Caught in a tangled web of US-Indian history

In their long fight to remain on ancestral lands, Navajo dissentersopposed to forced relocation hope the United Nations will take up theircause.

From the hilltop above her ancestral homeland, Navajo elder Glenna Begay sees a glorious past, an uncertain present, and an unwanted future.

Looking off toward the horizon, her eyes fall on a giant crane rising above the escarpments of pion, sage, and juniper. The machine's spindly arm suspends a bus-size shovel bucket that slams into the earth, exposing a rich vein of coal and sending up a dust cloud that's visible as far away as the Grand Canyon, 80 miles west.

The story of this country, the coal mine, and a group of Navajo families is a morality play of the American Southwest - one rooted, as is often the case in this part of the country, in a pitched battle over how to use the land.

"This story encompasses every key dynamic of the postwar West - cultural change, redistribution of wealth and power, transition from agrarian to industrial society, limited resource bases, and questionable futures," says historian Catherine Feher-Elston.

Now, after 25 years of fighting over this territory and multiple efforts by Washington to intercede, the outcome remains more murky than ever. Only one thing seems clear: The 125 or so extended Navajo families scratching out a subsistence living from this red-rock tract of land - in defiance of US law requiring them to move - will not leave voluntarily.

"This is an Indian war, and we will never stop until we have victory," vows Leonard Benally, who lives near the mining area. "What happens here will be the turning point for US relations with all native peoples. It starts here at Big Mountain, Arizona."

To stay on their ancestral land - and to ensure future generations can do the same - this group of traditional Dineh Navajo is appealing to what may be the court of last resort: the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Two years ago, Dineh representatives filed a complaint with the UN, charging that US policy of forced relocation violates their human rights. Now their argument appears to be winning support with the international body.

"Lives, indigenous native American culture, and human rights are being sacrificed in order to provide short-term profits for a nonsustainable [coal mine]," says Marsha Monestersky, co-chair of the nongovernmental Human Rights Caucus at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. "Because all efforts to obtain justice in the US judicial system have been exhausted, the Dineh people have no other choice but to formally request the UN to investigate these glaring violations."

Enter, the United Nations

Last year, a representative of the UN's Commission on Human Rights visited the tribal lands to hear stories and collect information. The findings are expected by April, but a preliminary report may come within days or weeks.

While the UN findings will have no legal status in the US, Dineh families and their supporters hope the glare of the international spotlight will shame the US into amending its law. Indeed, even influential congressmen have indicated the US policy is flawed.

The late Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who helped get the relocation law through Congress in 1974, called the episode the biggest mistake of his career. Current Arizona Sen. John McCain has concurred. "The purpose of ... relocation was to settle land disputes in a timely and orderly fashion," he said. "The Navajos have lost, the [neighboring] Hopis have lost, and the attorneys have won. It's clear this program has failed to meet its objectives."

The history of Navajo relocation is a convoluted narrative that stretches back to 1882. That year, the US created a reservation for Hopi and other Indians, and set it within what has become a much larger Navajo reservation. Hopis lived on 500-year-old ancestral sites, adjacent to the Navajo, and survived by traditional methods of dry-crop farming.

No real problems occurred until one of the world's densest deposits of accessible coal - representing about $10 billion in revenue - was discovered in the 1950s beneath land occupied by both tribes, known as the "joint-use area." To clarify which tribe could issue coal leases and where, Congress in 1974 divided the joint land (creating Hopi and Navajo partitioned lands). About 12,000 Navajo were stranded on newly declared Hopi land and, likewise, about 300 Hopi families found themselves on Navajo land.

Since then, the US has spent over $400 million to relocate the families to tract housing in nearby cities, towns, and rural areas.

The trauma of relocation fell disproportionately on the Navajo. Many who moved wound up homeless because of real estate fraud, expensive mortgages, and taxes they could not afford, say those who refuse to move. As a result, they add, rates of suicide, alcoholism, family break-up, emotional abuse, and death soared.

Some scholars concur. "The forced relocation of over 12,000 native Americans is one of the worst cases of involuntary community resettlement that I have studied throughout the world over the past 40 years," says Thayer Scudder, an anthropologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who has studied resettlement issues in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Several studies since 1974 have documented the problems linked to Navajo relocation.

"The Navajo traditionalists view their land as representing the essence of their being," says Jennie Joe of the Native American Research and Training Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who conducted a study from 1981 to 1984. "They view themselves as an integral part of the environment - the mountains, the vegetation, and the animals. The threat of being removed from this ecological [and] cultural niche has adversely affected the health and spiritual well-being of many."

