Plundering Natural Resources; Water On Indian Lands

by Blue Evening Star

A Hopi woman from the Water Clan makes her way down a well-worn trail towards a spring at the bottom of the mesa. Here, her ancestors have always gathered water for the ceremonial cycle of the Hopi.

In an Edward Curtis photo from 1911, the Hopi spring is large and filled to the brim with clear water. More recent photos from the 1960s show the same spring still full of the precious water that brings life to the Hopi people and their neighbors the Dine´, who have sustainably maintained their cultures within the limits of this harsh, high desert environment.
To this day, intricate ceremonies call rain to thirsty corn plants, and each Hopi village still bears the name of the spring that sustains it. Similarly, the traditional Dine´ live a life where every aspect—from the hogans which house them to the sheep and plants which clothe and feed them—represents a spiritual connection to the earth. In order to bequeath a habitable world to the coming generations, we all need to become part of a new, planetary society in which a spiritual connection to the earth and to each other is infused in everything we do.

The Miracle of Sweet Water

But today, the people whose lives for many generations have revolved around the miracle of sweet water in the high desert are finding that water steadily retreating into the ground. Why are the springs drying up? Surely the people living in the region are not the cause. The Hopi interpret these physical changes in the landscape as a sign of the growing imbalance between humankind and the rest of the natural world.

The Navajo Nation resides on a 26,000 square-mile reservation in Northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The Hopi Tribe resides on a 4,000 square-mile reservation almost smack-dab in the middle of the Navajos. Current statistics show the total Navajo population to be 210,000 with 16,000 residing at Black Mesa in Northeast Arizona. Black Mesa is also the traditional home of 9,000 of more than 11,000 members of the Hopi Tribe. Their only source of drinking water is groundwater from the N-Aquifer (or Navajo Aquifer). This aquifer was originally created by ancient glacial action and is now—only slowly—recharged by rain and snow.

Black Mesa is four thousand square miles of plateau land in the shape of a giant hand. Its shape was formed by the Pleistocene lake it once was. Today it is the largest coal deposit in the United States— some twenty-one billion tons of coal with an estimated value of $100 billion.

In the 1960s, both the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribal Council signed strip-mining leases for the coal in Black Mesa with a consortium of twenty utilities that had designed a new coal-fed energy grid for the urban Southwest. This consortium—called Western Energy Supply and Transmission (or WEST)—promised an unending supply of energy to Las Vegas, Arizona, and Southern California and great wealth for the Indians, who by law the federal government has a special trust and responsibility to protect.

John Boyden was the engineer of the plan which opened up the coal at Black Mesa to energy development in what has been called "as outrageous a scenario as we’ve seen in Western resource development." Boyden, with knowledge of both tribal council politics and Bureau of Indian Affairs policies, went around the Hopi mesas contacting all the boarding school graduated (thus English-speaking) Hopi men in order to assemble a Tribal Council which would deal with him. This Tribal Council was unrecognized by most of the traditional Hopi and is frequently referred to as a "puppet government."

Documents now prove that the Hopi’s Tribal Attorney, John Boyden, was secretly working for Peabody Coal Company at the same time he was negotiating the coal lease. Boyden advised the Hopis to approve the pumping of groundwater to transport coal. In order to make coal production in a remote area economical, the owners of the Mojave Generating Plant won the rights to purchase acre-feet of water for $1.67 per acre-foot, and the price of coal was reduced to a fraction of the cost of coal sold on federal lands. Not surprisingly, Boyden had not done particularly well for his Hopi client in the lease provisions: low royalty rates (the two tribal councils split a royalty rate of thirty cents per ton at a time when the government royalty rate for coal extracted on public lands was $1.50 per ton), few environmental safeguards (thus allowing strip-mining of the coal), and no provision for renegotiation. The worst, however, was the provision that allowed Peabody to pump four thousand acre-feet of water per year to run the coal slurry line. (Note: An acre-foot of water is the amount of water re-quired to cover one acre to the depth of one foot. It is equal to 325,851 gallons.) When the Department of the Interior (which holds all tribal lands in trust), approved the coal lease, an "escape clause" was included that requires the Secretary of the Interior to force Pea-body to find another way to move the coal if the slurry line has an adverse effect on the N-Aquifer.

