29 August 2007

Coal & Black Mesa - Sheepherding on the Navajo Reservation, Arizona


After a stormy night of being kept awake by howling coyotes & barking dogs down at the coral, I wake again suddenly, alert to strage noises and an intense pink pre-dawn glow filling the hut.

Strange yelp and moans are emerging from under the woodpile, along with new smaller canine whimpers, so I go an investigate. The small dog is having her pups. As the sun breaks the horizon another tiny voice is added to the throng and off in the distance the coyotes begin to sing.

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I'm in Arizona out on the Navajo/Hopi reservation herding sheep for a Navaho elder.

What brings me here is that there is coal under these arid lands, lots of coal - and the usual swath of environmental and cultural destruction that comes with its curse. Its a very complex situation out here, involving the ancestral homelands of two indigenous peoples, so as a visitor I wouldn't presume to understand it enough to summarise it here. But what is clear is that it's white man & coal that the root of the problem. I'll quote summery from the Black Mesa Indigenous Support web-site.

"In 1974 the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 93-531 allegedly to settle a so-called land dispute between the Dineh and their Hopi neighbors. This law required the forced relocation of well over 14,000 Dineh and a hundred plus Hopi from their ancestral homelands. The "dispute" being settled by PL 93-531 was, in reality, fabricated by the US government as a way to obtain easier access to strip-mine one of the largest coal reserves in North America. The land known as Black Mesa is home to thousands of traditional sheepherders, weavers, silversmiths and farmers. For hundreds of years before Europeans came to the Americas the Dineh and Hopi existed in balance with each other and with Mother Earth."

I am here to help a family who have been resisting the relocation since the 70's. Many resisted and were harassed until only a handful remain. In Star Mountain Valley only Ida and her sister, and two of their children, still live here.

"We had a good life one the reservation. We lived in harmony with the land. Now we live with the enemy. Our ways are gone. Relocation is termination of Indian people. Its like a storm that sweeps through a field of grass, blowing chafe here and there, uprooting plants, making them tumbleweeds, like the Anglos." - Relocatee

I'd been wanting to visit the area since a mob of us in Newcastle NSW occupied the offices of Peabody Coal in solidarity with the people here, when Peabody moved back into Newcastle after buying up Excel coal. Action report, video & photos on Arizona Indymedia.

From the Press release: “Climate change now is a global issue and the global community must now act to protect what is left of our precious environment. These coal companies have no place in our future the way they desecrate the earth and our sacred homelands. Peabody’s practices in America have shown that they have no regard for the earth their and they will do the same here. We will not let the desecration of indigenous cultures continue, here in Australia or overseas” said Arthur Ridgeway who is a traditional owner of the Pambalong area that now makes up Newcastle.

Its good to meet local folks & campaigners here in Arizona that had heard of that action!

Most of the time out here its Just Ida, who is 80, and her daughter Rose, who is 60. Other members of the family come out to visit as often as they can, but cannot move back out having previously left for school & work while growing up.

It was great relief that in my first few days here there was another supporter to show me the ropes. Eli is uber-competent guy who has spent many months out here over the last two years, supporting the family & sheepherding and he gave me the low-down on this very different lifestyle.

My Day involves getting up with the sun, helping make breakfast, feeding the dogs & horses, then taking the sheep out till it gets to hot and they want to come home.

The rest of the time is a mix of cooking, cleaning, fixing stuff, shopping runs and chilling out in the shade away from the sweltering heat. The thermometer gets well over 40.C in the shade some days!

Its amazing how quickly new things become important in life; water, sheep, the excitement of the feral horses coming by. It's the first time I've given my brain any time to slow down at all since those long beautiful mornings up my tree in Tasmania, about 6 months ago.


Water needs to be fetched from tanks at nearby springs, siphoning into barrels in the back of pick-up truck and then siphoning into various water containers at the house and coral. After many days of coughing up water I finally started getting the hang of it! One you've fetched, carried and siphoned every drop of water your using you really look at your usage 'how much do I really need to wash these dishes'? I'm not sure I'll look at water coming from a tap the same way again.

I hear from Ida that she used to grow squash & watermelon and many other things in the now dry sandy garden filled with tumbleweeds - the water table has dropped and they get significantly less rain than they used to. Their wells are drying up too. "The water is gone, deep. And the rain, not like it used to be, where is the rain?"

