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Spring Gathering At Big Mountain
I n the tradition of resistance to relocation, a Spring Survival Gathering to honor the late Roberta Blackgoat, resistance leader and traditional matriarch, was held on her ancestral land at Big Mountain, just a few miles south of the Peabody Black Mesa coal mine in northeast Arizona.
Driving over 26 miles of dirt road, up and down steep canyons, across sandy washes, through a green desert bright with flowers and swept by spring winds, it’s easy to forget that water is in crisis throughout the Southwest. Many wells at Big Mountain and in nearby Hopi villages have run dry, which people of both the Navajo (or Dineh) and Hopi believe is due to the depletion of the Navajo aquifer that underlies Black Mesa, a depletion caused by coal slurry lines draining five million gallons of water a day from the aquifer.
The nearby Colorado River has been taxed to the limit by demands from such burgeoning cities as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, and uncontrolled growth spurred by investors and developers supported in part by coal mined from the Black Mesa. The result threatens millions of people with drought and other consequences of non-viability.
The Gathering was treated with hostility by the Hopi tribal government and visited daily by armed Hopi Rangers, accompanied on one occasion by the FBI. In addition, non-signers of the Accommodation Agreement still living on Hopi Partitioned Lands (HPL) were visited at their homes by Hopi Field Monitors and questioned about the gathering. This hostile police presence is a fact of life on the HPL, part of a strategy to drive traditional Dineh (Navajo) from lands awarded to the Hopi Tribe under a 1974 law (PL 93-531), passed by an ill-informed Congress at the behest of the Peabody Coal Company.
(“Hopi Tribe” here refers to a tribal government imposed by the United States over the objections of traditional Hopi and still opposed by many Hopis who support the Dineh facing relocation.)
People living on the wrong side of the line, which Congress drew in 1974, both signers and non-signers of the Accommodation Agreement, face a bewildering array of government and bureaucratic forces. A woman at the gathering who lives near the coal mine expressed her frustrations. After obtaining approval from her Navajo chapter house to fund winterization of her mother’s home, she was then told, “If we go and fund that, we’re afraid the Hopi Tribe will come and file a lawsuit.” Thus far, no repairs.
She has made countless requests to the Hopi Tribe for electricity, easily shunted from nearby coal mine wires. The same hostile tribal government has for ten years ignored her requests to gravel her road or repair her dams, and has arbitrarily withheld essential firewood permits.
To gather wood from their own backyards, HPL residents must travel 50 or more miles to apply for permits and every month a new permit is required. Permits aren’t granted automatically. Non-signers in particular face delays and indifference. Failure to produce a permit at the demand of Rangers or Range Monitors can result in confiscation of firewood and/or chainsaws.
Any new construction on the HPL must be approved by the Hopi Tribe or is subject to removal. One resister testified at the gathering that he was forced to abandon his house when it became unlivable after Hopi Rangers punched through the foundation attempting to arrest supporters who had non-violently blocked a bulldozer threatening the house. Since his house was located near Hopi cattle grazing land and he was the object of close police scrutiny, he despaired of making the necessary repairs covertly or of being granted a permit. Livestock confiscation, based on arbitrary quotas imposed by the Hopi Tribe, remains a constant threat to HPL residents’ survival.
T he Survival Gathering was small, reflective of the distances supporters and local residents had to travel, reflecting as well a certain weariness that has settled in many hearts since the destruction of the Sundance arbor by Hopi bulldozers in August, 2001, and also reflecting some disunity that has been fostered and exacerbated by the pressures of trying to live and raise families in the harsh conditions of an occupied territory.
At one point in the meeting, some of the elders were having trouble deciding on a site for the next meeting and, after banging their heads together for a while, sisters Catherine Smith and Pauline Whitesinger, with laughter in their eyes, pleaded with Danny Black- goat who was hosting the gathering that they didn’t want to be leaders anymore, that it was time for the elders to pass the mantle of leadership onto the next generation.
That moment, poignant and whimsical at the same time, revealed what a crucible this gathering was. Here were gathered youth and elders whose very existence on their ancestral lands is an act of resistance. Supporters had traveled for a brief visit from as far away as France, as well as those who have spent years on the land serving the resistance—some having learned to speak the difficult Dineh language. Together we were able to laugh and look through the clouds to distant stars, understanding that we have no choice but to apply ourselves to our common resistance with all the forces of our being, for the sake of future generations.
We laughed, prayed, ploughed the land, herded sheep, cooked, ate, and confronted intruders together. On Thursday, Catherine Smith, who is half deaf and wearing sunglasses after an operation for cataracts, told us that two Hopi Rangers had come to her house that morning to ask about the gathering. “I think they are checking every home,” she said. “Yesterday I lost my other ear, so it’s good that the Rangers were talking to me today because I couldn’t hear them.”
The next day, an FBI agent drove up accompanied by three Hopi Rangers. He was wearing a bulletproof vest. When Danny Blackgoat refused to talk with him privately, the agent was forced to address the host while standing in the center of a circle of 20 or 30 people, cameras and tape recorders buzzing.
“The reason I’m here is because we’ve had an allegation that a bunch of non-Indians are squatting on Hopi land,” he began. “The reason we’re involved is because the Hopis would have a problem evicting non-Indians.”
He proceeded to fire off questions to our host with cavalier disrespect: “How old are you? Do you have a house here? Do you have a census number?” Danny Blackgoat sat with his hands folded above his head, staring him in the eye, answering with amazing deference and respect. “Are you Hopi? Navajo?”
“What nationality are you?” Danny asked the agent slowly.
“I’m pretty much Illinois redneck, a little bit of everything. Cherokee, Irish, German, whatever happened to be there at the time,” was the flip reply.
For an agonizing 20 minutes, he politely fielded a volley of impertinent questions. Finally, Pauline Whitesinger spoke up, addressing the FBI agent. Danny Blackgoat translated: “She says you look like a Navajo, not a Hopi. She says bring a traditional Hopi with you if you’re going to come here again. She says you’re a white person. None of you are Hopi leaders. If they come and tell me this is their land, then I’ll listen to them. This land, the Hopis don’t want it. I’ve been conversing with a Hopi who says, ‘We don’t want this land here. It was taken for no reason.’”
“Does she have a question?” the agent interrupted.
After a pause, Pauline gazed at him. “As to what you say, that there are some non-Indians squatting here, I want to tell you that there’s been non-Indians squatting on Native American lands since 1492. And your rent is due. So stop harassing us. This is our land.”
Paul Bloom is a longtime activist in support of the Big Mountain resistance.
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