Why are Hopi rangers impounding sheep at Black Mesa?

The latest in a fraught relationship between Navajo and Hopi in northern Arizona.


Caroline Tohannie is an 84-year-old great-grandmother who raises sheep and weaves traditional Navajo textiles in northern Arizona. On Oct. 22, her sheep were confiscated. 

Tohannie has lived her entire life on Black Mesa, an arid, tawny chunk of land once veined with glittering coal and now studded with slag heaps and waste ponds. Both Hopi and Navajo claim it among their ancestral homelands; before Europeans showed up, the tribes’ relationship was “one largely of peaceful co-existence and intertribal cooperation,” writes historian and Navajo activist John Redhouse. The Hopi lived in agricultural villages atop the mesa, while the more transient Navajo grazed their livestock below.

When the U.S. government forced Navajo into internment in the 1860s, those who managed to escape fled to what’s now Hopi land at Black Mesa. Later, encroachment from white settlers forced more Navajo onto the Hopi reservation, and what eventually became an ongoing, century-long land dispute was birthed. It culminated in the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which drew an arbitrary line down the center of Black Mesa, splitting it between the two tribes. Navajos living on Hopi land were forced to relocate, as were Hopi living on Navajo land. 

Ultimately, more than 12,000 Navajos were forced from their homes, compared to just 100 or so Hopis. It was the largest forced relocation since the 1880s. 

But some Navajo families refused to leave. They became known as the resistance, and in 1996 were granted the right to stay on the land they’d occupied for generations — as long as they signed a 75-year lease and agreed to abide by Hopi laws. At least seven families, including the Tohannies, refused to sign, unwilling to undermine their right to live in perpetuity on the land their ancestors had grazed. 

Meanwhile, a debate over natural resources that would deepen the Hopi-Navajo divide was escalating. The same lawyer who negotiated the land settlement was also working for Peabody Coal, and in the 1960s, the company began strip mining Black Mesa and building the country’s first coal slurry pipeline over countless Hopi cultural sites. The project also depleted a billion gallons of groundwater a year for decades, which some blame for exacerbating the effects of the current drought. Roberta Blackgoat, another Black Mesa elder, expressed a widely-held sentiment when she told journalist Jerry Kammer that “it is our feeling and the feeling of our Moqui (Hopi) allies that the American government created the land dispute so that it would be easier for American energy corporations to exploit the vast mineral resources in the land.”

That’s the history. What’s happening today is no less fraught. And no one knows that better than Clayton Honyumptewa, director of the Hopi’s Department of Natural Resources.

Honyumptewa is used to being the bad guy: For the past 28 years, he’s been charged with the unpleasant task of making sure that traditional sheepherders abide by Hopi rules and keep their herds below 28 sheep. Many Navajo resisters consider this number unfair, and herds of 200 or more aren’t unheard of. So periodically, Honyumptewa forces families to cut back or have their sheep impounded. In 1998, he helped the Bureau of Indian Affairs cut the number of livestock from 23,000 to 10,000.

But since then, the number has again grown, and the reservation has been desiccated by drought. “We haven't had any good rains or snowfall,” Honyumptewa says. “The number of animals has depleted the vegetation, which has caused a lot of erosion. It’s getting worse and worse.” 

So in late October, Honyumptewa decided to put his foot down. “We’ve given up too much already,” he says. “We’ve lost a lot of land and it’s time that we say this is it: We’ve got to save our land and resources.”

Hopi rangers identified 43 Hopi ranchers and roughly 35 Navajo who were exceeding grazing permits, and issued citations. Those who didn’t reduce their flocks had sheep impounded — including Caroline Tohannie and her daughter, and several other Navajo elders. 

But this is where the story diverges. Navajo activists say that all 65 of Tohannie’s sheep were confiscated; Honyumptewa says only 56 were. Navajo say that their own elders, particularly those who didn’t sign the lease agreement, were unfairly targeted; Honyumptewa says Navajo and Hopi were equally affected. Navajo say the sheep impoundments were sudden and violent; Honyumptewa says there was no violence and ample warning. 

For now, Honyumptewa is respecting Navajo requests for a 40-day grace period, but after the holidays, he plans to go out again and make sure herds are within Hopi limits. “Sometimes I don’t sleep thinking about (this),” he says. “A lot of (these families) have become real good friends and I feel for them, but the law’s the law and we have to carry it out.”

Navajo activists are continuing to protest the impoundments. “These women are elders,” said one woman who asked not to be named. “They don’t speak English, they don’t read or write. The way they’ve raised their livestock is based on traditional knowledge, not conventional agricultural practices, and they’ve done well and managed their flocks all these years.” Now, she adds, their lives are being torn out from under their feet. 

It’s tempting to conclude that the current situation represents the dying embers of a long and bitter land dispute, but that may not be the case. The threads of history that have created this knot and the arbitrary fences built in the desert are not so easily untangled. “We’re completely surrounded (by the Navajo reservation),” Honyumptewa says. “We’re not going anywhere and the Navajo aren’t going anywhere. It’s not going to end here.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

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