An article I wrote at the end of 2012 on environmental justice struggles in the Black Mesa region of Navajo lands and in the Gila River Indian Community in Phoenix.
Native Resistance: Not Past, but Present
If you type the phrase “Native Americans” into a Google word search, eight of the first ten hits refer to Native Americans in the past tense. At first glance, you may not find anything strange about this. And that’s exactly the point. There are 5.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the United States as of 2011. There are 566 living tribes, and that’s only counting those who are federally recognized. Yet, much of what is written and taught about Native Americans is historical or archeological—backward-looking. It’s rare to see news articles about current issues pertaining to native tribes. Even the Google image search brings up predominantly black and white photographs. It’s as if native peoples in the United States no longer exist.
I was born in Phoenix, and I’ve lived here all my life. I love the harsh desert landscape, creosote rain and big, wide skies. Like most Arizonans, I learned about the history of neighboring Native American tribes in school, and it was easy for me to think of those centuries of hardship with regret and indignation, but no guilt: that was ancient history. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the region, and the current problems that it faces. But that was before I really looked.
For many decades, native cultures, as well as the systematic injustices they have endured, have been treated as relics of the past. But a survey of current native affairs shows that these injustices have continued into the present, and have surfaced in new and insidious ways. Native lands are prime targets for toxic waste facilities and noxious coal plants. Native natural resources are being plundered while communities bear a disporportionate share of the costs and almost none of the benefits of this development. And in Arizona, unbeknownst to most of us, the Navajo people are living through the largest forced relocation of Native Americans in the United States since 1880. These stories need to be told. And when starting a journey of discovery, there’s no better place to start than in your own backyard.
In the following pages, I want to tell the story of what’s truly happening on Native American reservations today by focusing on two examples that are intimately connected to the Phoenix area: the Navajo and Hopi campaign against dirty energy in Black Mesa, and the Gila River Indian Community struggle against toxic waste and construction of a major freeway. In telling this story, I’ve tried to use the words of indigenous organizers themselves whenever possible; as those most affected and most invested in the fight, it is their story to tell. The narrative not told in the American press in one of environmental justice, a perspective that questions the unequal distribution of environmental costs and benefits, especially in poor communities and communities of color. “Environmental justice” as a concept transcends traditional environmental categories by defining the environment as anywhere where people “live, work, or play.” In fighting to protect their health and their communities, these indigenous groups are local examples of a global movement fighting these inequities, showing that they cannot and will not be relegated to the past. Native organizations are facing environmental injustices here and now, and they are looking ahead to a time when their struggles will lead to a better future.
The erasure and creative editing of native history by the dominant culture is a common and widespread phenomenon. For example, in Nigeria, the indigenous Ogoni people have long been dismissed as recent immigrants to the region, despite anthropological evidence to the contrary. The indigenous cultures of the American Southwest have been a particular target of historical revision. For example, the National Park Service has refused to recognize the current or historical existence of the Timbisha, a tribe that has lived in Death Valley for centuries. Just to the north and west, at the entrance to the Nevada Test site, a plaque recites the history of natives in the area, concluding, “The last aboriginal group to occupy the site was the Southern Paiute, who foraged plant foods in season and occupied the area until the coming of the Pioneers.” Both tribes still exist and continue to live near their ancestral lands, but visitors (and even residents) of the Southwest have been led to believe that these natives are functionally extinct. These recurring tales of rewritten history are almost always politically motivated: a people with no history and no future are easy prey to internal colonialism, the exploitation of natural resources by one powerful region over a colony-like periphery. In Nigeria, the erasure of history served to delegitimize indigenous claims to land, allowing the national government to seize Ogoni lands for oil exploration. Unfortunately, in the United States the story isn’t too different.
The story of the Black Mesa struggle begins back in 1884, when a large square of land in the upper Eastern corner of the Arizona territory was granted as a reservation to the Hopi and other tribes in the area. This region is dry and dusty, and was designated as a useless wasteland. However, there is one very important feature that distinguishes it from the surrounding desert: Black Mesa is home to the largest coal deposit in the entire United States. With the help of a lawyer who unethically served as council for both the Hopi Nation and the Peabody Coal Company, the U.S. government created rules that allowed each tribal council to lease their mineral rights by secret vote, as well as allowing the Hopi Nation to sue the Navajo in order to remove them from future coal mining sites. There is something ironic about this land, the sacred homeland of the Hopi and the Navajo, being designated as a barren wasteland by the very entity that wishes to exploit it. In fact, as Valerie Kuletz notes in The Tainted Desert, “the continuing designation of this resource-rich terrain as wasteland in fact represents a very important means of justifying the relentless plunder of the region through highly environmentally destructive extractive technologies.”
