50 Year Land and Grazing Dispute on Navajo Reservation Resolved; Homesite Leases on McCracken Mesa Reaffirmed.
The Johnson family residing on the Navajo Reservation’s McCracken Mesa, located in the southeastern portion of Utah, can finally live in peace. After litigating a dispute over homesite leases and grazing permit rights, Attorney Keith C. Smith of Smith, Shelton & Ragona, LLC, (retained in 2007) secured the family’s right to reside on the Mesa without any further interference. On September 24, 2010, Justice Arene Black of the Navajo Nation Trial Court ruled against Helen Yellowman, a grazing permit holder, to stop interrupting homesite lease improvements, stop interference with a Johnson grazing permit, or otherwise interfering with the Johnson’s ability to improve their leases.
Attorney Smith, a full blooded member of the Navajo Nation, represented the Johnson family in the dispute. In deciding to take the case, Smith commented, “I have vested interest in land disputes, particularly this area, because I am not only a member of the tribe, but I am from that community. I feel somewhat duty-bound to do what I can to help those in my community protect their interests.” Moreover, Smith believed the issue needed to be resolved for legal purposes as well. He stated, “[T]his was a unique case because it involved a mix of land and grazing issues, which were intertwined. That aspect coupled with the fact the area in dispute was added to the Navajo Nation in 1958, with no formal resolution regarding permitted grazing, made it particularly salient and necessary for resolution.”
The facts of the dispute became quite convoluted and complex, rendering a 43-page order written by Judge Black. In short, the Johnsons were sued by Helen Yellowman (Plaintiff), who claimed she was the rightful heir to a grazing permit of a man named “Little Wagon,” which in turn granted her the right to Little Wagon’s alleged customary use area, which is now occupied by Smith’s client – the Johnsons.
McCracken Mesa was added to the Navajo reservation in 1958, as an exchange for the land taken when Lake Powell was created and Navajo land flooded to create the lake. Yellowman argued her permit should grant her priority over any other persons occupying the area she now claimed on McCracken Mesa. However, as the evidence was heard, it was determined that no grazing permits were ever issued for McCracken Mesa, much less one that was issued before it even became part of the reservation.
The main body of ruling stated that Yellowman cannot use a grazing permit to expel others from land; it can’t be used as a deed or similar instrument to claim “I own this land.” Moreover, the court stated that Yellowman waited much too long to make use of the grazing permit, and to now attempt to establish a use after 50 years after the fact is not plausible. While the court did say it did not have the authority to cancel the grazing permit, which was not a request made by the Johnsons, it did say you must put it to beneficial use or face the consequences, such as cancellation.
From a legal perspective, Smith commented, “This ruling is important because it makes a clear distinction between home site leases (leases obtained so you build or place a home in a given area on the reservation) and grazing permits, the respective legal authority granted with each, and how each one can be used by a member.”
However, from his personal vantage point, he added, “I do think this case will have an impact [on the community]. For so long, even since I was young boy living on the reservation, residents seemed to assume a grazing permit could be wielded like a sword to expel others from “their” grazing areas. I feel there is somewhat of a misunderstanding of ‘use and occupancy’ of trust land as opposed to outright ownership. I think the ruling will shed some light on how similar disputes ought to be resolved.
Reflecting on the non-monetary fulfillment a case like this can bring, Smith concluded, “Although the court did not grant everything in our clients’ counterclaims, which rarely happens, they were elated by the court’s ruling on what were clearly the most important issues germane to the case, namely the court’s reaffirmation of their home site leases and right to occupy their respective areas, without threat of eviction, harassment or delays in improving their homes. When I broke the news, I could hear one client get choked up and reply: ‘Finally, after so long this matter has been finished. We can now move on.’”