In early July, Democratic Representative Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona’s First Congressional District introduced a bill designed to spur economic development on the Navajo Nation. As Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports, it would affect some of the reservation’s poorest areas.
For four decades, a long-running land dispute between the Navajo Nation and Hopi made virtually all development forbidden in an area known as the Bennett Freeze. Even some basic improvements to existing structures were deemed illegal, and the area has since suffered from some of the most extreme poverty in the U.S. In 2009, the freeze ended, but dire conditions persist.
According to Kirkpatrick, House Bill 5039 was crafted by tribal officials. It would pave the way for more economic development on the Navajo Nation.
“Improving the lives of the people who were in the Bennett Freeze area has been a goal of mine for a long time. There are thousands of families out there that don’t have electricity or running water … And we’ve continued to focus on what we need to do to start improving the critical infrastructure out there,” Rep. Kirkpatrick says.
As part of the bill, federal laws like the Wilderness and Endangered Species acts, would be waived in certain areas slated for development. But, the Navajo Nation’s own versions of those laws would still be in effect.
“I have a deep respect for tribal sovereignty – about self-determination … They have a different relationship with land than I think a lot of people off reservations do and this is really about tribal sovereignty,” Rep. Kirkpatrick says.
HB 5039 will be discussed in congressional committee before possibly being sent to the full House or Senate.