Wrong Side of the Fence

As the deadline for their forced relocation approaches, a handful of Navajos struggle to hold their place on the sacred earth.

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Nobody wants to make a martyr of Roberta Blackgoat, a puckish, silver-haired Navajo elder in failing health. But the law’s the law.

The law says Blackgoat has until February 1 to leave her house, her land, her spiritual bedrock. Despite the deadline, Blackgoat says she can never leave. It’s what she’s been saying since 1974, when Congress effectively revoked her right to live on Big Mountain, a remote patch of high desert her ancestors called home before the arrival of the conquistadors. As a traditional Navajo, or Diné, Blackgoat believes her people were placed here by a higher authority, and that this is where she is meant to live and die. Summoning a sly, grandmotherly guilelessness, she invites those who want her to move — a list that includes top Hopi tribal officials, the U.S. Justice and Interior departments, and Senator John McCain — to “sue the Creator.”

Blackgoat is among the last holdouts against the most sweeping forced relocation to take place in the United States since the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. Together with more than 13,000 other Diné, it has been her misfortune to dwell on the wrong half of the Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area, a 1.8-million-acre section of northeastern Arizona that a federal court split in two in 1977. The partition, mandated by Congress three years earlier, made the Navajos squatters on what was suddenly — history and demographics notwithstanding — the property of the Hopi tribe.

For most Diné living on the Hopi portion of the Joint Use Area, the partition was the final blow. In the preceding years, a federal court had ordered an 85 to 90 percent reduction in their livestock herds, and banned new construction or even repairs to existing structures. Faced with what they have dubbed a “surrender or starve campaign,” at least 12,000 Diné have left their homes over the last two decades. Some went to nearby cities like Flagstaff and Gallup, or towns at the edge of the sprawling 17-million-acre Navajo reservation. Others settled in government-issue houses on the so-called New Lands, a collection of ranches to the southeast acquired expressly for displaced Navajos. Lifelong subsistence sheepherders, the relocatees struggled to cope with this new world of bank accounts and bill collectors, and more than a third lost their houses within a few years.

A thousand or so Diné, meanwhile, refused to budge. In 1996 — as expenditures for the relocation program surpassed the $300 million mark — the United States and Hopi governments offered the remaining Navajos a last-ditch alternative to eviction. Instead of leaving, families eligible for relocation benefits could sign a 75-year lease that would permit them to stay, albeit under the watchful eyes of a Hopi Tribal Council that had long viewed them as trespassers. Given this Hobson’s choice, more than 100 families opted to lease. A few — residents of 13 homesites, representing extended families numbering in the hundreds — have continued to say no.

As the deadline looms, federal officials insist they’ll do all they can to avert a showdown with the resisters, saying no one will be evicted without a court hearing. But activists who have taken up the Diné’s cause fear the worst, and some are making plans to head for Arizona in time to try to prevent it. That the drama has no clear villain — some blame Congress, some the coal industry, others a lingering land dispute between the tribes themselves — only underscores the tragedy still playing itself out.

Big Mountain sits atop a rolling tableland called Black Mesa, beneath which lie an estimated 20 billion tons of high-quality, low-sulfur coal. To the Diné and their supporters — a far-flung network of activists who fear the loss of yet another ancient, indigenous culture — coal is the unmistakable source of the troubles in this endlessly anguished land. They assert it was John Boyden, a well-connected Utah lawyer with ties to both the Hopi Tribal Council and the Peabody Western Coal Company, who in the 1970s seized on century-old tensions between neighboring tribes to concoct a phony range war, then pushed Congress into dispossessing some of the last surviving traditional Navajos in the name of property rights. Peabody, they say, craved the coal that Southwestern power brokers sought as fuel for the burgeoning, air-conditioned American Sun Belt. The future lay in Black Mesa’s vast mineral wealth, and the Diné were in the way.

Though Peabody actively mines coal from Black Mesa, paying the Hopi and Navajo tribal governments a combined $45 million a year in royalties and other fees for the privilege, the company notes that it currently has no legal rights to mine on Big Mountain and claims that it has no plans to do so. Both tribal governments explicitly absolve the company of responsibility for the trauma of relocation.