Before Peabody could begin mining, the company had to find a way to remove over 12,000 Navajos from prime coal country. The answer: using federal resources. In 1974, Peabody’s lawyer succeeded in getting Boyden’s Law passed, which transferred 900,000 acres of Navajo-occupied (and coal-bearing) land to the Hopi. The law also provided funds for forced relocation. However, it did not provide alternative lands, nor funds for easing the transition to urban life. The forced relocation continues to this day, as traditional Navajo who refuse to leave their ancestral lands are harassed and arrested by federal officials.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the mainstream media continues to portray the Black Mesa conflict as an age-old feud between the Navajo and the Hopi. This, too, is a familiar story. By rewriting history as a conflict between groups, powerful institutions use a “divide and rule” strategy, diverting blame away from themselves while legitimating their role of stepping in to “mediate” the problem. But most people in the two tribes refuse to buy in to this false story. Ruth Benally, a Dine’ elder, recalls a time when both tribes lived and worked together: “We used to visit our neighbors. Once at Adeii To we gathered socially with the Hopis to clean our sheep; it was a public event….Then the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) built a fence to divide us…”
In fact, many grassroots organizations of Hopi or Dine’ origin often work together on environmental justice campaigns. A prime example is Black Mesa Water Coalition, an organization founded by youth of many tribes and ethnicities, formed in 2001 to protect the Hopi and Navajo’s sole source of water from overexploitation by the Black Mesa coal slurry pipeline. At that time, Peabody Coal Company pumped over one billion gallons of water per year from the aquifer in order to transport coal via pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada. Working with their sister organization To Nizhoni Ani, BMWC successfully pressured the Navajo Tribal Council to restrict Peabody’s access to that water, effectively leading to the shut down of the Black Mesa pipeline and eventually the Mojave Generating Station in 2005.
However, that is only the start of a long and hard battle against injustice in the area. Despite the promise of jobs and royalty payments from natural resource development, unemployment on the Dine’ reservation is around 54%, and the median income is only $7,500 per year. While providing power to Las Vegas, Tucson and Phoenix, the Navajo nation still has 18,000 households without electricity, which accounts for 75% of all un-electrified homes in the U.S. The Navajo reservation still hosts seven coal-fired power plants, two enormous strip-mining operations, and the waste products of decades of uranium mining. Nikka Alex, a community organizer, has seen the health effects firsthand: “To see the families that I work with that have been affected by uranium, coal, oil, and gas—it’s devastating, that not only their health is impacted, but the land they live on, and their water.” The federal government and the power companies have not been interested in shifting to a clean energy economy. As Jihan Gearon, Executive Director of BMWC, writes, “The report [the U.S. Department of the Interior] commissioned on the Navajo Generation Station…didn’t even look at options for transitioning to cleaner energy.”
Faced with resistance from the powers that be, grassroots organizers of the Dine’ nation are taking matters into their own hands. BMWC’s Environmental Justice program is launching the Black Mesa Solar Project, a long-term plan to reclaim abandoned strip-mine land and cover it with solar panels, with the goal of offering clean electricity to reservation. Someday, the plan is to build Black Mesa into a green energy exporter, feeding clean solar power through existing infrastructure to major cities in the Southwest. Wahleah Johns, an organizer with BMWC, explains the vision behind the program: “The promise of solar creates the opportunity for looking at a new way of generating electricity that is not going to deplete our water, that is not going to have a human health toll on our people, that is going to be in line with our traditional values as Navajo.” The consistency with Dine’ teachings and faith is very important, explains Dine’ medicine man, Erick Willie: “Emphasizing renewables respects life, even renews life; life is regenerated.”
The first step in this project was accomplished in 2011, when the Crownpoint Chapter House on the reservation started generating its own electricity through a new solar power electric system. This event was very important for organizers from all kinds of organizations within the Dine’ nation. Deon Ben from the Grand Canyon Trust expressed, “We’re here celebrating a new dawn for the Navajo people, because ever since the days before we had electricity or water, we sustained ourself off the land and natural elements, and it seems like that’s what we’re starting again.” One of the most important parts of the project is the emphasis on job security and real, tangible benefits for the community. Wahleah Johns stressed that “our people are having equity ownership, our people are being trained, and our people are being put back to work, and so that’s the model we want to create so that it can be replicated throughout Indian Country.”
