Environment, Headlines, North America

U.S.-ENVIRONMENT: Coal Mining Drives Dispute in Native Lands

Jeffrey St. Clair

OREGON CITY, OREGON, Apr 18 1997 (IPS) - Coal mining is at the heart of a land dispute in the deserts of Arizona, where a group of indigenous people are forced to leave their homes.

The whole affair has been played out as a land dispute between the Navajo and the Hopi indigenous people, dating back to 1882 when President Grover Cleveland created a 1.5 million joint-use area on bordors of the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

The truth is somewhat different.

“Why do they have to relocate us? The coal,” explains Rose Helliger, a Navajo.

Back in 1863, when they were being exterminated by U.S. Army units, the Hopi invited the Navajo refugees up to the sanctuary of Big Mountain, and the two tribes lived together amicably from that time to the late 1960s.

“It’s not a Navajo-Hopi land dispute,” says Helliger. “We were more interdependent than enemies. This is about multinationals pushing native peoples off their lands to make a profit.”

The coal in question lies on Black Mesa — a 100-sq-mile seam of low sulphur coal that is the richest deposit in North America.

Coal and oil had been discovered on these Indian lands in the late 19th century by U.S. government surveyors, but the desire of mining and oil companies to extract the treasure was thwarted by the Navajo’s initial refusal to lease the land and because Hopi culture did not recognise a central government authority.

But John Boyden, an attorney from Salt Lake City who was operating on behalf of the companies chasing the coal, ingratiated himself with Hopis, offering to be their attorney for little compensation.

He set up a ‘Hopi Tribal Council’ of prominent leaders from only three of the 12 Hopi villages. Boyden got his Hopis to file a suit in 1962, demanding that the federal government concede that the Hopis had equal rights to the coal deposits under Navajo- controlled lands on Black Mesa.

The suit prevailed. In 1966, Boyden led the Hopis to sign leases to the coal on Black Mesa to Peabody Coal Company. The Navajo Tribal Council, not wanting to be left out, quickly endorsed similar deals.

Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act in 1974, splitting the 1.8 million acres between the two tribes. Any member of either tribe caught on the wrong side of the line was forced to pick up stakes and move across. There were about 100 Hopi on what was now Navajo land, and no less than 12,000 Navajo on lands now officially Hopi. The Hopi side contained most of the known coal reserves.

The law also required an immediate 90 percent reduction in livestock grazing on lands assigned to the Hopi. And Hopi tribal police were given the right to impound Navajo sheep caught grazing out of designated areas. Navajo families were offered 5,000 dollars to abandon their hogans and move to government-built tract housing on the periphery of the reservation. Several thousand Navajo took the offer.

Many of the relocated Navajo were ill-equipped to make a go of things in an urban economy. The 5,000 dollars soon was spent and many lost their homes. These relocated Navajo now suffer from higher rates of unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide than other Navajo.

“The situation is worse than apartheid,” says Bruce Ellison, an attorney for the Navajo resisters. “It’s government-sanctioned ethnic cleansing.”

The mid-1970s saw coal mining on Navajo and Hopi lands accelerate to full-tilt, with 200 Navajo families still clinging to their ancestral homes.

On August 5, 1993, the federal mediator in the land dispute, Judge Harold McCue, ordered the resisting Navajo families to agree to a settlement, either relocating to the Navajo reservation or signing a restrictive 75-year lease that would give nothing more than squatters rights on the land that had been theirs for generations.

The families speedily rejected the proposal.

The Hopi Tribal Council demanded that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) put the squeeze on the Navajo families. With winter approaching, Hopi Rangers and BIA agents began confiscating the Navajos’ stacks of firewood, along with their axes and saws.

The agents claimed that the firewood had been cut without permits from the Hopi Tribe and the BIA. They demolished new Navajo construction projects. The BIA began daily raids in Nov. 1993, rounding up free-range Navajo livestock. The agency increased the release fee imposed on Navajo to recover their animals 10-fold, from 100 to 1,000 dollars for each haul.

In the meantime, mining on Black Mesa continues apace.

Peabody Coal is owned by the British conglomerate Hanson, Plc., which bought the mining company in 1990 from Boeing and Bechtel. Peabody operates two mining sites on the reservation, the Kayenta mine and the Black Mesa mine. Seven million tons of coal are gouged out of the Kayenta deposit each year.

The coal is hauled by an electric railroad to a coal-fired generating plant at Page, Arizona. The Black Mesa mine yields five million tons of coal a year which is sluiced through a 300-mile pipeline in a mix of coal and water. The water is drawn from the now rapidly shrinking Navajo aquifer.

More than 50 springs in this desert area have vanished. Peabody dismisses any concerns, remarking in a company publicity statement that the 1.3 billion gallons of water pumped out a year is a “teaspoon from a bucket.”

The degradation of the area is not just a matter of aquifer depletion. Over the past 15 years, there have been die-offs among Navajo livestock which drink water from springs and wells near the mines. Tests show that the water had been contaminated with high levels of lead, arsenic, and copper.

Also, when Peabody won its coal leases, the company received an exemption from the Antiquities Act, allowing it to mine on burial grounds. The only proviso is that a medicine man should be brought in to perform a perfunctory ceremony in the general area of the land to be excavated.

“The remains of our ancestors are being dug up and shipped to the place where they burn the coal,” says Louise Benally of the Navajo Dineh Nation.

No less than four Navajo burial grounds were mined in 1993. All the problems at the coal mines prompted the resisters in the Navajo Dineh Nation to file an administrative suit, alleging Peabody had violated federal mining laws. The Dineh Nation prevailed, when the judge ruled that Peabody’s mine and its slurry pipeline (which is co-owned by natural gas giant Enron) violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Surface Mining Control Act.

With the Navajo hold-outs still resisting, the Clinton administration propelled a law through Congress last November, requiring the Navajo families to agree to the mediated settlement by Apr. 1 this year.

The Navajo families can either move or they can sign the leases. Under the 75-year leases, the Navajo families must agree to limit their activities to within 13 acres of their existing home sites and to confine their livestock to designated grazing areas. 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 they are prohibited from burying their dead on the land where they have lived for so long.

Some families continue to fight. “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 to never come back.”

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