"I work for my children’s
I went to the International body (United Nations)
to make a
stand for my people.
We have to keep going, there’s no place else to
DAYS OF RECKONING
FOR THE NAVAJO
and Written By
published as an exclusive by SENAA International, January 2001.
Reprinted with written permission from the author November 2014.
mild afternoon in Big Mountain, Arizona, the northeastern tip of the
Navajo Reservation. Decent weather is one of the perks for Bonnie
Whitesinger and others living on a sacred swath of earth called Black
some stained mattresses in a formerly abandoned shack, Whitesinger is
welcoming, matter of fact, conveying little emotion when discussing a
rigorous past and uncertain future. For the last 13 years, the
dilapidated one room shanty has been home to her husband and six
children. Amid piles of freshly washed clothes, Whitesinger details the
intense struggle the Dineh have endured since 1974, when Congress passed
the Navajo - Hopi Land Settlement Act. This law set in motion the most
significant relocation effort since the Japanese were moved en masse to
the internment camps in 1942.
In the decade following,
Dineh were forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands at a taxpayer
expense in excess of $300 million, capping the largest, most
controversial land dispute in U.S. history. And it’s not over yet.
midnight, February 1, 2000, a new wave of Dineh were deemed eligible for
eviction. Reservation zoning called "HPL" (Hopi Partitioned
Land) changed hands, leaving the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
(B.I.A.), and moving to the legal jurisdiction of the Hopi Tribal
Government. Dineh residing on HPL who have not signed a controversial
agreement to remain, are scheduled for eviction pending final approval
from the U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
Dineh Traditionalist, Pauline Whitesinger, Bonnie’s mother, refusal
among many elders to abandon their homes is only part of the story.
Unwillingness to defy a holy promise to protect Black Mesa is at the
core of the issue.
others take a different view. Resistance, say some, is a final act of
conscience for more than 12,000 Dineh previously relocated. With the
advent of HPL zoning 27 years ago, many became trespassers on
land to which they are inexorably bound, refusing to sever ties with
ancestral burial sites, religious shrines and the soil that has
sustained Dineh religion since the Navajo emerged in the region
Dineh, meaning "The People," the Navajo’s self-chosen
name, bearing out their fate as protectors of the natural world is a
Traditionalist imperative, despite bitter opposition and more than a
century of relocation. Some assert that the Dineh path is simply
"manifest destiny" in action. Others maintain it’s business
as usual, the inevitable outcome of a prophecy gone bad. Poverty,
alcoholism, depression and suicide are some of the vestiges of what some
have coined, "The war without end," America’s unresolved
conflict with the First Americans.
early 1970’s, an obstructive law called Bennett Freeze has been in
effect on HPL and other portions of the Navajo reservation, making it
illegal for the Dineh to fix their homes -- such as mending a broken
window or repairing a leaky roof. The majority of Dineh hogans now
appear frozen in decay, much as the Freeze suggests.
per capita income lower than that of many third world countries, the
Dineh are among the nation’s poorest. Like most Big Mountain
residents, Whitesinger has no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no
Nation spokesman, Mellor Willie, suggested that some Big Mountain
residents have access to solar power, yet few seem positioned to utilize
it. Much of Big Mountain life is spent on survival. Whitesinger’s
weekly rigors, which include child rearing, are further complicated by
kidney failure, requiring her to travel hundreds of miles for dialysis
treatment. "We used to live with my mother," she says.
"We moved in here so my children could get the school bus."
points to the ceiling while adding, "There are wall mice here, and
the smell of feces is bad during monsoon season." Used to bucking
up, Whitesinger brightens: "I’ve got a few dollars for dinner,
but I need gas to get to the store."
to the Black Mesa store is a pilgrimage unto itself. Many Big Mountain
residents travel miles of ungraded dirt roads daily for basic water and
food. "We won’t let go of who we are," Whitesinger says.
"We’ve lived with so much stress for so long."
at the soil beyond her door, she adds, "I work for my children’s
future. I went to the International body (United Nations) to make a
stand for my people. We have to keep going, there’s no place else to
siphoning of the Navajo aquifer has reportedly left the Navajo and Hopi
tribes of Black Mesa with critical water insufficiency. Since Peabody
Western Coal opened the Black Mesa and Kayenta strip mines between
1970-1973, coal operations annually consume approximately 1.58 billion
gallons of pristine water from the Southwest’s largest natural
aquifer. The ground water is utilized to slurry coal via pipeline 273
miles to the Mojave Generating Station, a coal-fired plant in Laughlin,
Nevada. Black Mesa coal provides electricity for much of the U.S.
