updated 9/27/2006 12:33:54 PM ET 2006-09-27T16:33:54

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — An agreement that moves the Navajo and Hopi tribes one step closer to resolving a decades-old dispute over reservation boundaries has been approved by the Navajo Nation Council.

The council during a special session Tuesday voted 75-3 in favor of the agreement, spurring applause from residents who live on the disputed land. It involves about 700,000 acres of Navajo land that the Hopis claim as their aboriginal homeland.

"This was the people's victory today," Delegate Evelyn Acothley said following the vote.

In 1966, then-U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett imposed a ban on construction on the disputed acreage — including even minor things, such as broken windows, roof repairs or extending water and electrical lines — unless approved by the Hopis.

That has meant some residents haven't been able to fix their leaky roofs or install running water or telephone service.

Council Delegate Duane Tsinigine, who sponsored the legislation, cited the lack of electricity and running water in making his plea to the council to approve the compact.

Four years of talks
Both tribes have been working on the intergovernmental compact the past four years. It's a step toward lifting the so-called Bennett Freeze and ending litigation the Hopis filed against the Navajos in 1974.

As part of the compact, the Hopi tribe would not receive any Navajo land other than that already awarded by the courts.

Also, Navajos would be allowed to enter Hopi land without a permit for traditional religious practices. In turn, Hopis would be allowed to enter Navajo land without a permit for religious practices.

The Hopis say the land in dispute contains sacred springs, eagle nesting sites and shrines vital to their religion. The agreement prohibits Navajos from building near certain eagle nests that the Hopis have had access to.

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said he would sign the measure as soon as it gets to his desk.

"We've lost a lot of elderly, we have lost a lot of medicine people, a lot of young people to the metropolitan areas because they couldn't build on the frozen land," he said. "Now, what it means is once the land is thawed out, we can build houses there, we can build farms for our livelihood. We can build schools. We can build gas stations, grocery stores."

The agreement still requires approval by the Hopi tribe, the secretary of the interior and the U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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