Whatever the cause of her suffering, Roberta Blackgoat is finished with lawyers, Navajo tribal leaders, and people from the government. Posted on her front door is this handwritten notice:


Blackgoat and 68 other Black Mesa residents declared their independence in 1979, charging that the United States and Navajo tribal governments had “violated the sacred laws of the Diné Nation by allowing exploitation of natural resources.” Now 83, Blackgoat is small and frail. Her hearing is almost gone, her sight impaired, her voice barely above a whisper. Her squat, stone house is without electricity or running water. The nearest paved road is an hour away; in winter, the maze of rutted dirt truck trails hereabouts is nearly unnavigable.

Like other Diné, Blackgoat subsists on her sheep and her corn and her weavings, which she sells through a collective comprising four generations of Navajo women. Because she has refused to sign a lease, she is forbidden to gather firewood, or even maintain the pair of outhouses hidden among the junipers, without a permit from the Hopi tribe. Her sheep and goats are subject to impoundment by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which retains range-management responsibilities throughout much of the Hopi half of the Joint Use Area — the Hopi Partitioned Land, or HPL. And still she stays. She does so, she says, “for the whole universe.”

“They’re greedy to get the minerals out from here. But we need to have Mother Earth to be healed,” says Blackgoat, one of the few Diné elders with a working command of English. She explains that the Navajos’ ceremonial hogan, an east-facing round hut of wood and mud, mirrors the geography of Black Mesa and its surrounding Four Sacred Mountains. This coal-rich mesa is the altar of the Diné. The coal is Mother Earth’s liver.

“What we’ve been told is that you, the Diné people, are gonna sit on the Mother Earth’s liver and the heart and the lung,” Blackgoat says. “This is where you have to hang on tight, real, real tight. This is what the sacred prayer and the sacred song is telling you. Can’t be break it, can’t be leave it behind and go to another place. This is gonna keep you here. You gonna be strong enough to hold this song and carry it on to your children, grandchildren, on, on through the generations.”

But only a few Diné have found the strength to hang on for the past quarter century. One of these, Pauline Whitesinger, became an enduring symbol of the resistance in 1977, when she chased off a work crew that was trying to route a barbwire partition fence through her grazing land. Now in her 70s, Whitesinger admits she’s been worn down by the years of livestock impoundments and constant visits from the BIA, the relocation office, the Hopi tribe, and the sundry other entities that have taken an unwelcome interest in her future.

“They have different uniforms,” she says, speaking to a visitor in Diné through an interpreter. “Some have blue uniforms. Some have tan-colored uniforms. Sometimes they come with a suit.” She sends them all away. But she is tired.

“I feel sick at times. At times I can’t eat and I can’t sleep,” she says. “I think of this every day. I think of what’s gonna happen or when are they gonna come and take me. Because of these things I fear for my life. I fear every day what’s gonna happen.”

The roots of the Navajo relocation date back to 1882, when President Chester Arthur set aside a 2.5- million-acre rectangle covered with juniper, piñon, and sage for the Hopis “and such other Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon.” Those other Indians turned out to be mainly Navajos, some of whom had already been there for centuries, and many of whom had arrived following their release from the New Mexico internment camp where Colonel Kit Carson had forced them after the Long Walk of 1864. Before long, the agrarian, sedentary Hopis, the first to settle the area, were encircled by the pasturing, far more populous Navajos.

Eighty years after Arthur’s executive order, a three-judge federal panel, ruling that the government had tacitly settled Navajos on most of the original reservation, gave the Hopi tribe exclusive rights to a 650,000-acre triangle in the southern portion. The remaining land, the Joint Use Area, would be shared equally by the two tribes.

