Tribe: Heritage lost to mining

By Nikka Peralta, New Mexico Daily Lobo, MAY 7, 2008

Big Mountain, an area near Black Mesa, Ariz., used to be a place of peace and tradition, but now the land is being destroyed by the Peabody Coal Company, said Allen Cooper, a former member of the Big Mountain Support Committee.

Cooper said the Navajo land has no electricity or water, and the people there provide for themselves.

The land also happens to be extremely rich in strippable coal.

Bahe Katenay, spokeswoman for the tribe, said people of Big Mountain have lost part of their simple traditions and culture. The way of life on the mountain has changed because the effect of having a coal-mining operation near the land has left a large portion industrialized.

"Dust and smoke from the machines settles in the valleys, and people are getting sick from exhaust and emissions," he said.

Beth Sutton, a spokeswoman for Peabody Coal, said the company moved to the area in 1970. Peabody Coal operates about 15 to 20 miles away from Big Mountain and does not affect the people that live there, she said.

"We have no rights to mine in that area (Big Mountain) - no plans to mine there," Sutton said. "That is an age-old allegation that has been made that is totally false and certainly not supported by the historical facts."

Katenay said Navajo and Hopi tribes have used the land for centuries, but after a coal discovery in the late 1950s and a 1964 agreement with the Hopi tribe, strip mining and surface mining is now allowing the coal companies to dump massive petroleum waste and explosive items.

"The land has become a barren wasteland and (is) depleting millions of acres of water from the aquifers," Kateney said. "Traditional people both Hopi and Navajo now suffer because their wells have dried up, and the coal ends up being burned at the power plants."

Katenay said the people of Big Mountain have done public relations with little to no funds for the last 30 years.

They want to educate people and spread awareness on the issue of global warming and the consequences of using tribal lands for resources such as coal.

Sutton said the boundaries were redrawn based on an agreement both tribes signed about 10 years ago.

"We certainly empathize with the difficulties that families have faced over the years," Sutton said. "What we're doing is creating jobs in the area. We're building infrastructure, and we're helping build quality of life."

Cooper said the coal company has been mining in the area for decades. Millions of dollars in coal lies beneath the ground, and Peabody wants it, he said.

Cooper said Peabody has some access to the land because of the Hopi agreement, which established a federally recognized council, and the Hopis granted Peabody access to the land. However, the land is shared with the Navajos who want it preserved.

"You can see the strippable coal. It's black, and it's really rich," Cooper said. "That's what they wanted, and they haven't gotten it so far."

Cooper said a few Black Mesa residents started a resistance 25 years ago. The resistance is led by the Grandmothers of Big Mountain, who stood up to the company armed with rifles, he said.

Now in their 80s, they continue to fight to regain the society they once knew.

"These grandmothers are a marvelous example of that resistance," Cooper said. "These people understand how to live with the land and not rip it off, chop it up, pollute it, destroy it, create sacrilegious acts on it."

Katenay said one grandmother, Pauline Whitesinger, has asked for help in building a hogan - a lodge made out of logs, mud, dirt and bark, Katenay said.

"Whitesinger wants to show she has rights to her homeland," she said.

Whitesinger - along with a fellow grandmothers Katherine Smith, Glenna Begaye and Ida Mae Clinton - hopes to use the Hogan as a schoolhouse to teach children the Navajo language, customs and cultural traditions, Katenay said.

"Maintaining and reviving the language is most important. That is the essential foundation for the culture - to remember the sacred sites, to remember the original practices and skills," she said.

Cooper said the Peabody incident isn't an isolated event.

"It's what's happening amongst the native lands - not just here, but all over the place," Cooper said. "What's happening now is just part of a very long, consistent struggle where people are resisting encroachment on their land and their resources. It's an actual sacrifice, because you can't reconstitute that land."

Katenay said this is an important issue to the future of humanity.

"Many people just need to see the importance of protecting indigenous societies, not just in the states but all around the world," she said, "It's so important because they still have the knowledge of the real human ways."





Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.