"To Seek out that which was Lost..."
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A Visit to Big Mountain, Arizona - Part I
- June 10, 1997
Peace Brigades International (PBI) is an international volunteer organization that offers services of unarmed protective accompaniment, nonpartisan international observers, and nonviolence training to organizations, individuals and communities threatened with violence.
This article was originally published in the June/97 issue of PBI's Project Bulletin. It may be freely copied or reprinted; please site the source. For photos or more information about PBI-NAP, please contact "email@example.com" For more information about PBI, visit our home page at http://www.igc.apc.org/pbi/
On March 31, 1997, the final deadline passed to sign the "Accommodation Agreement" for the decades long conflict involving the relocation of Dine (also known as Navajo) people living around the area known as "Big Mountain," in Arizona. In reality, this was one more in a series of attempts to find a "solution" to a larger problem whose essence is about relationship to the land.
Like other conflicts involving Native Americans and land, the conflict is rooted in two different perceptions about this relationship. This article is the first of two describing the findings and experiences of a recent visit by Peace Brigades to this area.
In February of this year, Peace Brigades received an invitation from a group of Dine living around Big Mountain to "come out and help protect their land." In May, a small team spent two weeks visiting in the area. We met with Dine and Hopi elders, members of Tribal Councils and agencies, and business representatives. The mandate of this exploratory team was to introduce Peace Brigades to the people involved in the conflict, learn more about the issues, and to recommend further courses of action for PBI in the future.
Our time was too short to meet with all parties involved in the conflict, but the meetings we had were fruitful and the team is hopeful that PBI can return in the future to make useful contributions.
Background to PBI's Visit
Peace Brigades' first contact with the situation at Big Mountain occurred in 1986, when PBI member Charles Walker made some contacts. In November of that year, Alice Norton returned and spent a month there. We were pleased to make use of their reports as background material for our return, eleven years later.
Over the past year, we had been encouraged to consider looking into the situation, as various deadlines approached and violent confrontation was anticipated. After a preliminary visit by PBI member Jill Sternberg in early February of this year, a group called "Sovereign Dine Nation" extended an invitation to PBI signed by Roberta Blackgoat, a noted elder of the Dine "resisters."
The PBI's North America Project responded by organizing the exploratory visit for early May, coinciding (and complementing, and sometimes conflicting with) our annual volunteer gathering in nearby Flagstaff, Arizona. This month's bulletin article will describe some of the background of the conflict as we learned about it from those involved. Next month's article will conclude with details about PBI's activity and plans for the future.
The conflict we try to describe here is long and complex, and our short visit and this report falls far short of a full understanding. We encourage our readers to consult other sources as well to get a sense of the diversity of perceptions that embody this conflict.
Geography and Early History
Big Mountain lies in a high desert area covering the north east part of Arizona, as well as parts of New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. This land includes the traditional territory of the people who call themselves "Dine" (also spelled Dineh, and commonly known as "Navajo"), as well as the traditional lands of the "Hopi" (which means "peaceful people" in their language). The United States knows this area as the "four corners" region, because four U.S. states intersect at a single point.
This land is characterized by high altitude, low rainfall, extremes of temperature, and spectacular landscapes. Amongst these landscapes are the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Sunset Crater, and numerous others that draw in many tourists each year. The beautiful canyons are a result of ancient rivers that carved deep riverbeds in sedimentary layered rock. In a now familiar irony, this land was deemed of little value by the early U.S. government, who set up the Navajo and Hopi reserves on this land, and only later realized that it contained extremely valuable mineral resources - coal, oil and uranium. The area now produces a large amount of the electricity that powers the southwestern United States.
By most accounts, the Hopi are descendants of a people now known as "Anasazi" who inhabited the area until about 1300 AD. Most of the 15,000 Hopi live on three "mesas" - geological formations of raised flat areas of land. According to their traditional understanding, this area is their sacred covenant to protect. Two of their villages have been dated back at least to 1150 AD by archaeologists and are considered the oldest continuously occupied cities of North America. They understand their traditional territory to include a much larger area than their small reserve, land that is now occupied by the Navajo reservation and U.S. states. They have never fought for, nor surrendered this land, which is currently under litigation by the Hopi Tribal Council.
