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The stories of the traditional Dineh people of Black Mesa, the land surrounding the sacred peaks of Big Mountain, tell us that coal is the liver of Mother Earth. Black Mesa is a rural area of the Navajo reservation in Northeastern Arizona, where for more than 30 years, Dineh (Navajo) have lived in resistance there, steadfastly refusing to relocate as strip mines rip apart their ancestral homelands and coal-generating plants poison the desert air.
Public Law (PL) 93-531, written by Barry Goldwater and Pat Fannin and commonly known as the “Relocation Law,” was signed into law by Gerald Ford in 1974. The statute made 900,000 acres of Navajo-Hopi shared land exclusive Hopi territory, or Hopi Partitioned Lands (HPL), despite the fact that very few Hopi lived there. With this, the Department of Justice began the massive relocation of Dineh, and Peabody Energy Corporation began constructing the two largest strip mines in the western US, one of which is operating today. The effects of the relocation meet all the criteria of the UN's internationally recognized definition of cultural genocide.
The media has misrepresented this corporate land grab as a “Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute.”
“It is a major human rights violation, they way they pitted the Hopi and Dineh against each other over this issue,” says NaBahe Katenay Keediniihii (Dineh), who was born on the HPL. “For generations,” he continues, “they co-existed peacefully despite the fact that they were different tribes with different languages, ceremonies, and traditions.”
More than 14,000 Dineh and over 100 Hopi have been relocated from the land surrounding the sacred peaks of Big Mountain to make way for Peabody’s mines. This constitutes the largest forced relocation of indigenous peoples in the US since the Trail of Tears in 1883. In the 1970s and 1980s, resistance communities armed themselves against law enforcement officers and cut the government-erected barbed wire fences demarking the sacred places they were no longer allowed to visit. Of this, elder matriarch Pauline Whitesinger said, “They drew a line around us. I was told to move out by the government. I do not wish to leave, so I am staying here.”
The relocation has a profoundly complicated history, much of which the authors of this piece are not capable of describing, as it is not our struggle. Currently, most families live in traditional hogans on large homesteads peppered by scrubby juniper and pine trees throughout which they herd their livestock. Sheep comprise the lifeblood of traditional Dineh communities. Now, as a result of 30 years of coal slurry operations that have required millions of gallons of water a day to function, the Navajo Aquifer, which runs under Black Mesa and supplies water for crops, people, and animals, is all but drained.
From its 30 years of disastrous operation, Peabody’s 103-square-mile Black Mesa mine left a toxic legacy along an abandoned coal slurry pipeline 273 miles long, the source of an estimated 325 million tons of climate pollution discharged into the atmosphere. According to Peabody, the operating Kayenta Mine continues to extract eight million tons of low-sulfur coal annually and supplies the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona.
These days, the Dineh families and elders who remain on the HPL face regular harassment and impoundment of livestock. Elder matriarch resister Mae Tso said recently, “Under the relocation laws we can only have a certain amount of sheep. They may extend [impoundments] to twice a year. It seems the Navajo and Hopi leadership have come together to push more people off of the HPL.”
Movement building and allyship
Formed in 1998, Black Mesa Indigenous Support (BMIS) is committed to decolonial solidarity work with the Dineh communities, who are resisting this ongoing forced relocation by the US government. We are an all-volunteer, grassroots collective comprised of antiracist white organizers, the majority of whom are female-identified; we are involved as herbalists, parents, farmers, teachers, artists, and climate justice organizers. We see our role in working with other white allies as being particularly important because we believe, as the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond phrases it, “Racism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change.”
Indigenous peoples’ resistance, history and perspective on land, sovereignty, and the nation-state comprise the nexus of our work. We seek to be a part of countering the myth of the “disappearing native,” while supporting active and resilient indigenous-led resistance movements and engaging in our own decolonization and healing processes.
Since the relocation began, and before BMIS existed, support has taken various forms: American Indian Movement resistance camps, weavers for justice, and organizing speaking tours around the country for elders, including visits to the UN. Over the years, people who have supported the struggle on Black Mesa have come to understand the fundamental interconnectedness of hierarchy and oppression, as well as varying relationships to power and privilege. The supporter network is now multigenerational and weaves together other efforts towards social and environmental justice.
As we develop as a collective, BMIS is increasingly focusing on movement and coalition building. In working to get supporters to the land to learn directly from the traditional ways and resistance of the community, we are also building a regional coordinator network of allies organizing year-round support of Black Mesa in their home communities.
At the United Nations COP-16 climate talks in Cancún in December 2010 it became clear that increasingly secured borders between the Global North and the Global South, between rich and poor, will ensure corporate access to remaining natural resources. Resisters from Black Mesa and others from frontline communities demanded the root causes of climate change be addressed, calling for the implementation of the rights of Mother Earth. The UN silenced them, while refusing to make real commitments to stop emissions at the source and keep fossil fuels in the ground.
The communities and lands most impacted by climate change have been plagued with the externalities of unfettered natural resource extraction fueling free-market capitalism: higher rates of cancer, respiratory diseases, and landbases and cultures rendered “sacrifices,” as is the case with Black Mesa. Today around Black Mesa, there are unified efforts between Dineh and Hopi against resource extraction and for green jobs. BMIS seeks to support local communities’ transitions off dirty energy and support green jobs for people who’ve been most impacted by dirty energy and climate pollution—disproportionally people of color and indigenous peoples.
The BMIS support network also connects with indigenous-led movements regionally and is part of the growing resilience movement for protecting sacred places: the Save the Peaks campaign in Flagstaff, Arizona that is organizing to preserve the San Francisco Peaks (www.savethepeaks.org) a sacred altar to indigenous peoples, including the Dineh; and the campaign to protect Segora Te (Glen Cove) (www.protectglencove.org) in California, among others.
As the regional support network grows, the importance of building an analysis of cultural and spiritual appropriation, and accountable representation for non-indigenous supporters becomes integral to our organizing. We work to foster committed allyship in movements led by people most impacted by colonialism, racism, and ecological destruction—in this case, the resisting elders of Black Mesa.
We hope that our access to resources can provide some background and open up a space for voices from the resistance communities to be amplified and published more regularly. We’ve learned that locating ourselves within the struggle does not mean making ourselves invisibile or acting from a place of guilt and shame, but acknowledging our unique abilities and positions as opportunities and deep yearnings to connect as a way to fully embody our collective liberation.
Liza Minno Bloom, Hallie Boas, and Berkley Carnine are collective members with Black Mesa Indigenous Support. For BMIS’s points of unity, more extensive background and news, our recently updated cultural sensitivity and preparedness training guide for movement builders, as well as ways to get involved, please visit www.blackmesais.org.