All posts by Joe Liesner

Back to Black Mesa – Native Americans vs. big coal

Herding the Begay family’s 42 sheep and goats on the high desert plateau of northeast Arizona is how I spent the holiday called Thanksgiving by U.S. commercial culture. Hostein and Mazie and their children Etta and Tom are a Dine (Navajo) family who have been resisting eviction and cultural genocide by the U. S. government for over 35 years. For me, and 120 other volunteers in the 2010 Black Mesa Caravan, supporting indigenious resistance was our Thanksgiving. Organized by Black Mesa Indigenous Support, the yearly pilgrimage brings food, firewood, building supplies and tools along with an enthusiastic labor force to about 35 of the Dine families resisting forced relocation from their homelands on Black Mesa (usually called Big Mountain).

I have been to Big Mountain five or six times since my first visit in 1998. On that visit with my friend Paul Bloom I thought there was the possibility of pressuring the U.S. government into easing its brutally unjust treatment of the Dine resisters. Our call was “Repeal Public Law 93-531″ the 1974 law that divided the land area previously shared peacefully by the Hopi and Navajo, and resulted in over 12,000 Navajo being forced from their homesteads. Over the ensuing years I have seen Senator John McCain, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Peabody (Western) Coal, and both the Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils bring more and harder disruption, suffering, and death to these Dine elders and their families. Big Mountain land and water was stolen from the Dine to extract its rich coal reserves. This time my sole intention was to help a resister family with its daily chores for a week. Such a change in my expectations was a painful reminder of the powerful and relentless greed of multinational corporations like Lehman Brothers and Peabody Coal and a corrupt Mormon lawyer named John Sterling Boyden.

I know how hard life at Big Mountain is. When I tried to do sheep herding in 2000 I couldn’t keep up with the herd and depended on the dogs to get them home. Now, 68 years old, I needed to be reassured by the Caravan organizers that I wasn’t too old. They did, and I proudly rose to the occasion. On Tuesday and Friday my co-herder Terri Compost and I kept the herd out the full seven hours. True, I would kneel or lie down for a minute or two whenever the herd slowed for a fill up on juniper berries or young sage. And a good thing that I still had a little gas in my tank because once we had the herd in the coral around three o’clock we would then split fire wood until dark. As I ate dinner, usually by candlelight, I remembered the peaceful exhaustion of having done a full day’s meaningful labor.

In spite of the drain on my body of keeping up with the sheep and goats, the beauty of the high desert panorama that unfolded before us at Big Mountain filled me with a giddy kind of joy. It is not lush or lavishly colorful in the usual sense, but a rolling carpet of sand dotted with light green sage and darker juniper trees that is open and accessible to the human form. Yet its overwhelming vastness can easily swallow one up. For that reason volunteers were assigned to herding in groups of two or four so that herders would always be paired. We were also advised not to rely on landmarks for finding our way but to follow the tracks of the herd to get back home.

Nevertheless, one of the volunteers did get separated from her partner and spent two bone chilling nights stranded on a ridge. With a cell phone with a dead battery and lighters out of butane this woman was lucky to be found with only slight frostbite on the tips of her toes. She wisely conserved the food she had until she was found. Her rescue happened because one of the Dine trackers defied the Hopi rangers’ insistence that only they would be conducting the search and continued his search. It was while this tracker was tracking the lost woman that a hawk flew over and spooked his horse who, we are told, then ran straight to the ridge where the lost woman was. The community which had mobilized an effective search was very relieved and had learned important ways to help herders get home safely.

News from the Land

In addition to working at our host families’ homesteads, on the Saturdays beginning and ending our stay at Big Mountain we had large group meetings where the leaders of the resistance, a.k.a. the Grandmas, spoke about their struggle. We heard about Hopi rangers confiscating the Grandmas’ sheep and destroying traditional Dine hogans as has been going on since the late 1980′s. Even in the week we were there we grew more familiar with what it is to live under police occupation. While our comrade was lost the Hopi rangers, as mentioned above, attempted to curtail the Dine from searching for one of their lost supporters, claiming they would do it by helicopter (which never happened). The Hopi police also came onto the Caravan’s base camp at Katherine Smith’s homestead where we had our large meetings. As an occupying force will do in order to monitor and control resistance to its occupation, the Hopi demanded that Grandma Smith get a permit for the gathering. Thank you Hopi Tribal Council for being such a willing pawn of U.S./Corporate cultural genocide.

Of the new developments in this decades-old land struggle, those involving their own Navajo Tribal Council were of greatest concern to the Grandmas. Most often mentioned was an agreement between Ben Shirley, the new president of the Navajo Tribal Council, and LeRoy Shingoitewa,the chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council, pledging to “clean up” the land dispute issue. Since the Navajo Tribal council has never offered anything but hollow lip service to the traditional Grandmas it was believed that such an agreement could only mean greater pressure on the resisters to force them off their land.

Water is always an important issue, especially in the desert. For years the Navajo tribal government has profited from the sale of water, essential to the livelihood of the people on Big Mountain, to Peabody Western Coal Company. That water from a pristine aquifer was used to slurry coal 273 miles to Laughlin Nevada. Finally, in 2005, due to a Clean Air Act suit, the Mojave coal power plant in Laughlin was closed (only because its pollution was hampering tourism at the Grand Canyon). Long time dry water wells around Big Mountain and Tuba City began to recover.

As important a victory that the closing of the Mojave Generating Station was, the Grandmas never underestimate the destructive greed of Peabody Coal Company (now Peabody Energy since coal became a dirty word). However for these traditional Dine, as stewards of the land, their own tribal “leaders” are often as serious a threat. Many of the elders were angered by the recently signed Northeastern Arizona Water Settlement in which the Navajo Nation agreed to take only a minuscule portion of the water from the Little Colorado river to which they are entitled. Such betrayal by their “leaders” must be hard to bear. As a supporter it enrages me.

For what could enrage one more than the First Peoples of this land, who live without plumbing or electricity, to be forced from their land and ways so that their coal can be turned to electricity for the air conditioners of Phoenix, the light spectacles of Las Vegas, and the street lights of Los Angeles.

There will be yearly caravans to Big Mountain. If you would like to be part of this struggle check out www.blackmesais.org or contact bayareacaravan@gmail.com. For a full history of the theft of Dine land see “The Wind Won’t Know My Name” by Emily Benedek.