The Dine are related to the Dene of northern Canada, as well as the Apache - they are all Athapaskan-speaking peoples. Some traditional Dine consider that they were originally from this land, although US anthropologists and historians have dated their arrival here to between 1400 and 1700 AD. Unlike the Hopi, who build houses from stone and rely mostly on agriculture, the Dine are traditionally nomadic, and their way is to allow their homes to return back to the land, eventually leaving no trace of their presence.
The historical relationships between the Hopi and Dine people are subject to various interpretations - ranging from outright hostility and conflict, to peaceful interdependence. The interpretation of this historical relationship has been a key element in the modern conflict - the conflicts and differences between Hopi and Dine have been named by some as the essence of the conflict, but by others as a fabrication and distraction from the real issue of resource extraction. Understanding the true nature of Hopi/Dine relationships over time is beyond our ability or mandate as visitors to the area, but several important points to remember are:
- it is not just an historical question, but also a political issue, and one that appears to have been manipulated in the past
- in many areas, including Big Mountain, intermarriage between Hopis and Dine blur the identity distinction to some extent
- traditional Hopi and Dine paths and values are fundamentally different in many ways that have potential for conflict
- both of these paths are more similar to each other than to the mainstream US/Western system
- the parties involved in the conflict include not just the traditional Dine and Hopi, who continue to work together on many occasions, but also Tribal Councils that were originally created by the US government for the express purpose of getting mining leases signed on reservation lands.
- like other elected governments, the Tribal Councils represent some of the members of the "Tribes," but this is not necessarily the same as the "traditional" people, whose membership and interests have long resisted being inserted into an alien and hostile system.
Interaction with the United States of America
The United States formally claimed this area from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. After clashes with the Dine threatened settlement and development, the US government hired Kit Carson to remove them. This he did by destroying their crops and livestock and threatening to starve them to death. After they surrendered, the Dine were marched several thousand miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico and interned in what has ben referred to as the world's first concentration camp. This experiment with forced relocation failed because it ended up costing the US too much, and the Dine were eventually returned to a newly created reserve straddling the New Mexico/Arizona border.
Meanwhile, the Hopi reserve was first created in 1882, an incongruous square of one degree longitude by one degree latitude that enclosed most of the Hopi villages, but whose creation was for the purpose of their subjugation rather than preservation. The generally accepted story is that the Indian Agent of that time tried to expel two whites from the Hopi villages who were causing him difficulty. They rejected his authority on the grounds that the lands were not officially a reservation, so the agent sent a request to Washington for the neatly bounded reservation, which was granted. Later US legislation and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) actions - such as removal of Hopi children to BIA boarding schools, attempts to break up traditional landholding patterns into individual plots, imposition of an electoral Tribal Council - have left a legacy of division amongst the Hopis.
Following the creation of the original Navajo and Hopi reserves, the Navajo reserve was successively expanded through a series of presidential executive orders, until it eventually completely enclosed the Hopi reserve.
The order creating the Hopi reserve determined that it was set aside for the use of both the Hopi and other tribes as designated by the Department of the Interior. This wording meant that the Dine living within the bounds of the official Hopi reservation had legal right to their homes there and were the responsibility of the BIA.
In the 1930s, mining companies began looking at the coal deposits of Black Mesa, a geological formation that extends south into the Hopi reservation. When lawyers first began trying to get mining rights for the companies, they required Tribal Councils to sign over these lands. Subsequently, Tribal Councils for both the Hopi and Navajo were formed, and their first actions were to sign lease agreements to mining companies for the reservation lands. Opponents of the leases point to links between the lawyers acting on behalf of the Tribal Councils and the mining interests to question the legality of the leases. Mine representatives point out that these mines have brought valuable employment and benefits to the reservations. In any case, on the part of the Hopi reserve occupied by Dine, there was a complication of jurisdiction - the Hopi Tribal Council could not sign lease agreements because the Dine were legally settled here.
