Seeking justice for all on the Colorado Plateau

Charles Wilkinson's "Fire on the Plateau ..." is a tribute to the land and people of the Colorado Plateau, especially the tribes

  • Book cover of "Fire on the Plateau"

  • Charles Wilkinson signing books in Paonia, Colo.

    Dustin Solberg photo
 

In 1971, a young Anglo attorney named Charles Wilkinson went to work for the Native American Rights Fund. Back then, Navajo high school students were traveling up to four hours a day to attend schools in Blanding and Monticello, Utah. Younger children stayed on the reservation, but their schools were in substandard buildings, with poorly paid teachers.

Wilkinson was given the job of changing how Navajo children were educated. As it turned out, he didn't have to go to trial. The statistics and depositions from parents that he and his colleagues gathered convinced the San Juan County School District to build high schools on the reservation rather than go to trial.

At the very end of Fire on the Plateau, which is Wilkinson's tribute to the Plateau and its people, he writes: "One Navajo girl had earned a basketball scholarship at Stanford. Another went off to play at Arizona State." Such achievements would have been impossible in the old days of four-hour bus rides, which ruled out after-school activities of all kinds.

Compared with the rest of his career, Wilkinson's civil rights work may seem small. After all, this is the man who coined the phrase "The Lords of Yesterday" and wrote books to dramatize the West's domination by 19th century laws governing water and mining. He also served on the secret committee that drafted President Bill Clinton's proclamation creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And he is one of the few people in the nation who has a good grasp of the 125,000 square-mile Colorado Plateau and its handful of people.

But at the heart of Wilkinson's achievements lies his concern for Indian people, not as personifications of a mythic past, but as peers he works with, jokes with and learns from. He wrote in an earlier book that when he drives past a hogan on a lonely reservation, he thinks to himself: A family lives there trying to make a life, the way my family is trying to make a life.

His affection and respect for Indians has a strong connection to his love of the land. He does not believe the Colorado Plateau can be healthy unless it is home to healthy tribes. When we exiled the Indian nations, he believes, we paved the way for the devastation of the Colorado Plateau.

In this memoir, Wilkinson struggles with two father figures. One is his own father - a brilliant but mentally ill man who tormented his son until the day Charles escaped to college. The second is John Boyden - a Salt Lake City attorney who dominated the Plateau after World War II by serving as attorney to the Hopi and Ute tribes. It was Boyden who convinced the Hopi to lease their coal and water for a very cheap price.

It was a crucial decision, Wilkinson writes. Without Black Mesa coal, the Central Arizona (water) Project would have been nearly impossible. Wilkinson says that this should have given the Hopi great leverage. They could have gotten more money, or perhaps better protected their culture, or the Plateau's air and water. Boyden, a powerful Democratic political leader in Utah, knew that the Hopi held a very strong hand, and yet he let them sign disadvantageous agreements.

Why? Wilkinson tells us of a late-night call he got from a research assistant. She had found, in files released after Boyden's death, papers proving that the attorney had worked for the Hopi and for Peabody Coal Co. at the same time. His work for the Hopi was public; his work for Peabody was a closely guarded secret. Clearly, he had sold out the Hopi to Peabody.

Wilkinson is repelled by what Boyden did, but even so finds things to admire. Like Wilkinson, Boyden enjoyed being with Indians. He learned about them and from them. He took his children on visits to the tribes. Why, then, did he betray them?

Wilkinson has a theory: "Just as important as his (Boyden's) ambition, I have come to believe, was his certitude, the absolute conviction that he knew what was best for society ... This certitude, if not the conflicts of interest, put Boyden in a large body of people from Brigham Young to Nathan Meeker to John Collier to Wayne Aspinall to Stewart Udall - men who knew to an absolute certainty what was right for the Colorado Plateau. Conquest by certitude."

To what greater good did Boyden sacrifice his Indian friends and violate the most fundamental legal ethic? Wilkinson calls it the Big Buildup. The cities around the plateau - Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, even Los Angeles - wanted growth. So they reached into the Plateau to mine Black Mesa coal, dam Glen Canyon, and build large and polluting power plants.

Occasionally, those behind the Big Buildup were blocked. Kaiparowits coal is unmined, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and the Green and Yampa rivers in Dinosaur National Monument remain undammed, Junction Dam in Canyonlands was never built.

But they succeeded often enough that today Albuquerque, Salt Lake, Phoenix and Las Vegas are among the fastest-sprawling places in the nation.

The trajectory is up

Wilkinson chose to entwine his life with the Colorado Plateau just as the Indians were learning to protect themselves and their land and resources, and just as the environmental movement was beginning to protect the federal lands. And so, despite the mournful history it relates, this is a triumphant book, especially for the Indians. As societies, the tribes literally came back from the dead.

Wilkinson especially admires the Hopis' low-key, thoughtful approach to life, and he adopts it in this book. He unblinkingly describes brutal and destructive actions, and yet he never becomes righteous or harsh. In tone, he is like writer John McPhee, treating everyone with respect.

Given his passion for the Plateau and its people, how does he escape indignation and righteousness? His evenness probably comes from a working lifetime spent subject to the discipline of the law. Wilkinson understands that strongly held beliefs and certainty are not enough. A person must also have rules of procedure, an ethical canon, a feeling for fellow human beings and the natural world, and a true history. The law gave him some of what he needed. His involvement in the natural and human history of the Plateau gave him the rest.

His background in the law and his sense of history make it possible for him to argue convincingly that the 1879 expulsion of the Utes from western Colorado did not have to happen. The Utes were people the settlers could have worked with. They had two wonderful leaders: Ouray and Nicaagat, also known as Jack. Unfortunately, we had Nathan Meeker, who was filled with certitude about the kinds of lives the Indians should lead. So the opportunity was lost, and the settlers' lives in western Colorado and Indian lives on the Uintah Reservation in Utah were and are still today the poorer for it.

Because Wilkinson was part of the secret group that laid the foundation for President Clinton's creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, his book implicitly asks whether we repeated the same mistake in 1996. By imposing a solution, did environmentalists and the nation at large display the same "certitude" that the Udalls, Congressman Wayne Aspinall and others did in the creation of the Big Buildup? Did we roll over the small communities of southern Utah the way the Indians were rolled over a century earlier?

Certainly, we had cause, or at least an excuse. Utah voters have not selected leaders like Ouray or Nicaagat. Instead, Utah has chosen mostly short-sighted demagogues who have never accepted the idea that the nation as a whole has an interest in the federal lands. So perhaps Utah deserved the national humiliation of having a president go to the Grand Canyon, in neighboring Arizona, in order to impose a national monument on Utah. Maybe it was the least we could do to repay John Boyden.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

 

 

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