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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
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
"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,
"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
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."