At this point, according to some narratives, began the so-called Hopi-Navajo conflict - really a conflict over which lawyer and Tribal Council would get the royalties from signing lease agreements.
The first step was a lawsuit concluding in 1962 known as "Healing vs. Jones," brought by the Hopi Tribal Council to try to gain clear title to the whole 1882 reservation. The conclusion of that suit was that the Dine and Hopi had equal rights to that the portion of the 1882 Hopi reservation outside of a core area where the Hopi villages were located. This core area included the villages of the three central mesas and was known as "Hopi grazing area 6," while the remainder of the lands were designated as the "Joint Use Area", or "JUA."
The second step was a piece of federal legislation called PL 93-531 in 1974. This legislation partitioned the Joint Use Area (JUA) into two pieces of equal size - one for exclusive Hopi use (Hopi Partitioned Lands, or HPL), and the other for exclusive Dine use (Navajo Partitioned Lands, or NPL). The legislation mandated the relocation of Hopi residing in NPL and Dine residing in HPL by 1986, at which point there would be a new all-Hopi reservation (smaller than the original 1882 reservation) and a new all-Navajo reservation (adding NPL to the existing Navajo reserve). The reason given for this legislation was the failure of the Joint Use Area sharing arrangement, but whatever the motives - the result would be to remove people living on 90 000 acres of land that was estimated to have 18 billion tonnes of coal within 6 feet of the surface. Today, a large portion of both the Hopi and Navajo Tribal Council revenues come from royalties.
PL 93-531 was flawed in various respects, not least of which was a lack of consultation with the residents of the Joint Use Area (Hopi or Dine), many of whom were surprised to hear that they were in conflict at all. There were about 100 Hopi living on NPL, all of whom were relocated. The 12,000 or so Dine on HPL were a different story, however. In 1980, new lands were purchased for their relocation, and some of them accepted a relocation package. However, these lands were downstream from a major radioactive spill in 1979. In addition, the new houses built for them, and the life they were expected to adjust too, were inadequate (at best). This reinforced the firm beliefs of those who had not relocated that it was wrong to leave the lands that were sacred to them. This is often expressed by the fact that "relocation" has no translation in Navajo - to "move away" means to die. Remembering the "Long Walk" to Fort Sumner one hundred years before, the Dine are again facing a second Long Walk, and they have learned the cost.
The Accommodation Agreement
In 1988, a lawsuit known as "Manybeads" (named after the chief plaintiff, a Dine elder) was initiated on behalf of some of the Dine residents of HPL. This suit claimed that the 1974 relocation law violated their First Amendment right to religion, since their religious practice was fundamentally linked to their sacred lands.
The suit was first thrown out, and then on appeal was referred to mediation. The mediation process eventually resulted in the so-called "Accommodation Agreement" which HPL residents were faced with this past spring.
The Accommodation Agreement is a large document, but the essential element is that the Dine who sign it may continue to live on HPL, under the limitations of a 75-year (renewable) lease from the Hopi Tribal Council. This arrangement tries to "accommodate" the Dine's rights to religious freedom, within the Hopi Tribe's demand for legal jurisdiction over the HPL. Lee Phillips, the lawyer for the Dine in the Manybeads case, and then negotiator of the Accommodation Agreement, has said that he considers the Agreement the best option.
Whether or not this is true politically, many of the Dine see it as a "sell-out", and refuse to accept it. For them, it would mean not only a loss of sovereignty and freedom, but also the inevitable destruction of "their" land. They believe that the Hopi Tribal Council, once it has secured the right to the land, intends to lease it to mining companies, even though the Tribal Council points out that they have had in place a 20-year moratorium on all mining on Hopi lands.
Hopis also point out that all mining leases in the area so far have been on Navajo lands.
[Next month's article will describe more recent
events and PBI's visit]
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