Plundering Natural Resources

In 1966, Kennecott, an international mining company, bought Peabody Coal. Four years later, John Boyden moved his law offices to the tenth floor of the Kennecott Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. John Boyden remained the Hopi’s lawyer for thirty years. Although he presented himself as a humble country lawyer working for the Hopi pro bono, his fees—paid by the government out of monies held in trust for the Hopi—totaled $2.7 million, a figure revealed only after a Freedom of Information suit was filed by the Native American Rights Fund.

Strip-mining is done in the following manner: The land over the mineral deposit is removed using buckets the size of a four-story building which peel the top soil off in mile-long strips. (This instead of burrowing into the earth and a specific area where there is a mineral seam.) Bulldozers shape the underlayers into enormous slag heaps, and workers dynamite the exposed mineral bed so that steam shovels can load up the coal to be transported away. By the time the coal is extracted, the land has turned gray; all vegetation has disappeared; the air is filled with coal dust; the groundwater is contaminated with toxic runoff (such as sulfates); and electric green ponds dot the landscape. Sheep that drink from these ponds in the dawn are dead by high noon. The Black Mesa coal headed for the Mojave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada is transported by coal slurry line. The slurry line operates like a giant garbage disposal. Huge chunks of coal are ground into nugget-size pieces through enormous steel blades, mixed with water, and sluiced 273 miles through a pipeline.

Since 1970, Peabody Coal (or Peabody Energy) has pumped 40 billion gallons of pristine water from the N-Aquifer in order to transport pulverized coal in this slurry line. Peabody has also constructed 222 impoundment ponds holding more than 4,400 acre-feet of water (equal to another 1.4 billion gallons) that does not flow into local washes or percolate into springs. The poisoned water is neither reclaimed or reused. The Peabody Coal Mine, covering a 103-square-mile region is the largest privately-owned coal mine in the world. The slurry line to Laughlin is the only slurry line remaining operational in the country. It has become a prototype for similar operations in the third world.

Navajo Stumbling Blocks

In an article that succeeds in making plain the complex problems of Black Mesa, Judith Nies ("The Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Black Gold" summarizes the impact of the strip-mining at Black Mesa in the following way: "Today, forty years after the strip mining of coal began, the cities have the energy they were promised, but the Hopi and Navajo nations are not rich—that part of the plan proved ephemeral. Instead, Black Mesa has suffered human rights abuses and ecological devastation; the Hopi water supply is drying up; thousands of archeological sites have been destroyed; and unbeknownst to most Amer-icans, twelve thousand Navajos have been removed from their lands—the largest removal of Indians in the United States since the 1880s."

The Dine´ have always been the stumbling block in this sweet Black Mesa deal. Thousands of Navajos had settled on Black Mesa, and John Boyden had to find a way to convince the energy companies that the lease would not be contested. Boyden introduced a bill in Congress creating a special court to allow the Hopi to sue the Navajo to clear title for the coal lands. The bill, called The Hopi Land Settle-ment Act, passed in 1974, creating the Hopi Navajo Joint Use Area, Hopi Partition Land, and Navajo Partition Land. The bill provided for nine hundred acres of land to be given to the Hopi. These Hopis did not live over the coal at Black Mesa. It provided for the relocation, at tax payers’ expense, of twelve thousand Navajos and sixty Hopi who did live over the coal.

PL-93-531 was passed to allegedly settle a land dispute between the Dine´ and their Hopi neighbors. But for hundreds of years before Europeans came over to the Americas the Dine´ and Hopi people have lived in balance with one another and with Mother Earth. In reality, the dispute was fabricated as a way to obtain easier access to strip-mine the Black Mesa coal. Many families of sheepherders, weavers, silversmiths, and farmers on Black Mesa are now in their third decade of resisting relocation. A search on the Internet using the key words Black Mesa will turn up many invitations from these traditional Dine´ people to come and visit them and even live with them in order to witness the covert war that is being waged against them. This includes: bulldozing homes and ceremonial structures; impounding sheep, horses, and cattle; destroying water wells; restricting wood gathering; disallowing the construction or renovation of homesites; restricting ceremonies; restricting medicinal herb gathering; ongoing surveillance and intimidation by police and federal agents; and harassment by low-flying military aircraft.