Southwest, including Los Angeles. According to leading
environmentalists, Peabody’s operations have significantly depleted
the ancient N-aquifer, leaving surface wells dry and in some cases,
polluted by the mine’s contaminates. According to the Department of
Interior, Office of Surface Mining, strip mining is expected to continue
until at least 2011.
serious water deficiency and pending evictions, most Traditionalists are
not leaving. John Benally is among them.
mining has drained our water supply. Livestock we depend upon are
confiscated due to strict permit laws. The B.I.A. treat us like we’re
not even human, like we’re nothing. We have few resources, true, but
we have the Creator, our prayers; and you’ll notice, we’re still
Coal’s P.R. spokesperson, Beth Sutton, has repeatedly denied any
corporate culpability on behalf of the coal company for Dineh'
relocation. Consistent with previous comments, Sutton reportedly told
Jerry Kammer of The Arizona Republic, "I’ve been saying until I’m
blue in the face that Peabody has nothing to do with the dispute."
Whitesinger and others traveled to the United Nation’s Geneva Summit
to seek redress on the Dineh conflict and convey a message to U.N.
leaders on Human Rights and Religious Intolerance.
with Native American philosophy, Traditionalists maintain that land is
the center of life, altar and church to those chosen by the Creator to
protect the earth. Yet the Dineh charge is even more specific. They avow
to being the guardians of an area they claim, is the heart of America,
perhaps the most sacred soil on earth: Black Mesa. Dineh lore says that
the "Holy Ones" decreed that the Dineh settle within
four sacred points: Mt. Taylor to the south, Mt. Blanca to the east, San
Francisco Peaks to the west, and Hesperus Peak to the north. They call
this area "Dinetah," home of the earth’s vital organs.
Whether or not one subscribes to the Dineh account, Black Mesa remains
an awesome stretch of such solemn authority, it continues to be a
recognized power-spot since the arrival of Europeans.
are largely Grandmothers, elders of an ancient matriarchal culture who
remain steadfast to a sacred promise to protect their sacred land. The
"Grandmas" are known by yet another name, the
"resisters," due to their steely opposition to relocation and
refusal to sign an Accommodation Agreement PL - 104-301 sponsored and
pushed through Congress in 1996, by Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
if signed, the Accommodation Agreement will allow Dineh residing on HPL
to remain on the land with 75 year lease agreements under jurisdiction
of the Hopi Tribal Government. Supporters of PL – 104-301 say it
reduces the severity of the Settlement Act by allowing Dineh to remain
as Lessees on HPL. Supporters further say that this law provides the
Dineh three acres of homeland, up to 10 acres of farmland, access to
utilities and approval to repair dwellings.
assert the Accommodation Agreement is not designed to improve quality of
life. Rather, it denies the Dineh a community voice, precludes them all
voting rights and defines the Dineh as "renters" on land their
ancestors occupied for centuries. HPL cannot be conferred to Dineh
children nor utilized for Dineh burials. Many who maintain traditional
lifestyles further argue that the Agreement reduces livestock quotas to
unsustainable levels. Dineh remaining on HPL will be subject to eviction
if they fail to fulfill the Agreement’s terms. Moreover, Dineh Lessees
lose all relocation benefits three years after accepting a homesite
lease whether they stay or not, confirms Roman Bitsuie, director of the
Navajo – Hopi Land Commission.
creation of the Hopi Reservation in 1882 and the Navajo Reservation in
1868, reservation lines have been expanded, redefined and divided
numerous times. Since the Hopis controlled the 1882 reservation, they
were deemed the earlier inhabitants of the region according to a 1962
landmark ruling in Healing vs. Jones. Thus, in an effort to
resolve what it perceived as a burgeoning range war, Congress approved
the 1974 Relocation Act PL - 93-531 facilitating Dineh resettlement.
Settlement Act called for yet a new designation of boundaries on land
previously zoned a Joint Use Area for the Hopi and Dineh. New boundaries
were called Navajo Partitioned Land where approximately 100 Hopi’s
lived, and Hopi Partitioned Land, where close to 13,000 Dineh resided.