The other two programs created by BMWC are the Navajo Green Economy and Leadership Development programs. The Navajo Nation has had difficulty creating jobs that are not based on extraction of natural resources. Gearon acknowledges that green economy development will not be easy: “Like many Navajos, coal and other extractive industries were a normal part of life for me as a child…Growing up on the Navajo Nation, it can be difficult to imagine any other way.” However, BMWC is helping to build parts of the economy that don’t rely on extraction: establishing access to fair markets for wool production, and the organizing a Food Sovereignty program to revitalize and support local food production. To aid in leadership development and movement building, BMWC founded the Southwest Indigenous Leadership Institute for youth. “Young people today see this opportunity and want action to seize it, in part because they’re the ones who will live longest with the consequences if we don’t.” The Black Mesa Hopi and Navajo are not stuck in the past, but are looking forward, into a future of health and prosperity.
While groups on Black Mesa are focusing on extractive industries, the Gila River Indian Community is concentrating on toxic waste incineration and land development. Like many struggles in the environmental justice movement, members of the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) don’t make distinctions between problems affecting the environment and problems affecting humans. Environmental toxins, poverty, and oppression are all targeted as symptoms of the same problem: systemic structures that perpetuate injustice. The grassroots organizations working on the GRIC reservation see the fight to protect community health and sacred heritage as one and the same.
The Gila River Indian Community is located south of Phoenix along the Gila River, on a plot of land designated as a reservation in 1859. The community includes two tribes, the Akimel O’odham and the Pee Posh, known by Phoenix residents as the Pima and the Maricopa. The tribes have a long history of farming in the area, and at one time they actually exported wheat to other parts of the country. However, in the 1870’s and 80’s, construction of upstream dams and major water diversions cut off virtually all water to the reservation. Farming collapsed, causing devastating famine until the U.S. government stepped in to distribute canned food. This disruption in traditional diet has often been blamed for the extraordinary incidence of diabetes among O’odham people, who have the highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world.
Before the Gila River Indian Community was issued permits to make money from gambling facilities, the tribe built three industrial parks to invite business and jobs into the community. Known for scant enforcement of regulations, these industrial parks soon drew toxic waste incinerators. When considered in conjunction with the six pesticide airstrips and over eighty illegal dump sites, it soon becomes clear that the Gila River Indian Community hosts “more hazardous waste than any other Indian Reservation in the United States.” The emissions from these toxic waste incinerators include dioxins, furans, nitrous oxides, and fine particulate matter, while the pesticides sprayed and dumped in the area included DDT and toxaphene, chemicals in the same family as Agent Orange. There are health studies suggesting that exposure to these chemicals may be responsible for sterility, chronic pain caused by bone atrophy, and even a higher rate of diabetes. It was many years, however, before the community stepped up to combat these infringements of their environmental and human rights. When it did, the inspiration came in the form of GRACE.
Lori Riddle was moved to found Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment (GRACE) by personal experience. She grew up on land that, unknown to her family, had been contaminated by a pesticide airstrip and dumping ground. “We had to deal with the spraying falling on us on a daily basis….We slept outdoors because we had no electricity or indoor plumbing…Our water storage was open before we realized it was dropping in our water.” It was only after three decades that the EPA came in to fully remediate the land, during which time “hundreds of barrels of chemicals were excavated from the site.” Even after remediation, the family was told that the land was not safe to live on. Of all the many health effects inflicted on her family, the hardest for Riddle is the inability to leave a living legacy. Although she was able to have a daughter, she told me that the total miscarriage count in her family, just from her generation and after, is 23. “Once my daughter is gone, my mother’s branch of the family tree is severed. When I think of that, that is what keeps me going in this work.”
Riddle founded GRACE just as community dissatisfaction with the hazardous waste incinerators was coming to a head. Their first target was Stericycle, a medical waste incinerator at Lone Butte Industrial Park just north of Chandler on the I-10. After a year of organizing community members, GRACE was able to block the extension on Stericycle’s lease in 2002, effectively shutting down one of the largest medical waste incinerators in the nation. The next target was right next door at Lone Butte: Romic, a chemical “recycling” plant that stored and processed toxic material into fuel. This campaign took much longer, even while Romic was in constant violation of EPA emissions, storage and reporting regulations. However, in 2007, three major accidents occurred at the facility within a three-month period, including one incident where a giant orange plume shot over half a mile up into the sky. Using the evidence against Romic and the strength of community opposition, GRACE finally persuaded the Gila River Indian Community government to deny an extension proposal and shut Romic down. Most importantly, the GRIC council passed a moratorium on building any future facilities for storing and processing hazardous waste.
