U.N. Investigates Navajo Removal
The United States is being investigated for violating the religious freedom of its citizens, the first time an international agency has ever made such a move.The United Nations "Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance," Abdelfattah Amor has visited the Navajo and Hopi Reservations to look into alleged violations that stem from a coal strip-mining operation in Black Mesa, Arizona, one of the country's largest coal repositories.As a Navajo, or Dineh, as we call ourselves, I am grateful for this recognition of our situation.Over the past 30 years, 10,000 traditional sheep-herding Navajos living near Black Mesa have been subjected to mass removal from their land, the desecration of 4,000 family graves and sacred sites, and repeated impoundment of their livestock and other harassment by Hopi officials, U.S. agents, and the Peabody Coal Company. Nine thousand have been relocated, some to land along the Rio Puerco river, the site of a uranium spill larger than 3-Mile Island. This is the largest forced removal of people in the United States since the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. It has cost U.S. taxpayers more than a quarter of a billion dollars.This particular issue has been looming over my family all my life. I think I was seven when I first understood that my grandparents' land was "frozen" -- which meant they could not have running water or electricity. We bathed at night by the light of a kerosene lamp in water hauled from far away.The land had been frozen by the courts when the Hopi Tribal Council sought title to it. Improvements were forbidden -- a homeowner could be fined, possibly arrested, for doing simple repairs. My grandparents and other elders were to be removed from their homes to make way for Hopi progress.Both the Navajo and Hopi are heavily dependent on the money from coal strip-mining -- a method so destructive that estimates are that the land will be uninhabitable for 75,000 years. Coal revenues account for nearly 40 percent of the Navajo Tribal budget and 80 percent of the Hopi Tribal budget.Peabody Coal, the British company that runs Black Mesa, also uses a slurry line -- where coal is mixed with water and sent through a pipeline -- to transport the coal across the desert. This has consumed nearly one billion gallons of drinking water from the Navajo and Hopi aquifer. All but the deepest wells are dry, and all Hopi wells may be completely dry in four years.Despite this, the coal company has been praised for its attempts to restore the land to its original state by planting trees. In this stripped soil, it is easy to see the neat rows of plastic pipes that mark the planting. Every one has a dead tree in it.All this stands in stark contrast to the lives of our elders, both Hopi and Dineh, lives based on a harmonious and respectful relationship with the land. The tribal governments' support for this form of "economic development" is a testament to the grinding poverty facing our nations. That our peoples have survived at all is a testament to the strength of spirit that our ancestors continue to imbue in us.My great, great grandfather, Big Horse, fought the U.S. Army in 1864 during the great calamity of our people -- the "Long Walk" when 4,000 Navajo were force-marched across the state of New Mexico and held in a concentration camp for four years .I learned about him in a book by my great aunt. She wrote, "Right now, the young generation knows nothing. They don't know stories about anything. They just think that this is our land and it was given to us by the Great Spirit. But their great-grand ancestors didn't tell them. This reservation was fought for.""I make this book for the young generation to read and know the courage of the Navajo warriors, what our ancestors did for us. ... They paid for our land with their lives." When I read this, I cried. It was as if I had always known this, as if I had carried the pain of their suffering deep inside me all my life and had only just realized the source.This connection with ancestors and the land their ancestors bequeathed to them compels the few Navajo families who have held out these 30 years. Recently, Chris Interpreter, a Dineh man from one of the communities near Black Mesa, came to visit our urban Dineh home. He told us how he had been arrested and beaten by Hopi Tribal Rangers when he tried to prevent them from impounding his grandmother's sheep. Later he was charged with trespassing on his own land.In response, he wrote to the editor of the Navajo and Hopi papers "I will pray with faith and hope that both tribes awaken from corruption and show the true beauty of tradition from their heart and soul."When the U.N. representative makes his report to the world, I will be listening and so will the old grandmothers, the uncles, the young people, the ancestors and those not yet born. Our connection to the land cannot be dismissed lightly.Big Horse remembered his father's words. "In Navajo, a warrior means someone who can get through the snowstorm when no one else can. In Navajo, a warrior is the one that doesn't get the flu when everyone else does -- the only one walking around, making a fire for the sick, giving them medicine, feeding them food, making them strong to fight the flu. In Navajo, a warrior is the one who can use words so everyone knows they are part of the same family. In Navajo, a warrior says what is in the people's hearts. Talks about what the land means to them. Brings them together to fight for it."Chris is a young warrior -- he uses words and so do I.Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in Winds of Change, an American Indian journal.