Last year, Duane "Chili" Yazzie nearly got himself thrown out of the Navajo Tribal Council chambers. Yazzie, who lost his right arm after being shot by a white hitchhiker in 1978, has long led the fight against racially motivated violence against Navajos in border towns. Now, as president of the Shiprock Chapter, a Navajo political entity similar to a county, he has a new target for his activism: His tribe's purchase of a coal mine from BHP Billiton, one of the world's largest mining companies.
On Dec. 23, as the tribal council speaker called for a vote on legislation related to the purchase, Yazzie broke in, speaking loudly in Navajo, his long, silvery black hair hanging in tight braids that slapped against his black leather jacket. The speaker demanded order, and Yazzie switched to English: "Mr. Chairman, you are out of order. Your council is out of order. I stand in opposition to this … circus," he said, smiling and ignoring the police officer pulling on his arm. "I call the score five to zero. The company (BHP Billiton) is five. The Navajo Nation is zero."
The mine in question, the Navajo Mine, sits on the northern edge of the reservation between Shiprock and Farmington, N.M. It supplies the Four Corners Power Plant, which has generated electricity for some 1.7 million homes across the Southwest since 1963. The plant was about to cut the amount of coal it bought from the mine by 30 percent, thanks in part to the impending closure of three of its units, and the departure of one of the plant's partial owners, a California utility being forced to ditch coal by the state's strict environmental laws. As a result, BHP Billiton wanted out of the mine.
That opened the door for the Navajo Nation to buy in, and a week after Yazzie's protest, it did. A tribally owned corporation became the new owner – the first time the Navajos have ever owned a significant piece of the energy infrastructure on their reservation. Some say it's a great deal for the tribe, one that will make money, preserve jobs and give the Navajos greater control over their natural resources. Others call it a huge mistake, especially given the coal industry's uncertain future.
The debate over the purchase reflects a larger rift in the tribe between "traditionalists," who say the coal industry is doing irreparable physical and spiritual damage to the environment, and "progressives," who want to buy into the industry and reap more of the profits. "I think for too long we tried to imitate the modern, Western society," says Yazzie, who has become the traditionalists' de facto voice. "But is that who we want to be?"