Indians vs. Greens?

  • Ned Yazzie was part of a group of Hopis and Navajos protesting against the Black Mesa Mine last year at the Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement office in Denver.

    Emile Hallez Williams
 

"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."


High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...