So a devastatingly familiar story unfolds where the indigenous people of the earth are feeling the most consequences of our carbon abusive society. The lower water table is from water mining for the slurry lines. Its also drying up the wells. Also there is the relocations to expand the mines. And then, at the other end end of the climate change cycle, their arid lands are becoming uninhabitable. So the people who we need to be learning off the most. who know how to live sustainablly on this planet are being pushed of their lands. Cultural genocide.

Of dogs and sheep

One of my main fascinations here is the pack of nameless sheepdogs who live with the sheep and come out herding to protect them. They aren't like British sheepdogs, and the visions of flat-capped farmers lounging on a crook shouting 'come-by' and the dogs doing all the works. They do their own thing, and protect the sheep from Coyotes and other dangers. You do the herding... and sometimes the sheep herd you!

Watching the dogs world is like something from west side story with fights to be the alpha male, who will hang out/tolerate who and the many pregnancies & pups.. Out in the hills they like to chase Jack-Rabbits occasionally one catches one and shares the spoils with the alpha.

Snake in the grass

Out with the sheep when the dogs go crazy - somehow different and more urgent then when chasing the jackrabbits. So I'm on my guard as I approach the frantic pack, when one of the dogs hurls it head back and into the air goes flying a shimmering S writhing in the sun.


The dogs finally calm down and wander off leaving one to guard its prize. I come as close as I dare and see its camouflage patterns in the grass - but dare not approach as it may be playing dead and the last thing I want is to be up close and personal with a pissed, venomous, sidewinder.

Black Mesa

Ida's Daughter, Verna, a long time campaigner and Author, spends much of he time out here and working on the campaign to resist the relocations. She took me out to see the nearby Peabody mine up on 'Big Mountain' to add to my talks & slideshows about the destructiveness & resistance to coal mining & infrastructure.

People up there who have been 'relocated' for the mines and they cover over the piits with fake weird hills where all the plant they have planted are dying.. and people live so close to the mines that their homes & lands are covered with a thick dust and their windows rattle & smash with the blasting.

"I realize your job is to call for People With Hearts for Black Mesa, Star Mountain, and the rest of Big Mountain, and we are thankful for everyone's tireless effort. Just as it is the same for the elders of Big Mountain, my mother's is a keeper of her legacy. We are in to defend their traditional duty. We will never ever fully understand their ultimate committment to protect their medicine bundles, prayers, sacred places, natural springs, plants, air, and all life, and we can be there when they need us. Our elders will never leave their homes, land, animals and their entire belief systems, and ecause of their stance, we must stand guard. Our years of struggle will never cease because of our elders. We are obligated to cherish them." -Verna Clinton- Star Mountain

For me most amazing thing about being in Star Mountain Valley, even beyond the stunning volcanic mesas, wide open skies and thunderous storms, is listening Ida's stories and wisdom. This might just be the strongest woman, and the strongest person I've ever met.

Black Mesa Water Coalition
Stop Peabody
Black Mesa Indigenous Support

Articles on Black Mesa:
American Indian Cultural Support
Talking Tree
Shundahai Network - Dedicated to Breaking the Nuclear Chain


Brian said...

After many days of coughing up water I finally started getting the hang of it! One you've fetched, carried and siphoned every drop of water your using you really look at your usage 'how much do I really need to wash these dishes'? I'm not sure I'll look at water coming from a tap the same way again.

Ah, would it were so... I lived in a backwoods cabin without electricity or running water across a winter back in 1980. My primary source of water was snowmelt when the creek froze, and I had to put my back into every drop of water I consumed. But that awareness fades so quickly when you are surrounded by abundance.

So thank you for this blog, it's important to have these reminders of scarcity, of dislocation and injustice, and stories of strength.

We have 100 months to stabilize CO2 emissions, or the world will be filled with stories of displaced peoples living upon land that no longer yields the things we need for life. We can no longer afford to take abundance for granted.


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Kate Savage said...

I'm currently writing about sheep cultures for my thesis, particularly the trend of environmentalists getting involved in sheep work in the West. Thanks so much for your story!

Is there any chance I could email you a few questions about your experience? I'm really interested in your thoughts on our relationships with other species, and how they interact with your thoughts on environmental racism and indigenous support. Please send me an email at savaging@gmail.com if this would be possible.

I am myself mostly vegan, but I love the ranching lifestyle and the way it allows me to interact so closely with other species. Thus, I have very confused ideas about domesticated animals, and that's why I'd love to ask you more about this.

Thanks again!

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