In late October in a remote area of Arizona called Black Mesa, federal SWAT teams dressed in military flak jackets and wielding assault rifles set up roadblocks and detained people as helicopters and drones circled overhead.
The response made it seem as though police were targeting dangerous criminals — terrorists, even. But they were actually detaining impoverished Navajo (Dine’) elders accused of owning too many sheep.
For the past month Hopi rangers and agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) have been entering people’s land and holding them at gunpoint, with few warrants and little respect for due process. Community members say they live in fear because of this extreme intimidation in the Hopi Partitioned Lands in northern Arizona.
The Hopi tribe and the BIA say that over four dozen people have exceeded their permitted limit of 28 sheep per household, which will lead to overgrazing. Even if that were true — and many people doubt the claim — it would hardly justify the excessively intimidating approach to the problem. So far, three people have been arrested and more than 300 sheep impounded. Exorbitant fees are levied for people to recover their sheep, which the elderly Navajo residents depend on for their livelihood.
The residents of Black Mesa believe this most recent assault on their livelihood is being funded and instigated by the federal government through the Department of Interior and the BIA as part of an ongoing effort to maintain access to vast coal reserves on their ancestral homelands.
The 1974 Navajo and Hopi Settlement Act made almost a million acres of shared Navajo-Hopi land in northern Arizona exclusive Hopi territory, called Hopi Partitioned Lands. Black Mesa was crisscrossed and split by barbed wire fencing designating boundaries. The Department of Justice undertook a plan to relocate more than 14,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi.
Couched as an effort to resolve what was called the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, the act was actually the result of an ongoing effort to exploit mineral resources in the area. The Navajo and Hopi had peacefully coexisted in the area for decades until the discovery of coal led to policies that created corporate-backed tribal governments and divided the tribes over resource exploitation.
The relocation conveniently cleared the way for two of the largest coal strip mines in the country. In its 30 years of operation, Peabody Coal’s 103-square-mile Black Mesa mine left a toxic legacy along a 273-mile abandoned coal-slurry pipeline, the source of an estimated 325 million tons of climate pollution discharged into the atmosphere. It ceased operations in 2005.
The still-operating Kayenta mine supplies approximately 7.5 million tons of low-sulfur thermal coal annually to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona. In 2013 the mine sold 7.9 million tons of coal.
Many Navajo resisted relocation. The federal government responded with a war of attrition to undermine their ability to remain on the land. It implemented a building moratorium that included repairs on existing structures and a livestock-reduction program that limited the number of animals a family could own.
Because traditional Navajo economy is based on sheep, these programs represented a direct threat to survival. If they cannot raise sheep, they must relocate to areas where they can find some other way to make a living. This will clear the way for further mining concessions, with no one in the area to protest the pollution and dislocation more mines will bring.
Black Mesa resident Louise Benally suggests that the grazing question is a red herring. “I believe overgrazing comes from the air and water pollution [on] Black Mesa. This is the front lines. The atmosphere is so toxified that it is killing everything,” she told us in a recent phone interview.
She argues that if sheep grazing is the real concern, a different approach should be taken. “Twenty-eight sheep is not enough to sustain a family. If Hopi care about the land, help us with land management education. We need someone qualified who knows the plants and animals to oversee the rotation of animals in these areas,” she said.
Shirley Tohannie and elder Caroline Tohannie had their herd of 65 sheep impounded on Oct 22. The Tohannies’ neighbor Jerry Babbit Lane was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for attempting to intervene on their behalf. Officials claimed that the grazing permit held by Tohannie’s late husband was no longer valid. In order to get her livestock back, she had to sign a complaint stating that she was trespassing and will have to appear in Hopi tribal court.
In September the U.S. government signed a settlement with the Navajo Nation to pay over half a billion dollars in compensation for the government’s mismanagement of tribal trust resources. At the signing, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell cited President Barack Obama’s desire to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the federal government. While this public relations move made national headlines, the simultaneous harassment of Navajo elders and the deliberate effort to deprive them of their ability to remain on their lands did not.
If the federal government really wants to improve its relationship with American Indian tribes, it should start by ending its historical collusion with energy corporations to displace people from their lands for natural resource extraction. The BIA and Department of the Interior should immediately stop impounding Navajo sheep and terrorizing the residents of Black Mesa.
The federal government should then work to forge collaborative nation-to-nation relationships that honor all Native people’s right to decide for themselves how to live on and develop their ancestral lands.