Black Mesa Reflections

This summer I stayed with a Navajo elder, Mae Tso, her brother Samuel, son Tim and sister Blanche. My job was mostly to herd sheep, and I also helped with chores around the house like hauling water. I was there to support this family and make their life a little bit easier, to help make sure they are able to stay on their ancestral homeland.

 Black Mesa Coal and Land Dispute

The history of the area where I stayed is very complicated. I stayed with a Navajo family who lives on the current Hopi reservation—this part of the land was re-allocated to sole Hopi ownership from a joint-use area back in 1974, ostensibly because of a “land dispute” turf war between the tribes. The organization I worked through, Black Mesa Indigenous Support, takes the view that the land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes was fabricated to cover the fact that transferring Navajo-settled land to the Hopi tribe would allow the government to move people off the land so Peabody Coal could mine it. Indeed, a PR firm was hired in order to craft a persuasive story. But it’s a little more complicated–there are tensions between the Hopi (especially younger generations), and the Navajo, who have received a reservation over 3 times the size of the Hopi land. In addition, the coal mines and power plants employ majority Navajo workers, around 1,750 in total, and coal royalties (though Peabody gets away with selling for far below market price) are one of the biggest sources of revenue for both the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments. If you want more information on the land dispute, here’s a good article (though still perhaps biased towards the Navajo). Caution: Very long.


In my first conversation with my mother after arriving at the home site, she signed off with “Enjoy it—learn something.” I think (I hope) I succeeded—there was a lot of personal and political learning I underwent while staying there. One of the first things I realized is that I’ve never been a person who functions well alone, and yet I always forget this and put myself in situations where I’m isolated among strangers. When entering a new environment, even if it’s as short as a weekend conference or even a party, I need someone with me who I know, to anchor me and make me feel secure to experience new things and people while able to return to a community. Black Mesa has been an incredible gift, but also very painful periodically because of the isolation.

A result of this isolation may have been my realizing (maybe conceding) the need for a spiritual practice to ground myself and calm myself in difficult spaces. I’m still struggling with what that means, beyond a physical practice of daily meditation, and exploring how spirituality ties into social justice work. It’s something that is usually so blocked off from professional “work” that I have trouble imagining how to to embrace not just mind, but heart and spirit. I began meditating as a way to calm my mind–I wasn’t sure why it was a spiritual practice at all. To my surprise, I went to a Buddhist class soon after getting back to Phoenix and found that they talked about meditation as a way to train your mind so you control it, rather than letting negative feelings and states of mind control you. And that was something that I struggled with and thought about a lot on the reservation: how to recognize and dissipate anger and frustration before they manifested as violence.

In dealing with animals a lot every day, I had to face how to make them do what I needed without hurting them, when violence as a method of controlling animals was accepted and even encouraged. I obviously did what the family told me when it was a direct order, but out in the fields I found it surprising how I had to suppress an urge to lash out at an animal that was doing something dangerous to itself or just recalcitrant, and how often I failed. I could see the parallel to a high stress situation with other people, one I might be placed in during an intense action with police violence. I realized that maintaining non-violence may be harder than most people think, and it does actually take practice to recognize that anger and frustration rising in me and learn to diffuse or calm it. This was an especially interesting experiment while I was reading a book on Gandhian philosophy and satyagraha.

Another lesson was: just be. Just be! I felt a lot of pressure to begin with to think big thoughts, always have my mind engaged, always be working to “produce” something that could be useful. I had to force myself to stop and allow myself to zone out. I realized that just being, and being content to just sit or think about whatever my mind wanted, or just enjoying where I was, is a revolutionary action. It resists a narrative of materialism that our time must always be “productive,” used in the most “efficient” way, and give us some useful “profit.” It rejects the frankly unsustainable idea that happiness and well-being must be built on constant progress, constant growth, a positive linear equation heading up and up into eternity. Instead, how do you take time for yourself? How do you just be? Who do you become when you are forced to face yourself again and again out in the wilderness and loneliness, beating your head against the wall of your own thoughts?

The isolation also gave me a lot of time to think and read, and I got some incredible insights about collective liberation, anti-racism, feminism and anti-colonialism from books like Towards Collective Liberation, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, the Three Pillars of Heteropatriarchy, and some bell hooks.

Political Analysis

Through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Hopi rangers enforced relocation of anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 Navajos from the disputed lands through any means possible–coming around to shoot or confiscate livestock, arresting residents, even bulldozing “illegally” built hogans. But a decade ago, many elders believe the BIA switched from such blunt tactics because they were attracting too much media attention, to a “divide and conquer” strategy. The BIA offered “Accommodation” agreements which allow a family to lease their land from the Hopis for another 75 years. Mae, the elder I stayed with, had signed one of these agreements, but only because the rangers had showed up on her land with a bulldozer and said it was sign or have her home destroyed. Because some signed these agreements and some refused to, there’s a schism in the community and it’s become hard to get many of these families to speak to each other.

There are about 28-32 families still living on the part of the reservation annexed to the Hopis, and at this point they are not “organized” in any sort of community organization or campaign. Black Mesa Indigenous Support has been slowly moving towards getting these families to all speak to one another, building the community back together through large events and caravans where elders (and supporters) come together. They’re hoping to do a joint action this spring, which could serve as another stepping stone on a path to a more cohesive community motivated to fight. This is part of a long-term plan to achieve the objective of the people living there, which is to repeal the relocation law and allow Navajos to return to their lands.

What Next?

I’m still ignorant about many things. I still have a lot to learn about native peoples in my own area. I didn’t even know that Phoenix is built on O’odham lands (both Akimel and Tohono, as well as the Pee Posh tribe, Ak-chin, and Pima-Maricopa; here’s a one-page history). I bought into the narrative that this was just a desert wasteland before settlers came here. I think that those who are descendants of settlers in an area have a responsibility to find out the history of that settlement, and the current situation of the tribes who are affected. What issues are members of the Gila River Indian Community, Tohono O’odham nation, Ak-Chin community and Salt River community facing now? What campaigns are being waged, and are there ways I can support them?

I don’t think this is my last experience on Black Mesa. The bonds I made there practically necessitate going back. So, there is no end. Only a beginning.

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1 Response to Black Mesa Reflections

  1. Pingback: Peabody Coal | My Planet Earth

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