Overnight, Dineh on HPL became illegal trespassers and over the next 10
years, forcibly relocated to small Southwest border towns such as
Sanders and Holbrook, Arizona, and Gallup, New Mexico.
the 1974 relocation ordinance, thousands of Dineh were still enjoying
self-sufficient lifestyles of sheepherding, farming and weaving. Most
did not possess survival skills to exist outside the reservation. Few
spoke English, fewer still had experience in adapting to an industrial
culture in relocation border towns. The New Lands development located
near Sanders, Arizona, is the primary relocation site for the Dineh,
purchased wholesale by the government in 1980. For many, living near
Sanders remains as challenging as relocation itself. Sanders’ climate
is hostile to herding and agriculture due to water insufficiency.
Scarcity of water pales to Sanders' other problem. It's located 60
miles downstream from the 1979 Church Rock incident, site of the largest
nuclear waste spill in U.S. history.
by severed ties to their native soil and without authentic means of
sustenance, critical numbers of Dineh fell homeless, augmenting a
vicious cycle of depression, vagrancy and alcoholism. Suicide was the
answer for some. Others tried to make it work. Destitute and tired,
hundreds drifted back to Black Mesa.
of Dineh relocation, including Hopi Traditionalists decry the notion of
a land dispute. While the two tribes acknowledge cultural tensions, the
Hopi and Dineh have lived largely in peace for centuries. For many, the
so-called "range war" was a smoke and mirrors decoy
manufactured by those who would profit handsomely to deflect the real
issue at hand, perhaps the defining issue of the 20th Century Southwest:
the mass extraction of North America’s most valuable resources from
Indian tribal lands.
resources are worth tens of billions annually to multinationals, utility
companies and Indian tribal councils who, many claim, continue to
flourish at the expense of the people.
early 20th Century oil was discovered beneath the Navajo reservation.
Oil proved only the beginning. The Four Corners region and specifically
Black Mesa would be soon proclaimed a mother lode, home to North America’s
most concentrated resources of coal, uranium, gas and oil.
the Navajo Reservation alone lay an estimated 50 billion tons of coal,
bested only by Black Mesa’s other gems: 40 million tons of uranium and
25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Black Mesa transformed into a
veritable hot- spot of powerful opposing forces -- as those who would
compete over the land’s considerable wealth would ensnare the
traditional people in a protracted, bitter conflict over mineral leases
and land entitlement.
Peabody's massive coal
extractions, Black Mesa
In 1951, a team
of savvy, connected lawyers coupled with their energy clients
descended on Black Mesa with deep pockets and an unquenchable zeal to
tap into the land: The coal rush was on. Though several conglomerates
would reap the benefits of oil and uranium mining, Peabody Western Coal
Company, the world’s largest producer of coal energy, emerged as the
dominant force in the region. Peabody ultimately established two
adjacent coal operations: the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines, now covering
more than 63,000 acres of tribal lands.
coal rush provided a new slate of enterprise, as the lure of lucrative
mineral commissions proved a highly effective motivator for attorneys
who would face years of government bureaucracy. Two powerful attorneys
were made representatives for the Navajo and Hopi Tribes. Together, they
urged Congress to rule on which tribe had authority to issue mineral
leases. Congress suggested the two tribal councils engage in a
"friendly lawsuit" in federal court to determine mineral
rights. Years of legal bidding, negotiating and maneuvering produced the
pivotal Healing vs. Jones, in 1958, where both tribes
claimed rights to the 1882 reservation. Attorney Norm Littel represented
the Navajo interests, his contract then stipulated 10% of all future
coal revenues. Against the will of Hopi Traditionalists and without the
majority of the Hopi Tribe’s approval, an ambitious, Salt Lake City
lawyer named John Boyden maneuvered legal representation of the Hopi’s
by appealing to the financial interests of Hopi Progressives. Fueled by
the promise of immense coal royalties coupled with B.I.A. approval,
Boyden nearly single handedly resuscitated the Hopi Tribal Council,
despite vehement opposition from Hopi Traditionalists who enjoyed a long
tradition of successful self-governance.
Progressive Hopis in Tribal Government positions, Boyden’s Hopi
Council emerged fully authorized to issue coal leases to Peabody in
1966. In addition to resultant coal commissions, both Boyden and Littel
reportedly received additional 10% statutory fees made payable by the
Indian Claims Commission (ICC) for cases legally finalizing the wrongful
seizure of Indian lands.
attorneys are said to have pocketed fees worth millions.