But influential Hopis felt they had shared too much already. With lawyer Boyden’s help, the Hopi Tribal Council — the governing body sanctioned by the federal government, but never recognized by Hopi religious leaders — began a relentless push for formal partition of the newly designated Joint Use Area, demanding property rights to half of its 1.8 million acres. Seizing this opportunity, Boyden launched a public relations blitz to create the impression that Navajo overgrazing of Hopi territory was about to ignite a range war. He then crafted a bill to split the Joint Use Area evenly: Navajos on the so-called Hopi Partitioned Land would have to relocate, as would any Hopis on the Navajo Partitioned Land (NPL). Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater steered the resulting Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act through a Congress pleased to defer to him on an obscure dispute in his own back yard. Goldwater guessed that 6,000 Navajos would need to be removed from the HPL, an effort, he said, that would last 12 years and cost taxpayers $40 million. President Gerald Ford signed the bill into law in December 1974.

Fewer than 100 Hopis lived on the NPL, and they left without incident. Things went less smoothly on the HPL. In 1991, a group of Navajos filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging violation of their religious freedom. The suit, known as the Manybeads case, prompted the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to name a federal mediator to seek a belated compromise. Years of negotiations eventually yielded an “accommodation agreement” that, once approved by Congress, would allow Navajos still on the HPL to remain there under Hopi jurisdiction.

In 1996, John McCain, Goldwater’s successor as Arizona’s senior senator, authored the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Settlement Act, which ratified the accommodation agreement and set a February 2000 deadline for the feds to deliver “quiet possession” of the area into the hands of the Hopis.

“I am encouraged that the terms of this settlement, including the long-term leases to Navajo families, also will lead to a resolution of the longstanding tensions between the Hopi Tribe and those Navajo families who wish to remain on the Hopi Partitioned Lands,” McCain wrote to a colleague in the months prior to the bill’s passage in October 1996.

His optimism was premature.

Many Diné insist that tensions on the hopi Partitioned Land, far from being resolved, are escalating. And many are finally giving up. Of the 112 households holding 75-year leases as 1999 began, at least 50 have already relinquished their right to remain, and have asked the relocation office to move them to new housing off the HPL.

Kee Watchman, the Diné delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, is himself a reluctant leaseholder. “Our human rights, our religious rights have been totally violated,” he says, adding that despite the change of heart of so many leaseholders, many Diné believe they have no choice but to stay on their traditional lands, even if that means living under Hopi rule. “What they were saying is, ‘I think the best thing to do is to sign the accommodation agreement so we can still sit on our lands and then we can still fight for our rights. Otherwise, if we are evicted, there’s no way we can fight back.'”

Eugene Kaye, the Hopi chief of staff, bristles at the mention of Navajos’ rights. “People forget that we have rights out here as well,” he says. “It’s our land, and on any land that’s yours you should have jurisdiction. And a few people shouldn’t really be upstaging what we feel is good for the Hopi people and anybody who wants to stay here under our laws.”

Watchman isn’t the only leaseholder who finds life under accommodation onerous. Many Diné — who regard sheep as a gift from the Creator — live in constant fear of having their livestock impounded by the BIA, which enforces a ceiling on the number of animals Navajos on the HPL may possess. That limit, set in stone by McCain’s legislation, authorizes somewhat more sheep than the Diné were allowed before the agreement, but far fewer than they say they need for meat, wool, and ceremonial purposes.

It’s also far below the true carrying capacity of the land, according to some Navajos. “I can just go out there and look at the range and figure that out,” says Roman Bitsuie, who heads the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, an agency of the Navajo tribe.”It doesn’t take any scientist to do that. If you know the land, you can tell.”

Beyond grazing issues, some signers resent the daily pressures of Hopi governance. Leaseholders, for example, face revocation of their lease for three convictions in 15 years of such infractions as cutting green timber without a permit. Accustomed to open spaces, they feel boxed in by their three-acre homesites. They’re angered by a restriction on burying their dead on the HPL, and they fear that ancient holy sites may be destroyed, as they say has happened in the existing Peabody lease area to the north. (Peabody claims it turns over to the tribes any artifacts it unearths.) Like the resisters, many are convinced the Hopis and the BIA are out to drive them off the land to make way for future mining expansion.