But the fight for environmental justice on the reservation is far from over. Soon after the Romic victory, the Gila River Indian Community got word of a plan to build a super-freeway through the reservation, right through South Mountain. GRACE has joined forces with the Sierra Club to oppose this freeway, citing an increased dependence on fossil fuels and decrease in air quality. Traffic in Phoenix has caused air quality to degrade to an astonishing degree. But now the city hopes to solve their congestion problems by shifting the burden of traffic pollution on another community. Riddle protests: “We don’t want that bad air.” Riddle sees this as a battle over both environmental and human rights: South Mountain is a cultural sacred site for the Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh. “They’re talking about blasting through three huge chunks of the mountain, and this mountain is sacred to us. It’s like a church to us.” GRACE is fighting this municipal land grab for the sake of their community’s health, environment, and cultural identity.
Similar to the struggle on Black Mesa, GRACE has realized the importance of youth to the movement on the reservation. Years ago, GRACE founded Gila River Environmental Youth (GREY). Riddle emphasized the strengths of these children in asking questions and following their natural curiosity. “Once you give a task to these kids, they run with it!” Before one of the first protests GRACE ever held, Riddle was unsure whether the action would be a failure. “I was so worried and just not sure of what was going to happen and what the reaction was going to be.” But youth from around the community and even outside came to support the action, and “it was just awesome. It just worked out. And it’s the everyday people who really deserve the credit.”
At the end of our interview, I asked Riddle what someone like me could do to help campaigns and organizations like hers. “Do what you can locally, in your own household,” she responded. Recycling and even composting is critical in reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators in other communities. In addition, Riddle urged public expressions of support. “Writing letters to the tribal council lets them know that a lot of other communities do care about this one.” The most important action she listed was to be informed about what’s happening on the reservations, and to spread this information to others. Don’t just accept what is written (or not written) in the newspaper. Sometimes it’s necessary to look farther afield to find the true story.
Indigenous cultures have been pushed into the past for too long. These two stories, the narratives of Black Mesa and the Gila River Indian Community, are just two of thousands. They exemplify the principles of environmental justice that communities all over the world are fighting for. But it isn’t just the poor, or people of color, or indigenous tribes who are affected by injustice. As Judith Nies reveals in her analysis of Black Mesa, “We are all impoverished by the forces operating at Black Mesa, which degrade both culture and nature, and offer us instead a pseudoreality—a version of events that prevents clear analysis and creative thinking.” We need to step out of the pseudoreality and look around us at the true stories taking place. Only then will we be able to put injustice, once and for all, in the past where it belongs.
UPDATE: For a more recent update on the status of the proposed Loop 202 extension, read this AZ Republic article, 8/26/2013.
“About Us.” Black Mesa Water Coalition. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
“American Indian/Alaska Native Program and Project Inventory.” Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, 2006. http://www.cdc.gov/omhd/populations/AIAN/
Benally, Malcolm D., Ed. Bitter Water: Dine Oral Histories of the Navajo-Hopi Land
Dispute. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011.
Comfort, Susan. “Struggle in Ogoniland: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Cultural Politics of
Environmental Justice.” The Environmental Justice Reader. ed. Joni Adamson.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
DiChiro, Giovanna. “Nature As Community: A Convergence of Environmental and
Social Justice.” Uncommon Ground. ed. William Cronon. New York: WWNorton, 1996.
Gearon, Jihan. “We Need Leaders to Champion a Clean-Energy Future.” The Arizona
Republic 29 Apr 2012. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2012 from
Kuletz, Valerie. The Tainted Desert. New York: Routledge, 1998.
“Walk in Beauty: Clean Energy for a Changeable World.” Video. New Energy Economy
New Mexico 14 May 2012. Retrieved December 21, 2012 from
Nies, Judith. “Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Black Gold.” Orion Summer 1998:
1-14. Online. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2012 from http://blackmesais.org/
“Our Work.” Black Mesa Water Coalition. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Riddle, Lori. Personal Interview. 13 Dec 2012.
“Tribal History.” Gila River Indian Community. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2011
On the Black Mesa struggle:
How to support the Dineh relocation resistance:
Sister Organizations of Black Mesa:
Audio and Video:
· Facing Our Water Issues. Native America Calling.
· Fast Forward: Wahleah Johns. Planet Green TV.
· Indigenous Rights of Mother Earth Conference. Global Exchange.
· Burt Cohen Show. Progressive Radio Network. Retrieved July 3,
· Walk in Beauty: Clean Energy for a Changeable World. New Energy
Economy New Mexico. Retrieved July 3, 2012 from
On the current Navajo-Hopi Water Settlement:
 For an excellent and detailed historical account of the Black Mesa struggle, see Judith Nies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands and Black Gold”
 GRIC, “Tribal History”
 Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry