Confrontation at Big Mountain
Revolutionary Worker #1009, June 6, 1999
The Southwestern United States is remote and beautiful land. Big Mountain is in the Four Corners area where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet. Anna and Ella Begay, two Dineh (Navajo) sisters in their 80s, live here, on Coal Mine Mesa, Arizona. They have no electricity or running water. They herd sheep and grow what crops they can in the dry soil. Two horses are their only transportation. They use donkeys to haul water and firewood and plow their small field. They shear wool from the sheep to weave rugs which they sell to buy other necessities. On February 23 of this year, over two dozen heavily armed U.S. government Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials and police officers confiscated the Begay sisters' horses and donkeys. Anna and Ella Begay now have little chance of surviving the next year on their land. The Begays are the victims of an attempt by the U.S. government and energy companies to evict all the residents of Big Mountain so the rich mineral resources of their land can be stolen.
For many years, there has been an intense confrontation over Big Mountain. This is the largest area inhabited by Native People in the U.S. and includes reservation lands of the Hopi and Navajo peoples. It is an area larger than the state of Rhode Island and the poorest region of the country with a per capita income lower than many Third World nations. For decades, major corporations have shamelessly exploited the rich natural resources here. The countryside is dotted with radioactive waste from uranium mining. It is estimated there are 18 billion tons of coal within six feet of the land's surface. Peabody Coal Corporation has built North America's largest coal strip mine here and has been draining 1.4 billion gallons of underground water a year, wasting and contaminating the dry region's precious and irreplaceable water resources. Coal-fueled power plants provide electricity to Las Vegas, L.A. and the rest of the Southwest while the Indian people here live in deep poverty and often don't have electricity or running water in their hogans.
Government Campaign of Forced Relocation
For a hundred years, Navajo and Hopi people jointly lived on the land around Big Mountain. Then rich minerals were discovered under the soil. The U.S. government used its "tribal councils" to inflame a "Hopi-Navajo land dispute" as an excuse to expel traditional Navajo people from their land. In 1974, Congress passed a law transferring title on the land to the Hopi tribal council, which receives 80 percent of its money from the Peabody Coal Company. The law also denied the Dineh access to water and made it illegal to repair damage to their homes and corrals.
Since then over 10,000 Navajos have been forcibly relocated, the second largest forced movement of people in the U.S. during the 20th century, after the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. Adding murder to injustice: many of the Dineh were relocated to areas severely poisoned by toxic uranium from a 1979 mine spill (bigger than the Three Mile Island accident) which released over 98 million gallons of hot radioactive waste into the Puerco River. In a paper submitted to the United Nations, the Sovereign Dineh Nation wrote, "People whose lives were based on their deep spiritual and life-giving relationship with the land were dumped into cities often without compensation, forever forbidden to return to the land that their families had occupied for generations."
Many have spoken out against the forced relocation. The UN has launched the first investigation of the U.S. government for violations of religious rights of the Dineh. Roger Lewis, one of three federally appointed Relocation Commissioners, resigned his post and said, "I feel that in relocating these elderly people, we are as bad as the Nazis that ran the concentration camps in World War 2."
The environment is being destroyed. Coal-fired power plants located here supply 10 percent of the country's electricity. They are exempted from environmental laws and allowed to release tons of pollutants which have resulted in a 50 percent reduction in visibility at the Grand Canyon in the last 15 years. Livestock have been poisoned and people suffer from respiratory illnesses and kidney disease caused by the coal dust. The government and energy companies have violated the Dineh religion. Ancient Anasazi and Dineh burial grounds, sacred sites and sweat lodges have been destroyed. Herbs used in traditional medicine have been wiped out by mining. Dineh elder Ataid Y. Lake says, "Ceremonial hogans of our families have been bulldozed by the Hopi Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Rangers and Peabody Coal Company. Many of them had people living inside of them. There used to be a "talking rock" with a hole in it. The medicine men used it. People who lost their mind in jail, in war, went to the talking rock and it would echo their voice. My grandfather used it to help people a lot. Peabody bulldozed it. There were burial sites here but they are all covered up by the mine."
In 1996 the Clinton administration supported a law passed by Congress that requires the eviction process to be completed by February 1, 2000. Under this so-called Accommodation Agreement some people were "permitted" to stay on their traditional lands, but with severe and unjust restrictions. They were forced to lease their land at high prices from the Hopi tribal council, greatly limit the size of their sheep herds, and obey severe restrictions of wood usage and building on their own land. The agreement was designed to make it impossible to survive by herding sheep. Those who violated the new rules were threatened with fines and evictions. Many signed the agreement, in hopes of staying on their land. People who refused to sign or were ineligible were not given livestock permits.
As the final "deadline" for evictions approaches, the government has stepped up its campaign to force people off the land. In January, 90-day eviction notices were sent to people who did not sign the Accommodation Agreement. Republican Presidential candidate Senator John McCain recently wrote a letter to Janet Reno and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt asking them to "proceed carefully...to settle the relocation" and to notify him whether "the remaining families have agreed to sign onto the Settlement Agreement or applied for relocation benefits." The BIA has been confiscating people's animals--both people with no permits and people who have more animals than their "quota." The BIA steals sheep, cows and horses, does not notify the owners, sells them at auction and pockets the money. They have tried to cover up the purpose of the livestock confiscation program, claiming it is to prevent over grazing and "protect the range land for the benefit of the community."
Roberta Blackgoat of the Sovereign Dineh Nation said: "This is not range management--it is murder...How we are walking now is similar to the Long Walk of last century. My own grandparents used to tell me about the Long Walk. The Long Walk was made in 1864 and all those people had been gathered [by the U.S. government] and herded over to New Mexico...a lot of the ladies were pregnant, and some were disabled, and still they had to walk. And some got tired and they just fell to their knees on the ground, and then they were beaten or bayoneted to death...When they were in Fort Sumner, the concentration camp, a lot of them have also died there, with the flu and other kinds of sickness. And some of them died of hunger and some tried to escape and then were shot to death. Now for over 20 years we've been struggling with this Relocation Act that has been forcing my people to leave...And now I need to have my people return to their birthplace and then live the way they've been living, with their sacred prayers and sacred songs on the altar again."
Defiance and Resistance
Since the 1974 Relocation Act it is illegal for the Dineh to cut and collect firewood for heat and cooking. They can't make repairs on their homes or corrals. They can be fined or arrested for fixing a broken window or a leaky roof. The BIA has capped and fenced off their water pumps, forcing people to haul water for as far as 20 miles on unpaved roads, and confiscated firewood in the winter to freeze people out. People have been arrested when they resist. They have no money for hay and feed for their animals. They "find out" about what decisions are made by the government, the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils, and the energy companies when they receive eviction notices or when bulldozers show up to destroy their homes, sacred sites and burial grounds. Despite these incredible hardships, they continue to resist.
At least 2,000 Navajo people have heroically refused to leave Big Mountain. Most are over 65 and do not speak, read or write English. Bah Begay watched Peabody Coal bulldozers unearth the graves of her twin sisters and turn the site into a disposal area. Kee Shay was fined for using mud to patch a hole in his roof to keep the rain off his children. Leonard Crowdog was fined $5,000 and charged with a felony for cutting down a single tree used in a religious ceremony. Rena Babbitt Lane was severely beaten by the Hopi police and the BIA and had her hand broken when she tried to stop them from taking her livestock. Katherine Smith, a great grandmother, was thrown in jail for firing over the heads of federal officials who were trying to fence off an area in violation of the Dineh religion.
Over 100 families never signed the Accommodation Agreement. Others say they have withdrawn their names because they were lied to or their names were forged by Navajo Nation officials and Kathryn Hazard from the U.S. Department of Justice. Some say they signed because Hazard and Navajo tribal officials came to their houses on the deadline date and threatened to burn their houses and confiscate their livestock if they did not sign.
BIA agents and tribal police armed with semi-automatic weapons harass and threaten the Dineh who remain on the land at Big Mountain. Military planes fly overhead. Eviction notices have been served. Livestock has been stolen. Still, people refuse to leave the land they were born and raised on, the land where their families have lived for generations. Last year, the elders put out a call asking volunteers to come, work with threatened families on the land, and "witness, document and assist in a non-violent resistance to forced relocation." This year they have again called for people to come to a "Witness Camp" at Big Mountain where they will "reside in the camp and also with the Elders, hauling water, herding sheep, etc."
One of the Big Mountain resisters recently wrote in an e-mail message, "The spring has recharged, grass has grown. The Mesa is bursting with life...flowers are appearing...there's lots of birds around. The sheep are being sheared. The cornfields are being prepared. Rugs are being woven. Ceremonies are being held. The largest coal strip mine in the U.S. continues to expand. The coal slurry line continues to suck three million gallons of pristine, ancient aquifer water per day. Those who resist find peace."
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