Black Mesa – A Navajo Sacrifice Area

What if I told you there was a place where indigenous people were being exploited? That their historic rights were being taken away? That their religious freedom was completely violated? What if I told you it had been going on for over 30 years and that it was still happening with very little change? Would you believe it if I told you it was happening in the United States? Some of you may not be surprised, but some may be surprised to hear that the situation on Black Mesa has come to the attention of the UN council of religious freedom, has had many books, articles and publications written about it and yet, if you ask the average person in America if they know about it, inevitably the answer is NO. I have asked myself over the past 10 years, since I first heard this story, how can this be? How can a situation so grave, so unjust be so unnoticed by the people who live in this country, this country that is founded on democratic principles? For me the situation on Black Mesa has stood as a microcosm for the world at large. I have often said to myself, if this can happen to people in our own country, our own native people whom we should treasure, the caretakers of our country, those that came before us, etc, etc then some day, these actions will not be limited to them. It is a stepping stone, a harbinger of what is to be.

Black Mesa, also know as Big Mountain is a beautiful desert land out in the northeastern tip of Arizona. It is also a desolate land that is dotted with few homes and mostly sheep and other livestock. It is home to the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. These two peoples have been peacefully sharing and living off this piece of land from time immemorial. But the United States government, who holds these peoples in its charge, has drawn its own borders in 1974, which has left over 10,000 Navajo (Dine’, “The People”) and about 100 Hopi families on the wrong side of the line. This land is held sacred to these peoples. It is the physical representation of Mother Earth. So when it came to light that these boundaries were being drawn in order to exploit the land for the resources (coal, uranium and natural gas) in the earth below the irony was too great. The people whose land was taken from them did not even benefit from the resources themselves – they have no electricity, running water or plumbing, not even a phone. They make their way in this world as they have always done, through their livestock and agriculture. Yet this very existence was now threatened to light up the likes of Las Vegas and Phoenix and to water their many golf courses, in the desert. All the Dine’ know is that the wells have dried up, the wildlife is gone, and the plants for the sheep to graze on are becoming more and more scarce. Like most of these stories, these sad events and measures were agreed to by corrupt elements of the home government, greedy leaders who line their pockets at the expense of their own people.

The United States Government decided to solve this homelessness issue by relocating these Dine’ families that now found themselves on the Hopi Reservation, to track housing in suburban Phoenix. This did not work for obvious reasons such as the fact that most of these families do not know how to survive in urban areas. Many could not afford their mortgages because they could not find jobs, especially because a large percentage of these relocatees are elders who speak no English and are illiterate. Therefore, many of these elders, who know no other way to live than by herding sheep and living off the land started resisting this relocation and are still after thirty years fighting for the right to remain on their ancestral lands.

The US government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then called the Hopi Tribal Police to action having them implement and carry out laws to make those resisting families lives harder, to get them to leave of their own accord. Things like impounding their livestock, because they are trespassing, not allowing them to collect firewood, as it is stealing, right down to bulldozing their houses and sacred spaces.

In 1998 I was called to action by my conscience. I went out to Black Mesa to spend several months with an elderly couple, to help them with their daily tasks and to keep watch over them. Winter is an unforgiving time on the Mesa. Many elderly resisters die in the winter because temperatures reach below zero, and with wood being so hard to get, many get sick, don’t have wood to keep them warm and they freeze. I also went to bear witness to the atrocities. It had been documented that families who had a white person staying with them were not harassed by the Hopi Police as much, as white people in this country have a voice in the media and if anything happened to a white person up on the Mesa, it would be all over the airwaves. What this situation needed and has always needed is media attention within the United States.

During my time there I had the absolute honor of staying with the *Smith’s.(*I have changed their name in this article, for their protection). But as my time with them continued they were known to me as “Grandma” and “Grandpa”. My purpose for going to stay with them was to help them and see first hand what was going on up there, but I think in the end, they helped me even more. When a person of relative privilege goes to a place where the basic amenities and comforts of home are absent, it forces you to become what is really inside of you, to call upon your deeper nature. It is an experience where you find out what you are really made of. It gets down into the core of you and just simplifies everything. No more taking for granted running water and flushing toilets or a hot bath. Things and the value of stuff become unimportant as you are more focused on the things that really matter in life. How much does one really need in order to be content and happy? What is happiness? Does it come from things, or is it better to feel gratitude after a hard day’s work herding sheep and cutting wood; that beautiful exhaustion that comes from having an actual relationship with the land and the earth’s creatures. I learned to talk to myself and to listen. I wondered to myself, what are the issues in my life that I would be willing to fight for?

