Cronkite News

By Lillie Boudreaux

WASHINGTON – For more than 160 years, the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe has shared land with the Navajo Nation, and for the past 23 years it has had a treaty pending that would give them their own lands.

It’s long past time for Congress to ratify the treaty so that San Juan Southern Paiute tribal members are no longer treated like strangers in their ancestral homeland, tribal President Johnny Lehi Jr. testified Wednesday.

“We’re a small government. We do have our own council, we do have our leadership.” Lehi said. “We need this treaty land to make us stronger in our own self-governance.”

He was testifying at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing in support of a bill that would approve the treaty and finally grant 5,400 acres of Navajo Reservation land and accompanying water rights to the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe.

Rep. Eli Crane, R-Oro Valley, who sponsored the bill, said it is the only federally recognized tribe in Arizona without its own reservation.

“We owe them an opportunity to live freely in the land they call their own, like the rest of us do,” Crane said at Wednesday’s hearing of a House Natural Resources subcommittee.

Crane, a freshman, said the bill was the first piece of legislation he introduced after being elected last year. He called it a commonsense solution that respects tribal governance and the will of the people, and said Congress should not stand in the way of self-governance.

The San Juan Southern Paiute Tribal Homelands Act of 2023 is co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Bullhead City, Democratic Reps. Greg Stanton and Ruben Gallego, both of Phoenix, and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont. It has the support of both the Interior Department and the Navajo Nation.

“I’m a proud representative of over half the tribes in Arizona,” Crane said. “They’re great partners in preserving American history and culture and the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe is no different. Other than the fact that they don’t have their own land yet.”

Even though they have long shared land with the Navajo Nation, the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe only received federal recognition in 1989. That recognition, however, allowed it to intervene in a legal dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes over ownership of lands in northeast Arizona.

In 1992, a federal court determined that the San Juan Southern Paiute and the Navajo jointly held interest in 26,000 acres of land. After the Paiute appealed that ruling, the two tribes began negotiating a settlement that led in 2000 to a treaty agreement.

Lehi said his grandmother, Mabel Lehi, helped negotiate that treaty.

“I spoke with her before I came out here, and she’s very proud that it’s gone this far. And she wants to see this treaty ratified before she enters the next world,” Lehi said of his grandmother, who he said is one of the few elders left in the tribe.

The agreement calls for the Paiutes’ legal appeal to be dismissed once the treaty is ratified. Until then, the suit remains pending and the Paiute face the bureaucratic hurdles of being a government without having rights to its own land.

“Multiple doors get shut because we have no treaty land,” Lehi said. “And that’s the biggest challenge we have.”

Lehi said that then the tribe sought funding to get a bridge built over a wash, for example, the Arizona Department of Transportation would not approve funding for the project without the treaty. Without an exclusive reservation, Lehi said most tribal members lack access to adequate housing, running water and electricity.

“We are treated like strangers in our ancestral homeland, being denied access to essential services and utilities,” he said.

But Lehi said the need for a reservation is about more than bureaucratic and legal challenges.

“A tribe without land is a tribe without a future,” he said. “Land is what allows tribes to develop economic opportunities, generate revenue, and continue to pass down our way of life to our children and our children’s children.”