“Every Day is Earth Day to Indigenous People”

by Anne Davison

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As I gladly signed a petition to make Earth Day a national holiday, I commented to the young woman watching me, “I guess it’s about time. I remember the first Earth Day 30 years ago.” Her look of awe and comment of “far out”, tickled me as I wrestled my feeling of being ‘aged’ to the ground, and simply thanked her. The opportunity to remember when I used to say “far out” and how radical a concept Earth Day used to be, did put a mirror up to my wrinkles, but mostly made me aware of how tame this Earth Day seemed 30 years later.

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Matt Davison (L), SENAA West;
Leonard Benally (R), Dine'h

The title above is put into quotes because it was spoken by Leonard Benally as he addressed a crowd during Earth Day festivities at Exposition Park in Los Angeles, April 22, 2000. The millennium Earth Day marked the event’s 30th anniversary. Benally was joined on the stage by family from Big Mountain in the Black Mesa area of northeastern Arizona.

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"Rallying Support"
L to R: Leonard Benally, Mae Shay (at the mike), Ruth Benally

The Grandmothers Ruth Benally and her sister Mae Shay took turns speaking in their native Navajo (Dineh), with Benally interpreting. Ruth began by greeting the crowd, “I think of all of us as one people, even though, for ourselves, we are far from our home...let me call you my children and listen to this story. The Black Mesa exploitation is why we’re here at Edison headquarters.”

Earlier in the week, the Grandmothers of Big Mountain were joined by other protesters, organized by the Action Resource Center, demanding that Southern California Edison shut down its coal-fired power plant, the Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nev. Edison has a controlling interest in the plant which lights more than 1 million homes in Los Angeles, Nevada, and Arizona. The method used by Peabody Western Coal Co. for transporting water to the plant is one of the issues.

Mixing crushed coal with drinking-quality water pumped from aquifers, dries up the Navajo community’s water supply forcing them to drive up to 25 miles to retrieve water for use in their homes. Also at issue is the trumped up notion that the Hopi (on whose land a few remaining Dineh technically live on) and the Navajo are feuding. The traditionals of both nations live in harmony, but it’s their respective tribal councils, in cahoots with Peabody, who are using every tactic they can think of to remove the families (mostly now elderly) from the land they were born on. Ultimately, greed is the issue.

Ruth concluded her remarks by saying, “We went to plead with them (Edison). We shall never be silent, never surrender our ancestral homeland.”

“Hello, I am Mae Shay from Big Mountain. I want to tell you of my concerns.” Seemingly from another time and place, Ruth’s sister spoke clearly into the modern microphone as she told of threats to put her into jail if she attempts to rebuild her hogan (home); of being denied access to water; and the taking of her animals. “Mother Earth is so sacred to me, but I have my birth rights,” she said plainly.

Ruth’s daughter, Elvira Horseherder, also spoke. She addressed the crowd in English and told of her mother’s prayers that she (her daughter) and other children not give up. She told of how in a ceremony, Ruth took her hand and prayed that she would carry on, to not let Big Mountain go. Elvira brought the crowd to cheers and applause as she stated defiantly, “The Spirit People gave us birth there, and we have the right to stay there.”

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Above: "Talking Strategy"
L to R: Elvira Horseherder, Matt, Ruth Benally
Below: "Love & Laughter"
L to R: Mae Shay, Anne,
Elsie Shay
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Leonard Benally ended their plea by telling us to go and “walk in beauty.”

Walk in beauty. It is because of the Grandmothers of Big Mountain, who walk in beauty, that I and my husband, Matt Davison, division director of SENAA West, were at this year’s Earth Day festivities. We’ve known Mae Shay for five years now, and she has honored us by allowing us to call her "Grandmother." Through the years, we’ve gradually come to know other members of her family. This occasion was no different. We met more nieces and nephews, and continued getting to know Mae’s sisters.

The sisters, four Grandmothers, are remarkable women. They are extraordinary artisans--weavers of exquisite rugs and designers of beautiful jewelry. Not one of them speaks English, but it doesn’t matter. We laugh, we hug, we cry, we speak, we listen. We’re family.

It’s a gift to be given time with them, to look into their eyes and to know that they are safe, for now.