Navajo residents in the rural community of Big Mountain are upset about a Hopi government raid on a religious site last week, in which dancing grounds were bulldozed and a venerated "Tree of Life" was reportedly fed into a woodchipper.
The pre-dawn police action, in which an arbor was also cut down with chain saws, took place on a long-contested plot of land where approximately 10 Navajo families have refused to move from an area claimed by the Hopi Tribe.
"A horrible thing has been done there," said Betty Tso of the group Voices of the Navajo. "All people can say is 'why?' It is a shock for everybody."
The field known as "Camp Anna Mae," located near the home of Navajo activist Louise Benally, was used last month to host the 16th annual sun dance at Big Mountain. The sun dance is a ceremony originated by the Lakota people of the northern Plains states, but one that has been embraced by a small number of Navajo in recent years as a gesture of resistance to being relocated.
"A front-end loader destroyed sweat lodges, fire pits, sweat rocks, altars and the sun dance arbor," witnesses said in a statement. "Religious paraphernalia, which included tobacco ties, flesh offerings, and eagle feathers, were seized or left behind and trampled by machinery."
Hopi leaders defended the August 17 dismantling of the dance site as a legitimate exercise of tribal sovereignty. Eric Crittenton, 18, was arrested and charged with trespassing and Arlene Hamilton-Benally was escorted off the reservation.
"This is just one of the steps that the Hopi Tribe will be taking to enforce its jurisdiction over the Hopi Reservation," said Cedric Kuwaninvaya, chairman of the Hopi Land Team. "We will keep a close eye on the former site of Camp Anna Mae to ensure that the trespassers do not try to establish another camp at which they hold unwanted gatherings and celebrate their lawlessness."
No organized protests or outbreaks of violence were reported after last week's police action, although emotions are said to be still running high. "There needs to be a peaceful solution," said local resident and past Sundance participant Marie Gladue. "Otherwise something is going to happen."
Federal officials "are aware of the situation and continue to monitor activities in the area," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Lodge from Flagstaff. The bulldozing incident is yet another outgrowth of a complicated land dispute between the tribes that goes back to the 1860s, when Navajos returning from a forced march to an internment camp began to settle on lands claimed by the Hopi.
Hopi officials said that organizers of July's sun dance lacked the necessary permits. Some cars heading to the ceremony were turned back by Hopi police and 15 Navajo were cited for trespassing.
Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye called on the Hopi government to apologize for what he called "violent action" and "the politics of destruction."
"The Hopi government appears to be persecuting these families for their religious beliefs, as well as for their heartfelt desire to stay on their ancestral lands and to continue their traditional ways," he said.
But Kuwaninvaya declined to apologize.
"The Hopi will never again tolerate a situation where our lands are stolen, our people abused and our laws ignored. We will protect our lands and our rights," he said. "When so-called religious ceremonies become little more than political rallies, both the Hopi and the Navajos lose. The actions of the resistors do not support peace between the two tribes."