many of the affected Navajos cannot speak English and were provided no formal education or job training before being moved to reservation border towns like Flagstaff, Ariz., and Gallup, N.M.
"The Navajos have a unique and strong religious attachment to their land," explained Percy Deal, a tribal official who released a tribe-commissioned study on the impact of relocation. "The land is considered a birthright to which the Navajo may choose to return. Thus when the commission purchases a hogan from a Navajo and forces him to leave his land, it deprives the Navajo of his home and religious sanctuary which no amount of money can ever replace or compensate."
Deal, Berger and other tribal officials complain that the stress of the forced move has spurred some Indians to turn to alcohol and even suicide. The tribe estimated "at least 28 deaths have occurred as a result of severe stress" caused by the relocation effort and a companion federal program to reduce Navajo livestock holdings in the disputed area.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) has opposed the relocation because of the human toll. "The senator always has been opposed to relocation of those people, mainly on humanitarian grounds," said John Mulkey, a staff aide. "They're the most ill-prepared to move of any Indians in the country. Many are uneducated and can't speak English, yet they're being sent to border communities.
"When you're talking about $500 million and you don't know if the people in the area are going to even be helped by it, taking another look at it seems to be in line."
Goodrich, the relocation commission director, conceded the detrimental impact on many Navajos. "It's a hellish program, a real negative program. It's probably not in the best interests of many of the families to move them off the reservation. You just don't take traditional Navajos and traditional Hopis and put them in an area where they can't survive.
"We've been moving to acquire additional land and in the future to move people to those areas where they can duplicate what they are used to. It creates a false sense of reality to move them to some place like Flagstaff, Ariz., and provide them with a rent-free home. It's probably racist as hell. It puts them in a situation they are not able to contend with."
But Goodrich, along with other supporters like Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), says the program, despite its faults, is the most reasonable of numerous alternatives discussed over the years. Udall sees little congressional resistance to relocating the Navajos.
"There's a squeeze on everything and I suppose the government could cut this back," Udall said. "But the government made some commitments which should be followed through. This has been an exceedingly difficult, time-consuming thing. I had hoped for a spirit of cooperation like the Israelis pulling back from the Sinai, but it's not happened that way at all."