Boyden’s formidable legal background, he served as counsel and Deacon
of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church then held an 8% interest in
Peabody Coal. In a stunning conflict of interest, it was later learned
by Charles Wilkinson, attorney and professor of law at the University of
Colorado, that Boyden represented both Peabody Coal and the Hopi
Tribal Council in Healing vs. Jones. A charismatic negotiator,
Boyden and other counsel portrayed the Navajos as
"appropriators" of Hopi culture, "takers" of Hopi
land. Boyden’s defining argument positioned the Hopis as direct
descendants of the Anasazi, the earliest of the Southwest Pueblo
further argued that the Navajo were comparatively recent immigrants to
the region, concluding the lion’s share of coal leases belonged to the
Hopi. The court agreed. Healing vs. Jones would rule that 100% of
coal revenues from an area known as District 6 would belong exclusively
to the Hopis; the rest of the 1882 reservation would be a Joint Use
Area. The Hopi and Navajo tribal governments were ordered to split
mineral rights to the Joint Use Area.
John Boyden staged one of the largest land heists in U.S history when
Peabody Coal reportedly obtained subsurface rights on Hopi territory and
subsequent coal leases for a fraction of their value elsewhere.
arguments of a growing "range war" between the two tribes,
coupled with the powerful support of several energy concerns as well as
Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, Boyden persuaded Congress to pass PL -
93-531 in 1974. The law resulted in further land divisions, increased
corporate access to coal reserves and marked a grim new chapter in
vs. Jones proved, the ancestral genesis of the Hopi and Dineh and
the dates of their Southwest emergence played a pivotal role in land
entitlement nearly a thousand years later. Though the Hopis are one of
the oldest links to the Anasazi, Anthropologist David Brugge, author of
the "Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute," says new advances in DNA
testing provides highly credible evidence that the Navajo tribe is
actually a synthesis of the ancient Anasazi and the Athapaskan tribe of
Canada. The Athapaskans migrated to the Southwest approximately 1500 AD,
though some suspect earlier. This puts Navajo emergence in the region
far earlier than the latter 18th century theory successfully employed in
Healing vs. Jones. Though many anthropologists affirm the new DNA
findings, it has not thwarted evictions.
deadlines for the Dineh have come and gone for years, yet for many,
February 1, 2000 symbolized more than relocation. It was a global
declaration of the Navajo record, a legacy rife with conflict and
sure, the Dineh have endured one of the darkest paths in Native American
history. In 1863, Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson implemented
a scorched earth policy that saw federal troops torch thousands of acres of Navajo corn. Watering holes and
hogans were completely destroyed. Navajo livestock were slaughtered en
masse crippling the tribe’s economic base. With no place to hide and
ripe for capture, the stage was set for the "Long Walk,"
perhaps the darkest chapter in Navajo history. In 1864, under orders of
General Carleton, Carson set out and succeeded in capturing thousands of
Navajo from their ancestral mesas, many surrendered on their own.
Ultimately, more than 8,000 children, women and men were chained and
forced to walk 300 miles in freezing temperatures to Central New Mexico’s
Fort Sumner internment camp. Some historians noted that pregnant women
who could not keep pace were shot. Thousands more died of exposure
during the five year imprisonment.
despite a sharp depletion of the Navajo tribe, the Dineh emerged from
Fort Sumner a force to be reckoned with -- demonstrating a powerful will
to survive -- and a steely will to return to their soil.
informed Congressional officials consider the forced relocation of over
12,000 Dineh a tragic failure -- even those who supported the Settlement
Agreement. Barry Goldwater, who championed the Agreement through
Congress later confessed,
relocation of the Navajo was the worst mistake of my career."
resigning his post as Director of the Government Relocation Commission,
Leon Berger was more explicit, "The forcible relocation of the
Navajo is a tragedy of injustice that will be a blot on this country for
many generations." Relocation expert and Cal Tech Anthropologist
Dr. Thayer Scudder agrees, "For the Navajo, relocation is about the
worst thing you can do to them, short of killing them. It’s one of the
worst cases of involuntary community resettlement I have studied
throughout the world."
fallout from what has been coined "the last Indian war" rages
on. In March 2000, the Associated Press reported that the Hopi Tribe
joined the Navajo Nation in a lawsuit against Peabody Coal and several
utility companies deriving coal energy from Black Mesa. The tribes
allege they were defrauded out of full and fair compensation for coal
resources in recent renegotiations for coal mining leases.
