Ten years ago, Jennafer Yellowhorse picked up an out-of-print archeology book titled A View from Black Mesa and read about a vast trove of artifacts unearthed on a lonesome plateau of Navajo land near the Four Corners. “Right in my backyard,” as she says, “but I’d never heard of it; no one had. So I started asking questions.”
Her questions would lead to the heart of the Southwest’s energy infrastructure and the largest archeology project ever conducted on U.S. soil.
In 1967 Peabody Energy needed to clear land it was leasing on the Navajo reservation to strip mine coal, but ancient Indian dwellings and graves were in the way. So, as required by law, it hired a team of archeologists and they dug up roughly 1.3 million Navajo, Hopi and ancient Anasazi artifacts – including the remains of 200 Native Americans – which have been warehoused at two universities ever since.
The warehousing of human remains is a particular affront to many Navajos and Hopis, who believe the spirits of their ancestors cannot rest until their bones are properly buried. "Digging them up was a violation of natural laws. They were never meant to be in a museum,” Norris Nez, a Navajo medicine man, said through a translator.
Nez and others are calling for the return of the human remains so they can be buried with prayers and ceremonies. But traditional Navajos are at odds with their own tribal government officials over the artifacts. Ron Maldonado, historic preservation officer for the Navajo Nation and the official with the authority to repatriate the vast collection of artifacts, argued, “there’s no place to put them.”
Frustrated by the lack of response from their tribal officials, often seen as little more than corporate shills of the coal company, one of the major sources of revenue and jobs for the tribe, a group of Navajos and Hopis met in September to voice their concerns. “My only treaty is with the Great Spirit. I am ruled by the sun and the stars and the earth, not by these idiots,” said Black Mesa resident Louise Benally, gesturing to a portrait of Navajo Nation president Ben Shelley and speaker Johnny Naize on the wall. (Earlier this month, Naize, along with 77 tribal officials, was brought up on unrelated bribery charges, according to the Navajo Times.)
Now, the bones are at the center of a controversy between Navajos and Hopis, who want to rebury their ancestors, and a collective of government and business interests that have been dodging the artifacts issue. Some tribal members contend that Peabody Energy is violating a federal law that governs the repatriation of artifacts and remains.
Peabody Energy funds the curation of the artifacts and says it is taking good care of them under all applicable laws, including ones that were enacted after the dig ended in the 80s. Under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), museums and other facilities are required to inventory their Native American artifacts and return them to federally recognized tribes that request them. The law “applies to the collection proactively and retroactively,” Peabody spokesperson Beth Sutton wrote in an email.
But Mark Wagner, director of the collection at Southern Illinois University, said the artifacts have never been catalogued in compliance with the law.
Last April, Yellowhorse (a white woman who married and divorced a Navajo man) found an unlikely ally in her efforts to bring the bones back to tribal land – Peabody Energy employee Brian Dunfee. He offered to broker an agreement between Peabody and tribal members and emailed Yellowhorse photos, including metal shelves lined with hundreds of cardboard boxes containing human remains. Yet in recent weeks, she says he has not returned her phone calls and he did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The coal mined on Navajo land fuels the Navajo Generating Station, which leases the land and supplies energy to the Southwest’s major cities – Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson.
The artifacts issue has dredged up long-simmering resentment against Peabody, which has gutted native land, used over a billion gallons of water for mining activities and – with the removal of over a million artifacts from ancestral lands – “erased the footprints” of ancestors, Hopi activist Vernon Masayesva wrote in an op-ed in the Navajo–Hopi Observer.
The uproar over the artifacts coincides with the planned expansion of Peabody’s Kayenta coal mine, which sits atop more ancient burial sites. A loosely organized group of activists and residents say that it threatens hundreds more ancient dwellings and burial sites. In the weeks to come, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will hold a series of meetings to develop the framework for protecting the artifacts still in the ground in an operating permit that will go into effect in 2019.
Now, Navajos and Hopis want a place at the table as the coal company and federal government determine future mining plans. And they have seen at least some success. Within hours of an announcement to protest the first official scoping meeting this fall, officials opened it to the public.
A YouTube video shows government and coal company officials looking on at the meeting, arms folded across their chests, as Masayesva said, “This is not going to be a simple process anymore. We're going to raise a bunch of questions at the scoping meetings, we're no longer going to be silent and – I can almost guarantee you – this process is not going to be finished by 2019.”
Leslie Macmillan is a contributor to High Country News. She tweets @leslieannmac.