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The author is Professor of Theology at the Protestant Institute for Social Work of the Rauhes Haus in Hamburg. He traveled through the USA and Central America within the framework of a field research semester.

On a summer's day, armed rangers appear at the remote farm on the Indian reservation in Arizona and confiscate the sheep in the corral. Chris, the boy taking care of them, shouts "Don't touch these sheep! I'm responsible for them. They're our living. Taking away our sheep is taking away our life." As he seems intent on "doing what must be done to keep these sheep from being taken away," the rangers take him away as well.

This is not the first time that the sheep have been taken away and Lawrence, Chris's uncle, forced to buy back his possessions. Before we fall asleep under the open sky, he tells me that he has already paid $900 once before under the same conditions. A gigantic sum for people who live on the milk, meat, and wool of their sheep, who somehow find something to graze upon in the desert! He can at least be happy not to be forcibly "resettled," with his house knocked down to the ground, since the Navajo all of a sudden need a permit to remain where they've lived for generations and where, as they say, "their umbilical cord is buried." Repairing houses or building new ones has been forbidden for 30 years in any case.

The process of treating the Navajo in their ancestral land as undesired aliens began with the Relocation Act of 1974. The official title itself, "Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Settlement Act," shows that the Americans are painting the act of expulsion as the well-meaning mediation of a territorial dispute between two Indian tribes. Continual frictions between the Navajo and Hopi Indians following the creation of the reservation in northeast Arizona in 1882 are being settled, according to this official version, by splitting the land formerly used by both into two halves, with the approval of both tribal councils. The Federal government has allowed itself to spend almost half a billion dollars in its role as selfless mediator to allow those inhabitants residing in the wrong half to resettle elsewhere painlessly. After the Accomodation Act of 1996 gave the remaining inflexible inhabitants the chance to obtain the right to remain for 75 years, the operation could be considered closed. If only it were not for these traditional "Dineh", as the Navajo call themselves, who do not give in, who consider the land between the four mountains holy and have acquired in the meantime a colorful medley of supporters. They told me an utterly different story. Indeed, upon reading the official version, one runs up against things that do not square with one another. Were tens of thousands of white people in the USA ever forcibly resettled due to property conflicts? If the Hopi settle in villages in the heights, growing grains on the surrounding fields, and this area around the Mesas has already been handed over to them as District 6 for their exclusive use, while the Navajo pasture their sheep by families strewn sparsely across the wide lowlands, how is it that they dispute over land possession? Why, in an area supposedly used by both, must over 12,000 Navajos be resettled, but only a few hundred Hopi? Why do tribal councils approve regulations boycotted by their elders and appealed in courts and international committees?

Chris leads me along neck-breaking paths to meet some of those who refuse to budge, stubbornly proclaiming themselves a "Sovereign Dineh Nation." Chris himself has lived for a while in Phoenix, learned English, and won some distance between himself and traditional customs; he listens to modern music and chooses his girlfriends himself. When we reach Pauline Whitesinger and Kee Watchman, however, even the young automatically obey the unpretentious self-worth and authority that these figures radiate. They decide what will be said and when, and they set the rhythm of the meeting, including the pauses in which nothing is said. Pauline, unconcerned by prohibitions, is in the midst of building a new hogan, one of these traditional houses of clay and wood, cool in summer, warm in winter, unprepossessing from the outside, comfortable from the inside. "We Hopi and Dineh were good neighbors," says Kee Watchman, "and we married each other. We have the same religion: we have inherited the earth and the elements of nature. The rangers were the first to drive the people against each other. Now there are no more common meetings." For him, there is no Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute. They have used and passed on the land together since time immemorial. From the beginning, traditional Dineh and Hopi have fought against division of the land and resettlement. The lines of conflict do not run, as the post-colonial power would have it, along a tribal boundary between rebellious natives now marked by a barbed-wire fence over 400 kilometers in length. The Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya confirms, "The Navajo help the Hopi to take care of the land. We do not want them to go. This is their holy land as well." From whom do the "old-fashioned" woman and man want to shield their land?

When one takes some time to study the history of the conflict, it becomes apparent that the disputes have a strange way of piling up around the appearance in the 50's of the Mormon lawyer John Boyden, hired by the leading Mormonized Sekaquaptewa clan, who reactivates the Hopi tribal council and initiates in its name a series of suites, contracts, and laws. Boyden brings an interest into play carefully left unmentioned in the official documents: He also represents the Peabody Coal Company, a firm of which the Mormon Church owns eight percent. In 1966, he secures a 36-year lease. The Black Mesa, the northern part of the reservation, is the largest open-cast coal mine in the world with an estimated deposit of 20 billion tons of low-sulfur coal. The leasing of the land is made palatable to the tribal council by yearly payments of about 50 million dollars. Now Peabody pumps five billion liters of pure water out of the ground in order to cheaply force coal sludge to the Mojave power plant 280 miles away to serve Las Vegas and Southern California's immense demands for energy.

Feisty, elderly Katherine Smith from Big Mountain in the middle of the Black Mesa tells us how the inhabitants see things: "I live about 30 miles from the Peabody coal mine, where they've put a fence around us. According to the law, we're in prison. We cannot repair our house, even when the windows break. We're not allowed to do it since it's against the law, against the flag. And our house is so old that all of our floors are falling apart, and all because of the mine. You know, they explode the ground with dynamite so that the houses shake. We still have sheep, a horse, a cow and a goat. That's what we live on. Good breeders can live from their sheep, from their wool. That's how we get gold to buy food or gas, and that's how the people in Washington, D.C. are trying to do us in. The stick our sheep in the pen and the horse and the cow, and they're not allowed out again. If the break out, they take them away from us. They call that 'impoundment,' and we have to buy our own animals back." Nor do shovels and bulldozers come to a halt before burial places and holy sites.

The resistance of the traditional Dineh and Hopi has not been directed only against the effects of the coal mining, but also, from the beginning, against mining as such. Back in 1970, the Hopi leaders explained: "The greed of the white man for material possessions and power has made him blind to the suffering that he brings on Mother Earth with his search for that which he calls natural resources... Today the holy land where the Hopi live is being violated by people who want to have the coal and water from our soil in order to create more energy for the cities of the white man. This cannot go on any further, for Mother Nature will react in such a way that almost all humans will experience the end of life as we know it."

In addition to ecological effects -- air pollution, sinking groundwater levels, contaminated springs -- and the intrusion into religious relationship with the land came deliberate harassment, which was to make the life of the remaining Navajo difficult: the prohibitions on building and repair, confiscation of herds, and imprisonment at the hands of the paramilitary ranger troops. It was not the first time that the Indians had the dubious luck of seeing the apparently worthless wasteland that belonged to them suddenly prove to be valuable, whether it be for coal, uranium, or water content, as a location for an observatory, or as an area for atomic testing. John Boyden, who himself has earned millions in this business, represents what can be seen as a coalition of profiteers, among them segments of assimilated Indians. They enjoy political protection. When this background is recognized, the supposed Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute emerges as a conflict in which the commercial exploitation of the land is being pushed through against those of its inhabitants to whom the land is holy and who want to watch over it. The Relocation Act of 1974 does nothing to make this context visible. Boyden hires a public relations firm based, as he is, in Salt Lake City, that mounts a big campaign, not shrinking from spreading false information, that succeeds in propagating in public the image of permanent violent hostilities and the threat of a war over pasture land. In other words, he invents the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute. The Arab oil embargo and a hysterical desire for self-sufficiency in the USA create pressure for the securing of resources. Against this background, the "mediation" of 1974 can be read as the fatal project -- funded by taxes -- for purging the settlement area of the Black Mesa of its inhabitants standing in the way of commercial development. "The US government think we are nothing. We have no rights. Our leaders fail to protect our rights -- in the name of profit. They just sacrifice us," rails Maxine Kescolli.

The business of legalized expulsion does not run as smoothly as planned, however. One year later, when the legally determined demarcation line is drawn, Katherine Smith grabbed her shotgun and dismantled the fence single-handedly. In 1986, the greatest part by far of the Dineh remained in the Hopi Partitioned Land, President Reagan personally stepped in to prevent the ugly, unforgettable image of forced deportation of elderly and their families in the presence of 2000 supporters, the image of "a 70-year-old Dineh grandmother openly involved in an armed conflict with the armed forces of the United States of America," as one of the opponents caricatured it. Instead, a long, wearying process was initiated in order to give the threatened forced measure the appearance of a voluntary decision via a compromise. This led to an Accommodation Agreement and its legal ratification in the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Settlement Act of 1996. This built the bridge for the stubborn Dineh to secure their land for 75 years by signing a lease with option to renew, but the lease limits living areas (1.2 hectares), farmland (10 ha), and cattle herd size and makes the expansion of pasture land, the collection of herbs and wood, and the visiting of holy sites dependent upon permits.

The Dineh are also subjugated to civil and criminal Hopi jurisdiction, with which they are well experienced. Few would sign such a contract voluntarily; a Dineh assembly rejected the agreement by a vote of 207 to 1. "We don't want someone to supervise us while we sing our prayers. We want to have peace and harmony. We want to be free on our own land to do what the holy people who brought us here gave us to do. We want our children to grow up and be at home here. We want our roots and seeds to be here. We want our clan here from generation to generation. We do not want to lose our identity." (Avery Denny, medicine man, Dine' College, Tsaile, AZ)

Confronted with this farsighted thinking in terms of generations, the age-old technique of individually pacifying those immediately affected fails to go far enough. The signatures often had to be collected with a great deal of coaxing, generally beefed up with increased reprisals, in order to be accepted as the lesser evil. In order to avoid the oppression and the imminent forced resettlement, most of the remaining Dineh ended up signing or choosing "voluntary" resettlement by the imposed deadline of 31 March 1997. Contrary to the promises, a minority of those resettled were placed in lands of equal value, many in an urban environment which they could not handle, or even in the area around the Rio Puerco (the so-called "New Lands"), contaminated in 1979 by America's worst radioactive pollution (Church Rock, spill of a uranium tailings dam).

To the frustration of the advocates of a simple solution, however, not everyone went. Despite the quantitative success of a mixed strategy of pressure and promises, the small remainder of those remaining is turning out to be a problem that could be embarrassing. Their refusal to yield is interfering with the solution of the problem by the gradual disappearance of of those affected. In addition, they represent those expelled, of whom more than 12,000 are registered, and up to 30,000 are estimated, and prevent the injustice done to them from being swept under the rug. They bring the cultural conflict to a focal point. The tough kernel of their resistance is proving itself to be their religion. This is what prevents them from surrendering to the daily pressure to give in or even to join in the profits.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that their claims of civil rights infringement on the part of the USA focus on religious intolerance, even though they also complain of offenses against their ecological, social, and political rights. The unyielding resistance of the traditional Dineh and their numerous supporters had an astonishing success in the beginning of February 1998 in bringing about the on-site visit of Abdelfattah Amor, the Tunisian special correspondent of the UN human rights commission. In any case, this was the first time that the USA was subjected to such an investigation on its own soil. Whether the UNO will actually bring itself to pick a fight with the USA over civil rights violations is doubtful. However, the official version that would paint the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute as being wisely mediated by the government will hardly hold up under the new public examination. The delegation of large non-governmental organizations, including the world congress of churches, the national church council, and the United Methodist Church, which were witnesses to the meeting with the Dineh elders, will also do its part. Kee Watchman, one of the Dineh speakers, put his radical opposition to the interference of the federal government and his own "self-rule" concisely: "The tribal councils are created by the government. We reject them, since they introduce laws made by humans."

In his eyes, the churches are no better, since they are focused on assimilation, especially the Mormons who are rumored to have stolen Indian children in order to change the way they are raised. Now what is the law not made by humans followed by these traditional Indians? "As Dineh, we see things as a whole," is the description chosen by Avery Denny. "Many people call it a 'primitive attitude' or a 'savage attitude,' but that is our intelligence: entering mutual relationships with nature and the elements, with the energy in these different creations, the natural resources we have... We still believe in the natural cosmic order of life, which still guides and rules our life, and we call it 'natural law'... It is the air we breathe, that is our belief, which gives us life. If that's not what it were for, the air would be dead. The water we drink, that is our belief. And the nutrition, the pollen we take and eat, taht is our food, and that is our medicine. That is how we remain healthy, that is our well-being. And then the fire, the light we have, the sunshine, the fire that burns in our hogans, represents our homeland..."

Even Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya does not let himself be steered off course by the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute. Although his own tribal council is entangled in the coalition of profiteers, he can make out the real authorities and the cultural driving force of the conflict: "The Great Spirit made us the administrators of this land. This is what our prayers and ceremonies are concerned with. You, on the other hand, are poisoning and raping and destroying the land with your coal mining, the uranium extraction and the power plants -- all on holy land! And you are trying to chase off the last few Indians so that nothing will stand in the way of this dirty business... There is no Hopi-Navajo land dispute. There is only the boundless greed of the white man. We, the traditional, do not recognize the Hopi and Navajo tribal councils established by your government as puppets so that you can sign over your land. And only because the energy companies want the coal and especially the uranium to make nuclear weapons. The white man is the one who must go."

The staged land dispute seems to me the fatal undertaking of replacing this feeling of belonging with the concept of property. The Hopi leder Martin Gashweseoma has made the point at issue clear: "Everyone should know that it's not the Navajos who taking away our land but the United States. Hopi and Navajo concluded peace long ago and sealed their agreement with a medicine bundle. Through the puppet governments, the tribal councils forced on us by the United States, the illusion of a conflict has been created on the basis of a false modern concept of land title." Boyden, with his juristic concept of property, meaning exclusive and total disposal, and his legal appropriation strategy, started the dispute and with it a dirty game in which losers and winners will play it out until everyone has lost. The USA claims that it, not the Indians, is the full owner of the land and degrades them feudalistically to mere tenants, to whom the land can be handed over or from whom it can be withdrawn, according to its own interests. The coalition of profiteers is degrading the land to a commercially exploitable resource, with no regard for the human and animal inhabitants who live in it.

A small group of resolute Dineh is fighting out a battle against the USA, a world power. In doing so, they represent more than the demand for autonomy of a small minority. The religious bond of these ancient believers in the land that is to be held as holy stands fundamentally opposed to license to evaluate land strictly according to market value and the principle of unlimited exploitation. Whether a modern human rights idea and organization, even when it includes religious, social, and ecological rights, can protect or even keep alive an indigenous culture like those of the Dineh is in question. The call for help of these people, who are fighting not only for their survival, but for the survival of another form of coexistence of earth and human, deserves not to echo unheard.


(c) January 2000. Ihmig, Harald. Hamburg, Germany.
All Rights Reserved.
Published with permission from author.


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