For their part, Hopi officials say people from both tribes were forced from joint-use land. While far more Navajo have been affected, they say, Hopi families felt the impact no less keenly.

"Hopi felt the same way the Navajos did," says Eugene Kaye, chief of staff for the Hopi Tribe. "But we have not felt we gave up our religion by moving off the land. The Navajo have migrated from Canada all over the US for centuries. They can practice their religion anywhere."

Such Hopi views have long been overlooked in media coverage, experts say. "From the Hopi point of view, there is much consternation about the land dispute," says Ms. Feher-Elston. "They consider themselves to be the first one on the land and don't understand how outsiders like the US government can mandate the loss of their land."

Increased pressure

Congress tried as recently as 1996 to end the dispute. It adopted a law that allows remaining Navajo families to stay on the land as tenants for 75 years - but the Dineh say it has only intensified the relocation pressure.

The law also sanctions relocation of families who don't sign the leases - and creates a $25 million incentive to Hopis if they get 85 percent of the remaining 125 families (some 1,500 people) to sign.

As a result, Hopis are "doing everything in their power to get [the signatures]...," says Bill Sebastian, with a New York-based Dineh support group. "Reports of harassment are rampant."

Many here say they don't want to sign the leases, which require rental fees, and would grant Navajo recognition of Hopi control over their land. Some say the climate of harassment is getting worse, as Hopi and US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials confiscate their livestock, post eviction notices on their doors, and threaten to burn their homes.

Zonnie Whitehair, an elderly Dineh woman whose family has herded sheep on this land for generations, says she and her late husband were told if they didn't sign the lease, their livestock and other valuables would be taken.

The Hopi and BIA say not one Navajo family has been relocated against its will. They deny undue harassment, but add they are mandated to enforce the law.

"For any impoundment of livestock that we are bound to make, we give the Navajo formal notice of three weeks," says Fred Chavez of the Hopi BIA. "We are bound by law to do what we are doing."

But to Pauline Whitesinger, who sits at her breakfast table studying a notice tacked to her door, the wording sounds like a threat. The paper reads, in part: "You will be given a notice to vacate if you continue to fail or refuse to relocate."

"There is no word in my language for relocation," Ms. Whitesinger says. "To relocate from my ancestral land is to die."

For all the angst the relocations have caused, a tidy sum of money from the coal leases flows to both tribes. Peabody Coal Co., which runs the mine in the joint use area at Black Mesa, says royalties paid to the two tribes total about $40 million a year - money that pays for roads, schools, police, fire, and sanitation services.

Moreover, 92 percent of the mine's 350 workers are native Americans. The average salary is $55,000 a year, pretty decent wages in this part of the West.

"What is happening to the Dineh people is truly tragic," says Peabody spokeswoman Beth Simpson. "But Peabody Coal is in no way acting together with the Hopi tribe or US government to push the Dineh off the land. The area in question is the subject of Hopi efforts to reclaim control of its lands."

But not all Navajo have shared in the largess from the mines. Those who live near the mine - on both Navajo and Hopi partitioned lands - say they endure air pollution and health problems. In 1996, in a legal dispute between the Dineh and the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, a federal judge found: "While the Navajo Nation benefits from the proceeds of mining, the unhappy fact is that its members who live near the mine suffer the effects of that same mining."

With their hopes riding high on the pending report from the UN, the Dineh say they will continue to press their case in the international arena. They are trying to schedule additional visits by other UN officials, whose special mandates range from human rights to the environment.

They are backing lawsuits against the mine and two local power plants for exceeding pollution standards. And they are asking people from Las Vegas to Los Angeles - whose electricity comes from the mine-fed power plants - to switch to other power sources.

In tribal officialdom, both sides say they hope to resolve the dispute. "We are still hoping the Hopi and Navajo can come to some harmonious solution over these lands," says Navajo Nation spokeswoman Gerri Harrison.

But to the Dineh who live on the hardscrabble land punctuated by rocky soil and breathtaking vistas, the only harmonious solution they can envision is to live here for generations to come.

"We were placed here by the Creator to be caretakers of the land," says Roberta Blackgoat, founder of the Sovereign Dineh Nation, a group who rejected the Navajo tribal council that signed the coal leases. "If we lose this land, we lose our souls, our reasons for being."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Caught in a tangled web of US-Indian history
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today