"Environmental activists and organizations are among the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty." So said Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. in late September, shortly after he joined northern Arizona's Hopi tribal council in "unwelcoming" environmental groups from those tribes' lands, which sprawl across portions of three Southwestern states.
The national press regurgitated the story with this explanation: Job-starved Indians are fed up with white urban outsiders who put flowers and bugs above economic development.
Except that many of those leading the green charge on the reservations -- and included in the "unwelcoming" resolution –– are themselves tribal members, looking out not only for the environment, but also themselves. They belong to grassroots groups such as Dine CARE, Black Mesa Water Trust and To' Nizhoni Ani. Some of the groups are new, others are well-established, and all demand a shift in the way tribal governments care for their lands. Now, those governments are lashing back, raising the question of just who is threatening whose sovereignty.
The tribal governments have let outside corporations -- most notably Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton -- gouge their land for coal, in exchange for jobs and royalties, since the 1960s. The tribes got the short end of the stick (the Hopi's counsel in the negotiations was on Peabody's payroll at the time); the mines pushed dozens of families out of their homes and off their grazing lands; and the slurry line that moved coal from Black Mesa Mine to Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., swallowed huge amounts of water and dried up reservation wells.
That sour relationship has erupted into an out-and-out fight in recent years. In 2005, environmental and tribal groups helped shutter Mohave (and, as a result, Black Mesa Mine). Though it cost the tribes hundreds of jobs and millions in revenue, Hopi and Navajo activists fought against Peabody's proposal to reopen the mine in 2006. And when Peabody got its permit in the waning days of the Bush administration, nine environmental groups -- six based on either the Hopi or Navajo Nation -- filed an appeal, which is still pending.
In the meantime, a political drama related to the coal fight unfolded on the Hopi Nation. In 2007, the Hopis elected the green-leaning, anti-Peabody candidate Ben Nuvamsa to be their chairman. For the next year and a half, the tribal council (the same one that passed the recent anti-green resolution) tried repeatedly to force him from office on various grounds, finally succeeding in late 2008. Now, a new Hopi grassroots group is holding the council's feet to the flames for failing to hold an election to replace Nuvamsa. Vernon Masayesva, executive director of the Black Mesa Trust and former Hopi chairman, says the whole saga is unconstitutional, and calls it a "coup" by "Peabody puppets."
A similar fight has raged over the 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock power plant proposed on the Navajo Nation. Most of the tribal council favors it (jobs, revenue), while many Navajo citizens, led by 20-year-old Dine CARE, oppose it (environment, health). Opponents scored a huge victory this fall when, just two days before Shirley unwelcomed greens from the Rez, the EPA sent Desert Rock's air permit back to the drawing board, which could kill it altogether.
Dailan Long, who lives near the proposed plant site and works with Dine CARE, sees the Hopi resolution and Shirley's response as disingenuous, at best. Shirley's trying to get an outside corporation to build a power plant on the reservation without having any guarantee of ownership in the plant, he says. "In that way, it's colonialism. Shirley's regime is selling off sovereignty."
Neither Long nor Masayesva seems too worried, though. Masayesva says the resolution will bring needed attention to the most recent fight over Black Mesa. And Long's not sure it even applies to him.
"When we first heard about it, we weren't necessarily bothered by it," he says, "because we don't see ourselves as environmentalists. We just see ourselves as citizens, working out of necessity."