About the Bennett Freeze

The Bennett Freeze

The Bennett Freeze was a development ban on 1.5 million acres of Navajo lands by the US Federal Government. It was put in place in 1966 in order to promote negotiations over a land dispute between the Navajo and the Hopi and lasted until 2009. It was named for the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at the time, Robert L. Bennett and meant that in the “frozen” area, no development at all could occur. This included fixing roofs, building houses, constructing gas and water lines, and repairing roads.

Creation of Navajo and Hopi Reservations

The Bennett Freeze has its origins in the treaty of Bear Springs of 1868 that established a reservation for many Navajo. This was the result when the Navajo Tribe was at war with the US army. As part of this conflict,the Kit Carson Campaign sought to end the traditional Navajo way of life through a scorched earth policy. Unable to live on their land, many took the Long Walk of the Navajo to internment at Fort Sumner in New Mexico.

In 1868, the Navajo signed a treaty with the US government which established a reservation. The initial boundaries were a part of their traditional land base. Other areas were added to in 1878 and 1880.

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur created an area of land designated for the Hopi tribe and other tribes the Secretary of the Interior might settle on Hopi lands. It was decided the Hopi allotment would be a rectangle framed by lines of latitude and longitude, exactly one degree by one degree, and it left out the significant Hopi village of Moenkopi. It also included areas used by Navajos.
Despite the legal uncertainties of property ownership in the overlapping portions of Navajo and Hopi land, the two tribes co-existed without incident for many decades to come. The sparsely-populated nature of the land in dispute and the differing traditional ways of life of the two tribes kept resource conflicts to a minimum.

The History of the Bennett Freeze

As a result of the 1966 Hopi-Navajo Land Claims case, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert L. Bennett created a development ban for Navajo living in the former Joint Use Area. The intent was to reduce tensions by essentially forcing Navajo families to leave the area. However, many Navajo people continued to reside in the contested area.

Mineral Rights

The land that makes up the Navajo Reservation contains rich deposits of coal and uranium. Generally considered barren rangeland at the time of its creation, the subterranean mineral richness of the area was not fully known or appreciated when the Navajo Reservation was first allotted by the US government, nor when it established the Hopi Reservation.

In 1919, a mining consortium became interested in the coal potential of the western portion of the Navajo Nation. The uncertain nature of land ownership and the rights associated with it became a major issue for the Hopi, Navajo and private mining interests. Competition for the land continued, especially over large coal-containing areas under Black Mesa.
As part of World War II and the Cold War, uranium was mined on both Navajo land and later in the Joint Use Area.

Joint Use Area

In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Healing v. Jones that there should be a “Joint Use Area” for both tribes, but tensions continued. The Freeze was intended to be temporary incentive to make the two tribes negotiate over the land, but an agreement was never reached. Under it, Navajo and Hopi would have to “agree upon any proposed economic activity in the area prior to undertaking that activity”. This meant the start of many hardships for the thousands of Navajos and Hopi affected because the Freeze essentially halted all economic development in the area. Additionally, there was constant conflict revolving around access to sacred sites.

In 1966, Peabody Coal starting mining on Black Mesa. Revenues from the lease agreement were shared between the Navajo and Hopi.

Changes in the Joint Use Area

In 1972, Assistant Interior Secretary Harrison Loesch tried to decrease the severity of the situation by “unfreezing” some of the areas. However, because these areas were primarily Hopi and therefore hardly any more Hopi territory was affected by the Freeze, the Hopi essentially had unilateral veto power for proposed projects. Recognizing this problem, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Morris Thomson gave his office the authority to override any improvement requests that the Hopi had rejected in 1976.

The Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974 was a further attempt to reduce tensions by forcing Hopis off of lands reserved for Navajos and vice versa. Under this act, 6,000 Navajos had to leave their homes and once again, tensions were not reduced. Some claim that the primary beneficiary of this act were actually coal companies, specifically Peabody Coal, who would gain land access. They also posit that the conflict between the Navajo and Hopi was greatly exaggerated precisely to gain access to these resources.

In 1980, the U.S. government tried to intervene again. However, as the government itself admitted in Senate Report 100-462, “the result [of past US actions] has been that the Native Americans living in the Bennett Freeze region reside in conditions that have not changed since 1966 and need to be improved.”

In 2005, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced Senate Bill 1003: Navajo-Hopi Land Settlements of 2005. The bill passed the Senate and included provisions such as amendments to the “Joint Use Area” established in 1880.

In 2009, the development ban was lifted by President Obama.

In 2010, Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona) introduced legislation to allocate more funds to the Former Bennett Freeze Area, but the bill did not pass.

Impact of Bennett Freeze

The ban, which lasted 40 years, affected the lives of nearly 10,000 Navajo people who lived in the affected area. Now, around 20,000 people live in the formerly frozen area. Although the development freeze has been lifted since 2009, people in the area continue to suffer. Only 24% of the houses in the area are habitable, almost 60% do not have electricity, and the majority do not have access to potable running water. The legacy of the Bennett Freeze still looms over the region and deeply affects the day-to-day lives of its residents. In testimony before Congress, Nelson Gorman, Jr., Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, likened it to “the deplorable conditions approximating those found only in underdeveloped third world countries.”

With the advent of the Atomic Age in the 1940s and the subsequent onset of the Cold War, uranium mining on the Navajo Nation began. This has left a legacy of high cancer rates and other adverse health impacts, such as tainted wells and aquifers, that is still affecting the current residents of the area.

Recent History

The beginning of the effort that is now known as the Navajo Thaw Implementation Plan dates back to the final months of the Shelly Administration with the release of a Request for Proposals (RFP) that was to develop a Regional Plan to address the Former Bennett Freeze Area. Although the RFP was released and proposals were submitted in response, including one from a newly-formed LLC, Native Builders, ultimately, the Shelly Administration did not select outside professional assistance to help develop and implement such a plan.

In 2014, the Navajo people elected Russell Begaye as President and Jonathan Nez as Vice President. The Begaye-Nez Administration established an interagency Task Force which was formed to address the multiple problems stemming from the Bennett Freeze utilizing existing Navajo Divisions, Departments and Enterprises. While some information was developed and collected, the lack of coordinated professional planning and implementation capacity left the region without a comprehensive plan.

On September 24, 2015, the Naabik’iyati’ Committee of the Navajo Nation Council met at the Grey Hills Academy in Tuba City to receive reports and make recommendations related to improving the lives of the people of the Former Bennett Freeze Area. The Honorable Speaker LoRenzo Bates ensured that all the recommendations were recorded. Ultimately, the Navajo Nation Council Delegates in attendance identified 38 recommendations to address the problems of the region. The sentiment of all the attending Delegates was to declare an emergency in order that immediate relief could be provided to the people of the region. Still, demonstrable progress was not made.

The election of 2018 brought new hope to the people of Western Navajo Nation with the election of a new administration, which named addressing the Bennett Freeze issue as one of its top priorities and appointed Robert K. Black, Jr. as Executive Director of the Navajo Hopi Land Commission Office (NHLCO). Executive Director Black issued an updated RFP with a deadline of June 6, 2019. In the Fall of 2019, the Native Builders Team was selected to advance what is now known as the Navajo Thaw Implementation Plan.