Traditionalist, Rena Babbitt Lane, regrettable actions by government
officials and decades of unresolved lawsuits have taken their toll. Rena
Lane and her husband John sustain an ancient, traditional lifestyle of
sheepherding and weaving on land her ancestors have occupied for
centuries, now "HPL." Once a large, unadulterated expanse, the
Lanes’ property is now sealed with barbed wire, an apt metaphor for
those separated by cultural divide.
Lane's hogan is now located
approximately 300 ft. from where Peabody placed a coal slurry pipeline.
Dineh Elder Rena Babbitt Lane
Years of wrestling the effects of the land dispute
have produced physical injuries for Lane, as well as a pacemaker, which
she assigns to stress.
Resistance has its price.
The family has experienced livestock confiscations more times than they
care to recall, each time with more devastating results. Livestock in
"excess" of theirHPL grazing allowance are subject to seizure
without remuneration. During livestock impoundments, the 80-year-old elder
sustained a broken wrist, a twisted neck and a permanent back injury due
to entanglements with Hopi Rangers while protecting her turf.
have incurred major livestock seizure in recent years. On one occasion,
their prized sheepdog disappeared. The family suspects the dog was
killed while defending the herd.
is arguably a large sum, Lane was permitted to buy-back her own
livestock from B.I.A. impoundment yards, a feat made possible by an East
Coast friend who stepped up with the funds. Told a cashiers check was
unacceptable by Keams Canyon B.I.A. officials, Lane’s friend
reportedly wired funds at an additional expense to the Keams Canyon Hopi
B.I.A. before Lane’s livestock would be eligible for pick-up.
Chavez, Land operations manager for the Keams Canyon, B.I.A., views the
matter from another perspective. While not confirming or denying
individual incidents, Chavez maintains that grazing permit laws must be
enforced on Hopi Partitioned Land. "We give them a five day notice
of the action to be taken," says Chavez. They have two weeks to
collect [the livestock] before we begin advertising in the papers or
send them to auction. Excess livestock should be moved off the
summarized the situation this way, "How would you like it if
I was squatting on your land? I’ve spoken to Pauline
Whitesinger and others on HPL, I have listened to them, but I can’t
change the laws. If it were me, I would move to my side of the
Babbitt Lane breaks a stoic veneer after nightfall. The smell of Juniper
remains in the air, compliments of the Mesa. She recalls a friend, Sonny
Manygoats, who froze to death returning home on foot after his horse was
confiscated. She speaks her native tongue through a translator,
weeping and gesturing while describing the Dineh conflict.
derives solace in creating sacred rug weavings in the family’s
one-room hogan. "They symbolize Black Mesa life," she offers,
"One day, the land will be reborn." If Lane harbors any doubts
in her ability to endure, she does not betray them.
live always in fear," she says, "Who are these men that have
caused us so much pain, so much suffering?" She waits for an
answer. "How can they act with such hatred toward their own
The Lane Home
called Black Mesa a microcosm of the world, wherein numerous factions
warring over land epitomize the ideologies of opposing cultures: The
Traditionalists vs. the Progressives.
others, Black Mesa embodies America’s widening spiritual divide. For
Dineh and Hopi Traditionalists, their position might best be summarized
by Thomas Banyacya, a translator of the Hopi Prophesies. "The Dineh
and Hopi are bound for a reason. We are the natural stewards of the Four
Corners area, guardians of its colossal resources until America
understands how to use the land’s power for positive ends."
Prophesies which date back more than a thousand years predicted the
energy/land conflict and, according to Hopi Instructions, warned that
should Black Mesa be destroyed, and should the world’s indigenous
protectors perish, the earth would no longer be in balance. If this
comes to pass, say Traditionalists, the earth will respond in kind with
a process called "Purification," purging all life.
interim and as history would prove, protecting the land’s eco-future
has its price, as Black Mesa continues to propel the Southwest’s
massive energy consumption while forging some of the most pivotal
chapters in Native American history.
People" known as Navajo Dineh, the conflict that is Black Mesa
is a morality play of such immense proportions, some say, it could have
only been staged by the Creator himself.
contact the author at
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© January 2001by Suzanne Marcus Fletcher. All Rights Reserved. First
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