By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau - Navajo Times
The third, and possibly final, Black Mesa Indigenous Support Thanksgiving Caravan arrived on Big Mountain Saturday, bearing a welcome cargo of food, hay, firewood, and plenty of enthusiastic young muscle.
They will help a handful of Navajo families who resisted relocation, and are still living on a peninsula of Hopi Partitioned Land on Big Mountain, to get through the winter.
For 120 people from across the country and into Canada, it will be a different sort of Thanksgiving.
Instead of feasting on turkey with their family, they'll be sharing mutton stew with Navajo elders, some of whom don't speak a word of English.
Instead of taking a holiday, they'll be working, hard - herding sheep, splitting firewood and building corrals.
And, they're grateful for the opportunity.
The third, and possibly final, Black Mesa Indigenous Support Thanksgiving Caravan arrived on Big Mountain Saturday, bearing welcome cargo of food, hay, firewood, and plenty of enthusiastic young muscle.
Sponsored by Black Mesa Indigenous Support, the caravan was conceived to help the handful of Navajo families who resisted relocation, and are still living on a peninsula of Hopi Partitioned Land on Big Mountain, to get through the winter.
"We think one of the best ways we can express solidarity with them is just to help them continue their traditional way of life," explained Theresa "Tree" Gigante, one of the caravan's organizers, who has been working with the Big Mountain resisters for 15 years.
The volunteers were divided into groups of two or three, each to live with a Navajo elder for five days and help him or her prepare for the winter - which, with no running water or electricity, on a slippery dirt road a half-hour from the nearest trading post, can be awfully long.
7 'awaiting relocation'
As if on cue, wind-whipped snow started to pelt Big Mountain Sunday as the caravan's opening ceremonies commenced, with the elders expressing appreciation for the help and detailing their plight as people who resisted being relocated to New Lands in the 1970s and 80s.
Forty-nine of the 56 home-site lease holders who remained on the HPL after relocation signed an accommodation agreement in 1996, giving them a 75-year lease but severely restricting the number of animals they can graze. The remaining seven are still considered by the government to be "awaiting relocation," although that's certainly not how they see it.
"If we're just one animal over (our limit), the Hopi rangers will come and take it," complained one woman.
Another worried that she won't be able to leave her home site to her children, but her daughter said she plans to stay there anyway.
"This is still America," she said. "They can't just chase people off their land."
The volunteers, crowded into a prefabricated geodesic dome that had been set up as a space for talking and learning, also heard speakers on the physical and spiritual aspects of coal mining on nearby Black Mesa.
The Hopi and Navajo used to share the land in peace, the elders said, until the Black Mesa mine was opened in the 1960s, necessitating the partitioning of the land and the relocation of 6,500 Navajos and about 30 Hopis in the 1970s and 80s.
In addition to leveling home sites, the elders said, the mine has encroached on burial grounds and cultural sites, and dust from the operation has created respiratory problems in the nearby populations.
The Black Mesa Mine was closed in 2005, but mining continues at the Kayenta Mine on the north side of Black Mesa.
The volunteers also learned that the Diné regard Black Mesa as a living female entity, and the coal seam as her liver, and that mining is foreign to the traditional Navajo worldview.
Water another worry
The Northeast Arizona Water Settlement recently approved by the Navajo Nation Council is another concern of the elders.
"They signed away the coal, and now they've signed away our water," said one, speaking in Navajo. "We have no leaders these days. Just people who betray us for money."
Evelyn Samuelson said she's concerned not just that the Diné will have enough water in the future, but whether the long legal document will have some kind of power over the water's spirit.
"The water rights are all tangled up like a spider web," she said, illustrating by crossing her gnarled fingers over each other. "They've mixed up the male and female water. I don't know how Mother Nature's going to react."
Danny Blackgoat, son of Big Mountain resister Roberta Blackgoat, who passed away in 2002, advised the volunteers to build little catchments wherever they saw water collecting, so the elders' livestock would have enough to drink.
"We should be doing that all over the Navajo Nation," he said.
Most of the volunteers are in their 20s, much too young to remember the relocation. Every one interviewed seemed to have learned about it in a different way: in a college class, at a human rights panel, from an environmental group, Googling around on the Internet.
Becky White, a young singer-songwriter from the Bay area who is now working on her master's at Berklee College of Music, learned about the relocation 11 years ago while attending Prescott College. She's been making periodic trips to Big Mountain ever since, lending a hand on elders' ranches.