“The elderlies are speaking for their rights, pleading, ‘Don’t do this to us, the land is very sick,'” Watchman says, adding that the forces that control his fate “don’t want to listen. They look at the money. They don’t respect our religion. The only way is for the coal mine to be stopped, totally.”

Peabody operates two adjoining strip mines, yielding about 12 million tons of coal annually, under agreements with the two tribes. The Navajo Nation reaps nearly $30 million annually for its mineral rights, and the Hopi tribe gets approximately $10 million. The contracts run through 2005 and 2011, respectively, with options that could extend them for another 15 years.

Beth Sutton, Peabody’s spokeswoman, insists the firm has no plans to move southward into Big Mountain, dismissing such talk as “absolutely ludicrous and absolutely untrue” — conspiracy-mongering by “antimining groups.” But Hopi official Kaye won’t rule out the possibility that his tribe will eventually lease its portion of Black Mesa for mining, calling that a decision “for people and leaders that are coming behind us.”

In any case, he says, Peabody has nothing to do with what’s happening now on the HPL, which is “an issue between the families and us, nobody else.” And he has little sympathy for those who refuse to accept accommodation.

“To me, it’s no longer a dispute, because the court’s already settled this. It belongs to the Hopi Nation. So that part’s already decided,” he says. “So what else is there to look at? How can you say that you’re not going to move when it belongs to somebody else?”

Yet the core dispute — between the laws of commerce and property and what the Diné believe to be the laws of the Creator — may lie beyond the jurisdiction of Congress and the courts. To Roberta Blackgoat and other resisters, any suggestion that they might leave the land is unthinkable. “They’re digging the Mother Earth’s liver,” says Blackgoat. “The sacred song is going and they’re digging, digging, digging.”

And the clock is ticking.

Last April, McCain wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, urging them “to proceed carefully in the coming months to settle the relocation of remaining Navajo families in a timely and orderly process,” and to keep him apprised of their plans for ending the 25-year standoff.

“Obviously, everybody has the interest in mind that we need to be very careful,” says Jill Peters, McCain’s aide for Indian affairs. “We don’t want anybody to have to face forceful actions or for things to lead to any violent encounters between federal officials and the tribal members, or those who are supporting the tribal members.”

According to the Justice Department, it’s up to the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona to serve nonsigners with formal eviction notices once the deadline arrives. After that, resisters would get their day in court. Cathy Colbert, the department’s spokeswoman in Phoenix, says the process could take “weeks or months,” and that the deadline is “not a turning point at which something dramatic has to happen.”

“We don’t see February the first as any kind of magical number,” says Colbert. The Navajo resisters, she adds, “do not have to fear that something is going to happen to them or that they’ll wake up in the middle of the night to find that they’re being moved.”

Yet if the government hopes to avoid making martyrs of Roberta Blackgoat and her fellow resisters, the question is how long it can put off the day of reckoning. “There has to be a transfer of those areas to the Hopi tribe, and obviously the people there in that process either sign the lease agreement or relocate,” says McCain aide Peters. “There really is no in-between at this point.”

The resisters’ supporters would seem to agree with the last point, at least, which is why they say they’re mobilizing to get activists to the HPL to thwart any attempt at physical eviction. Blackgoat and Whitesinger, meanwhile, await the knock on the door, singing and praying that they may live out their lives as Diné on Big Mountain.

“I don’t see why he doesn’t like Indians — he’s living on Indian dust,” Blackgoat says of McCain, whom she blames for pressing the relocation deadline. “Like I mentioned to a Hopi man [who] came up to me and said, ‘This is not your land.’ But now how can it be that it’s not my land when my great-great-great-ancestors been born here, and they’ve been buried here and they’re over here where I live. And you could see in all these graveyard sites, all the bodies have turned to dust. Our great-ancestors’ dust is right here. Their prayer is still here, their holy song is still here. It’s been carried on, on, on, and it’s still here. So this is what is holding us tight here.”

Sometime soon, under the law, the song must end.

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Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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