Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: The Monitor has published four reports on this issue, most recently Coal Mining Behind 'Black Mesa' Dispute."]

Coal and PR Victory at Black Mesa

by Alexander Cockburn

"I will go to prison again if they try to take me from my land"
Here we are in enlightened 1997 approaching the climax of the most savage forced relocation of Americans since Japanese-Americans were thrown into internment camps in the Second World War.

In 1979, Katherine Smith, a Navajo grandmother, confronted tribal police and Bureau of Indian Affairs fencing crews with a shotgun, firing a blast over their heads. This was the first shot in a resistance to the forced relocation of 12,000 Navajo from their traditional lands on Big Mountain in northern Arizona. "The federal government took me to prison because I wouldn't relocate," Smith says, "but I will go to prison again if they try to take me from my land."

And, in fact, that fate is precisely what Smith and 200 other holdout Navajo families are facing this spring, after resistance to forced eviction.

The whole affair has been played in the press as a century-old land dispute between the Navajo and the Hopi. The truth is somewhat different and has to do with coal. The coal in question lies in the richest hundred square miles in North America, in high demand because of its low sulfur content. The ardent desire of mining and oil companies to extract the treasure was thwarted by Navajo refusal to lease the land and by the fact that the Hopi had no central government but separate independent communities.

The PR firm produced films and features buttressing the theme that the only way to protect the Indians from themselves was to divide the land between the tribes
Enter John Boyden, a Mormon attorney who ingratiated himself with the Hopi and soon concocted a "Hopi tribal council" consisting of pro-mining leaders from only three of the 12 Hopi villages.

So in 1962, Boyden got his Hopis to file a suit demanding that the federal government concede that the Hopi had equal rights to the coal deposits under Navajo-controlled lands on Black Mesa. The suit prevailed. In 1966, Boyden signed leases to Peabody Coal covering 100 square miles of coal reserves on Black Mesa. The Navajo Tribal Council, not wanting to be left out, quickly signed similar deals. It emerged soon thereafter that Boyden was operating not only on behalf of the Indians but as a hired agent of Peabody Coal.

In order to consolidate the mineral wealth, he needed to partition the "joint use lands" occupied by the Hopi and Navajo. To further this aim, he needed Congress to pass a law realigning the reservation boundaries. Boyden hired a PR firm, Evans & Associates, to concoct a scenario of perennial internecine Hopi-Navajo enmity, from time immemorial. The firm produced films and features successfully planted in Life, buttressing the theme that the only way to protect the Indians from themselves was to divide the land between the tribes.

Boyden's strategy was successful. In 1974, Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, dividing 1.8 million acres between the two tribes. Any member of either tribe on the wrong side of the line was forced to pull up stakes and move across. There were a hundred Hopi on what was now Navajo terrain and no fewer than 10,000 Navajo on lands now officially Hopi. Coincidentally, the Hopi side contained most of the known coal reserves. The language of the bill was written by Boyden.

As an inducement for the Navajo to relocate speedily, the law passed by Congress required an immediate 90 percent reduction in livestock grazing on the lands now assigned to the Hopi, under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Hopi tribal police were assigned the right to impound Navajo livestock. Navajo families were also offered $5,000 to abandon their hogans -- small adobe shelters -- and move to government-built tract housing on the periphery of the reservation.

The terms of the 75-year lease are designed to be untenable, and aready Navajo families are receiving citations for straying cattle
Many of the relocated Navajo were ill-equipped to make a go of things in an urban economy. The $5,000 soon went, and many lost their homes. These relocated Navajo now suffer from far higher rates of unemployment, alcoholism and suicide than other Navajos.

Two hundred Navajo families are still clinging to their ancestral homes amid cruelly coercive tactics by the Clinton administration. With the 1993 winter approaching, Hopi Rangers and BIA agents began confiscating the Navajos' stacks of firewood, along with their axes and saws. They demolished all new Navajo construction projects, including barns, corrals and additions to existing homes. In November of 1993, the BIA began daily raids, rounding up all the free-range Navajo livestock they could find, mostly sheep. The agency increased the release fee imposed on Navajo to recover their animals tenfold, from $100 to $1,000 for each haul.

With the Navajo holdouts still displaying unbending resistance, the Clinton administration propelled a law through Congress in November 1996 requiring that the Navajo families agree to the mediated settlement by April 1 of this year.

So now, the remaining Navajo families face another choice: They can either move to wretched circumstances in Tuba City and Sanders. Or they can sign a lease whose terms translate as enforced relocation by another route. The terms of the 75-year lease are designed to be untenable. The Navajo families must agree to limit their activities to within 13 acres of their existing home sites and to confine their livestock to the designated grazing areas (the classic technique to evict pastoralists).

Already Navajo families are receiving citations for straying cattle. Three citations, and they lose their homes. They cannot live away from their home sites for more than two years, on penalty of losing them.

They cannot sublease their home or operate any kind of business from it. The most tell-tale proviso is that the Navajo must renounce any claim on sacred sites in the area and are prohibited from burying their dead on the land where they have lived for so long, a stipulation that strikes at the very core of Navajo custom. The intent of the Clinton administration, the coal company and their Indian allies is clearly to force the families out by whatever means.

The Navajo families fight on notwithstanding and deserve all the support that can be mustered. "Our way has no word for relocation," says Roberta Blackgoat, a Navajo leader of the resistance. "It means the same as death. To go away from your home and never come back."

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1997 (

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