"As a Californian, I was shocked to learn that the (electrical) power in my state comes from stolen coal," she said. "This is a human rights issue the whole country should know about."
Thanks to the efforts of BMIS - and much earlier speaking tours by Blackgoat, Katherine Smith and other resisters - a growing number of people do. The caravan had to turn away volunteers, limiting the number to 120 in order to have a manageable group and avoid too big an impact on the land.
But many volunteers end up coming back for a month or two to help their assigned families, White said.
"They need help all year round, not just five days in the fall," she declared.
Gigante, who now lives in Virginia, spends about five months a year on Big Mountain. She has learned Navajo and is teaching it to her children.
She said this might be the last year she organizes the caravan, although BMIS will continue to facilitate volunteer work on Big Mountain.
"There's only about five of us core people who organize this," she said. "It takes a lot to coordinate all this."
Some of the elders and organizers were concerned the volunteers would be hassled for trespassing on Hopi land, but Clayton Honyumptewa, acting manager of the Hopi Tribe's Department of Natural Resources, said his department was aware of the caravan and not out to bust it.
"We do wish they'd go through the proper channels to get permission," he said. "I'll probably send somebody over there to monitor the situation. We aren't going to arrest people for doing humanitarian work."
"I don't see any Hopis out here helping me herd my sheep and chop my wood," quipped Jack Woody, one of the elders who had invited the volunteers to assist him in preparing for the winter. "I don't see my Council delegate. If these non-Indians want to help me, I'm not going to chase them away."
Learning the issues
Actually, there are a few Indians in the bunch. Alex Morrison said she made the trip as a service learning project for an English class at Salt Lake Community College.
"It hit close to home, because I'm half Navajo," said the 19-year-old, who looks Native except for her startling hazel eyes. "When I heard about it, I knew I wanted to do it."
Craig Luther, 21, is from a family that was relocated from Big Mountain to Nahata Dzil, but he was raised in Sanders, Ariz.
"To tell the truth, I really don't know that much about the issues out here," he confessed. "That's why I'm here."
While she appreciates all the volunteers, it's the Navajo youngsters like Morrison and Luther who give Marie Smith hope. The daughter of resister Katherine Smith, she's working on a master's in sustainable communities at Northern Arizona University. She envisions Big Mountain as a network of sustainable farms where Navajos can return to the land and once again live in peace.
She sees greenhouses, a community center, and maybe even their own chapter, so they could accept grants and funding from the Navajo Nation and other entities.
"People say, 'You can't go back to the old ways,' but that's not what I'm talking about," she said. "You can have your computer and your cell phone, and still say the proper prayers when you butcher a sheep. We need to re-value the way of life we once had. What our ancestors had was a proven way to live sustainably on the land."
She and her sister, Mary Katherine, both live on a hill overlooking their mom's old place. Mary Katherine prefers to work in the background, helping the elders to survive on the land and organizing occasional health clinics, one of which will be held this week. They are among just a handful of second-generation resisters who were raised with the struggle always the backdrop of their lives, and yet chose to stay.
Most of their generation has moved to Flagstaff or Phoenix or other places, and rarely returns to the mountain. But their children - the ones Morrison's and Luther's age - might be another story.
"I'm seeing a lot of interest among younger Navajos to come out here and experience this lifestyle," Marie Smith said. "There is a movement among young people across the Navajo Nation who are recognizing the value of a life lived with respect for the earth. Because of our elders who have managed to remain here, we'll have a place for them to come. We'll have something to offer them."
[Navajo Times ON-LINE COMMENTS]:
C said: Attention NN Government, newly elected. PLEASE READ comments made by Big mtn elderlies "They signed away the coal, and now they've signed away our water," said one, speaking in Navajo. "We have no leaders these days. Just people who betray us for money." one of the elders who had invited the volunteers to assist him in preparing for the winter. "I don't see my Council delegate. If these non-Indians want to help me, I'm not going to chase them away." Its sad and ashame to read articles like this, what now Navajo Nation.....! Big Mountain is on reserved land.
Zoie Wilde said: It Can be a near perfect world...If we try!
Nan said: We are appreciative of such wonderful gestures and thankful non-Navajos see us for our generousity and hardships. They will be rewarded for their positive actions on Navajo land and many blessings bestowed upon them. Our Elders are prescious to us, they have struggled to bring us where we are and they have endored many hardships. Their strength has been passsed on to us and now we must lead for future generations to come. Thank you volunteers, grandparents and all those who give selflessly. Happy gatherings during the holidays!
Malcolm said: Big Mountain is a place, a respite, where I've seen people from all over the world return year after year. Their ethos of living in balance with the land and habitats was there long before Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. The way the media appropriates who says what about the Earth today, still marginalizes those who live closest to respecting the land and its resources. With some help from the media, the growing support has grown for Big Mountain. I'm really glad for this article.
Frankie Carr Jr said: thank you very much for caring! does it really have to be bilaganaas that have to help them! why cant the navajo nation or the hopi tribe help one another at resolving these problems! and help our elderlys! respect our mother earth and respect our elders! this is a cruel world!
- 1Sheepherder's reply to Carr Jr: the bilaganaas and the people of Big Mountain learn about that thing call COMMUNICATION. all the EDUCATED people are so afraid of COMMUNICATION. I like trying to COMMUNICATE with them, sometimes it become very funny, ha ,ha specially the fat ONES...... "You notice everything is about HOW not COMMUNICATE"... Cindy thank you for the article. " grandma knows about THE COMMUNIATION"...
(Yours Truly, Chief Loner) 'Haastin' 1st Posted a Comment: Oh yeah, if this was a story about the U.S. military's native veterans or service personnel, you "Navajos" would have some comments to make. You should be honoring "your own" true Elder Warriors of Big Mountain and too bad, it is reality that Peabody Coal Company and the U.S. military-state has invaded your country and destroyed more of the little culture and FREEDOM that was left . This is the real Thanksgiving: volunteers giving thanks to Indigenous elder warriors who are trying to stop global warming and the rape of mother earth.
- R3dcloud13's reply to 'Haastin': Sir, you seem to not know what you are talking about. My first language is Dine' and I try to stick with traditional teachings and I talk with my Grandparents about the old days as much as I can. I do live off the Res but I try to return and help. I grew up in the lifestyle of no electricity or water. I haul water, wood, coal, and hay in my truck for my elders. I honor them everyday and think of them everyday. I also have relatives who serve actively in the military and am proud to be in a military family way back. There is no way I can express the many thanks I have for their service. So don't patronize me from over there because it's so easy to judge when you're hiding behind your weak view of how us Dine' are supposed to feel or act. I do more than you can imagine for my Chei and Masani, I've been in the trenches I felt the hard times. You need to go think hard about what you are doing and walk the walk. Haash Doone'e' Nili? ...and all that.
-- 'Haastin's' reply to R3dcloud13: I am of the great Near the Water people, people of the rivers who crossed over the mountains from the Chama & Rio Grande valleys hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years before the Europeans. My clan, Tabahaa of the Standing Tree and Meadow Bands, joined the Dineh because we made the best arrow & bow quivers and the tall red moccasins. Just cuz Im un-patriotic to the U.S. I don't know what I am talking about: dude, I know about aggression, genocide, greed, and injustice?! My particular clan were relocated (along with many other clans) from Dinetah due the Spanish invasions, then relocated from Canyon de Chelly due to the American military invasions, and now my elders and I are being forced off Big Mountain in the name of coal and electricity, AND I have walked the walk, talk the teachings and Lived the FREEDOM of the ancient ways at Big Mountain. My traditional parents raised me well and now, I am a volunteer for the peoples.
Memories fo you and i said: "Euphonious, First of all, Thank you very much,for helping my people,Black Mesa indigenous Support group." I think it's an great idea,Instead of feasting on turkey,they'll be sharing mutton stew/frybread. Also, I agree with the elder women,that stated; ""This is still America, They can't just chase people off their land." Guess it was all about greediness for Peter Macdonald to partial his own people.
Blowfly86 said: The children of the Earth and rivers is no longer, Respect has been out the window from day one,The old measureable indian character remains done now to fast moving , everything,Enter nets as it picks up more speedly, the rest is a free fall to dome human exist as we know it. Spiritually, I ask you do not eat the turkey it gets no repect,Indain wise.next Even Coal was not to be use as household heater, it gaves of dangerous gas. I guess trying to be native american doesn't work also I met way to many that were also native american, born and rasied in American. so, there. Thank you for your support and kindness