I helped Grandma and Grandpa too. I was there when the Hopi Ranger came with a semi-automatic, into their home and began questioning them in a language he knew they didn’t understand. I was there to take care of the goats and the sheep when Grandma needed to go to her heart doctor, 3 hours away in Phoenix. Alone and afraid, I brought the herd back home when the snow and ice were so deep that by walking through it all day ice balls had formed on their fur and weighed them down so much, they could no longer walk. Relying on this new inner strength, I found a stick and started beating the snowballs off the goats until I could get them up the hill and to home and safety.

I was also there for humor. The first time I participated in slaughtering a sheep, I was given lots of little jobs to do. Slaughtering a sheep and preparing the meat afterwards is a process that takes all day. The Dine’ eat every part of the sheep. I watched as Grandma sat emptying the bowels of the sheep into old coffee cans and cleaning the intestines in hot water. She took parts of the fat layer that had dried in the sun and began wrapping the cleaned pieces of the intestines around it. She then put these packages into clean water to keep them fresh. She motioned to me to do something with the bowl of water with intestines and the dirty coffee can. I could not figure out why she wanted me to put the clean intestines in the dirty coffee can. So I pretended to do it and she nodded. So I dumped the intestines in the coffee can. I had almost dumped it all when she started yelling. She came over to me with another bowl of clean water and motioned for me to take the intestines back out of the coffee can and clean them. I realized then that all she had wanted me to do was dump the dirty water out of the cleaning bowl into the coffee can. I felt horrible. But instead of being mad, it became the joke of the duration of my stay. She started calling me “dygyss” (some form of “stupid” or “git”) and even when we had visitors she would tell the story of how the stupid bilaga’ana (white girl) dumped clean food to be eaten into sheep dung. Maybe she still tells that story…..

I received many gifts there, but the most treasured gift they gave me was the gift of humbleness. The gift of knowing how much space I take up in the world. The gift of knowing more is not better. It is quality over quantity, always and the gift of gratitude. That humbleness has nothing to do with weakness, but is perhaps the most powerful human attribute of all-silent power. To give when you have nothing and never presume to know anything. Since then I give thanks that I don’t have to sleep with one eye open, worry about freezing to death or having my home torn down when I am away. After all the pain and sadness these Dine’ resistors had experienced at the hands of outsiders, that they accepted me enough to invite me into their home, eat the food I made and made a place for me in their family is an overwhelming feeling; how much more advanced and forgiving and understanding people who are at the brink of losing everything can be. It really changed the perspective of how I think. Even now, almost ten years later, as I sit here writing this, the tears still well in my eyes because I have so much left still to learn and I wish I could have done more. When I was there, I even considered for a time just staying with Grandma and Grandpa and continuing helping them as my life’s work. But I knew I had to get back to my own life, and that my job was to bring these lessons back with me, and implement them into my own life, away from the serenity and simplicity. And to tell people what is happening up there, on a beautiful desolate land full of people who “Walk in Beauty”.

As an update, things for the most part have remained the same on Black Mesa. Grandpa died about 5 years ago, of old age. Grandma, somewhere in her 80’s continues to live out her years, on her own, on her piece of land with her sheep. In November, she suffered a minor heart attack after a harassing confrontation with a Hopi Ranger while herding her sheep. To read her statement go to: (Link: [http://www.blackmesais.org/elderstakeaction.htm] ) Currently her case is on continuance and the pre-trial date is March the 12th.

“When you think of it, in all 50 states human rights and civil rights are reported each day on television. Each day the situations across the sea are reported. We have the same situation here. We are humans but our laws have been broken. All of these people’s rights have been violated. They are broken.” —Percy Deal, Dine’, Hardrock Chapter