What happens to the people when they do comply with the federal government’s directive to leave their ancestral homes on the Hopi-Partitioned Land and relocate? Many of those who did comply were relocated to the "New Lands" south of Sanders, Arizona. This land is contaminated by the worst radioactive waste spill in North America. (It is downstream from the disaster at Church Rock, New Mexico, 1979.1) Cancer, birth defects, and suicide rates are very high. People live in tiny trailers side by side, hundreds of miles away from their families, with no sheep, no sacred sites, no cornfields, no ceremonies. Many of the elders speak little or no English; people who have no experience with a cash economy find it impossible to get jobs, and many are forced into homelessness. The relocation law required the federal government to provide community facilities and services to minimize the adverse social, cultural, and economic effects of relocation, but instead these people were discarded and forgotten once they were removed from the land so that the coal was opened up for the plunder.

While the strip-mining leases have brought minimal income to the miners and the people of the area in general, the costs in health and well-being have been astronomical. And yet the tribes who made the deal with WEST now find themselves economically dependant on the money generated from the coal, in spite of the fact that they should be making a lot more money than they are. For example, the Hopi have never been paid for the right-of-way of the coal slurry lines through their land. In a 2001 TIME magazine article titled "Indians Vs. Miners," then Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor, Jr. was quoted to bluntly concede that "basically, we don’t have an economy. We’ve become dependent on the Peabody income." Payments from Peabody account for three-fourths of the tribal council’s $19 million annual budget, which pays for services like schools and health clinics and salaries for about 500 council members. Peabody makes millions of dollars annually from the mine, while the traditional people living on the land being mined, or who have been relocated because of it, never see a cent of the profits. Families living only a few miles from the mine have to haul water for themselves and their livestock from up to 20 miles away to survive.

In order to comprehend how this polluting, unfair, unethical, and devastating coal nightmare has come to pass, one has to delve into the history of reservations in this country. The trend for plundering natural re-sources is becoming increasingly popular as natural resources dwindle world-wide. Many precedents for accomplishing this have been set in the history of European colonization of North America.

A False Illusion of Plenty

In the late 1800s, as the tide of western expansion came sweeping across the country, it carried in its forefront government agents who explored, mapped, and surveyed the mineral riches of the western territories. In 1882, President Chester Arthur received reports about vast resources of timber, copper, and coal in the Arizona Territory. The area was home to eleven hundred Hopis, three hundred Paiutes and a few hundred Navajos. He was not safe-guarding Indian residency when he issued an Executive Order to create a reservation three quarters the size of Connecticut there. President Arthur was following the well-established practice of transforming wilderness into public domain lands, making them readily available for prospecting leases. By creating this reservation, these lands were no longer available for white settlement, and therefore the mineral resources could be kept in the control of the government.

In our modern era of transnational corporations, the travesty of separating indigenous peoples from their natural resources has become prolific and routine. Environmental, social, and politically-desperate moves by greedy monopolies who are fixated on keeping the fossil-fuel culture thriving are producing a false illusion of plenty for a relatively small percentage of the world’s population. Meanwhile, the majority of citizens benefiting from the unsustainable energy produced have no idea what is really going on. As former United Nations Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali observed "Cultures which do not have powerful media are threatened with mass extinction. The instruments of mass communication remain in the service of a handful." So the truth of a scenario such as Black Mesa becomes a "centuries old tribal dispute" without any mention of coal, or a story about those bad environmentalists who are going against the economic needs of our nation’s poorest citizens who rely on the money from Peabody Coal. Even when media attempts to tell the story of Black Mesa, it is hard to tell a story of legal theft where there is no smoking gun.


"I recall from where I lived, where the mining is now taking place, I recall the land was plentiful with vegetation and there were natural springs in various areas near Peabody. But now since the mining started it seems like it destroyed the shallow water table which used to have natural shallow springs. Now the land is dry, the shallow wells are dried. It’s beginning to have an impact beyond the mining operation…other natural springs, close to the mining area, are becoming dry and the vegetation is dry, is being destroyed." ~ Ms. Mary Gilmore, submitted at the village of Kayenta (translated from the Navajo)

A Hopi individual on an average uses 10,000 gallons of water per year, while a golf course in Phoenix uses 185 million gallons of water per year, and the Peabody slurry consumes 1.3 billion gallons in a year.
(from the Sacred Land Film Project website,

"When you turn on a switch and the light goes on—think of us and our water." ~Vernon Masayesva, Executive Director of Black Mesa Trust

1For more information on the Church Rock waste spill:
www.radioactivist org/abquart.pdf
Gallup Independent, July 19, 1988, “Rio Radioactive”