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Excerpt: "In late October in a remote area of Arizona called Black Mesa, federal SWAT teams dressed in military flak jackets and wielding assault rifles set up roadblocks and detained people as helicopters and drones circled overhead."

Traditional Navajo economy is based on sheep. (photo: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy)
Traditional Navajo economy is based on sheep. (photo: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy)

U.S. Government Harasses Navajo Sheepherders on Behalf of Mining Companies

By Shannon Speed and Hallie Boas, Al Jazeera America

28 December 14


Pressure from big mining interests behind government crackdown on the Navajo

n late October in a remote area of Arizona called Black Mesa, federal SWAT teams dressed in military flak jackets and wielding assault rifles set up roadblocks and detained people as helicopters and drones circled overhead. 

The response made it seem as though police were targeting dangerous criminals — terrorists, even. But they were actually detaining impoverished Navajo (Dine’) elders accused of owning too many sheep.

For the past month Hopi rangers and agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) have been entering people’s land and holding them at gunpoint, with few warrants and little respect for due process. Community members say they live in fear because of this extreme intimidation in the Hopi Partitioned Lands in northern Arizona. 

The Hopi tribe and the BIA say that over four dozen people have exceeded their permitted limit of 28 sheep per household, which will lead to overgrazing. Even if that were true — and many people doubt the claim — it would hardly justify the excessively intimidating approach to the problem. So far, three people have been arrested and more than 300 sheep impounded. Exorbitant fees are levied for people to recover their sheep, which the elderly Navajo residents depend on for their livelihood. 

The residents of Black Mesa believe this most recent assault on their livelihood is being funded and instigated by the federal government through the Department of Interior and the BIA as part of an ongoing effort to maintain access to vast coal reserves on their ancestral homelands. 

The 1974 Navajo and Hopi Settlement Act made almost a million acres of shared Navajo-Hopi land in northern Arizona exclusive Hopi territory, called Hopi Partitioned Lands. Black Mesa was crisscrossed and split by barbed wire fencing designating boundaries. The Department of Justice undertook a plan to relocate more than 14,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi. 

Couched as an effort to resolve what was called the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, the act was actually the result of an ongoing effort to exploit mineral resources in the area. The Navajo and Hopi had peacefully coexisted in the area for decades until the discovery of coal led to policies that created corporate-backed tribal governments and divided the tribes over resource exploitation. 

The relocation conveniently cleared the way for two of the largest coal strip mines in the country. In its 30 years of operation, Peabody Coal’s 103-square-mile Black Mesa mine left a toxic legacy along a 273-mile abandoned coal-slurry pipeline, the source of an estimated 325 million tons of climate pollution discharged into the atmosphere. It ceased operations in 2005.

The still-operating Kayenta mine supplies approximately 7.5 million tons of low-sulfur thermal coal annually to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona. In 2013 the mine sold 7.9 million tons of coal.

Many Navajo resisted relocation. The federal government responded with a war of attrition to undermine their ability to remain on the land. It implemented a building moratorium that included repairs on existing structures and a livestock-reduction program that limited the number of animals a family could own. 

Because traditional Navajo economy is based on sheep, these programs represented a direct threat to survival. If they cannot raise sheep, they must relocate to areas where they can find some other way to make a living. This will clear the way for further mining concessions, with no one in the area to protest the pollution and dislocation more mines will bring. 

Black Mesa resident Louise Benally suggests that the grazing question is a red herring. “I believe overgrazing comes from the air and water pollution [on] Black Mesa. This is the front lines. The atmosphere is so toxified that it is killing everything,” she told us in a recent phone interview. 

She argues that if sheep grazing is the real concern, a different approach should be taken. “Twenty-eight sheep is not enough to sustain a family. If Hopi care about the land, help us with land management education. We need someone qualified who knows the plants and animals to oversee the rotation of animals in these areas,” she said.  

Shirley Tohannie and elder Caroline Tohannie had their herd of 65 sheep impounded on Oct 22. The Tohannies’ neighbor Jerry Babbit Lane was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for attempting to intervene on their behalf. Officials claimed that the grazing permit held by Tohannie’s late husband was no longer valid. In order to get her livestock back, she had to sign a complaint stating that she was trespassing and will have to appear in Hopi tribal court. 

In September the U.S. government signed a settlement with the Navajo Nation to pay over half a billion dollars in compensation for the government’s mismanagement of tribal trust resources. At the signing, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell cited President Barack Obama’s desire to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the federal government. While this public relations move made national headlines, the simultaneous harassment of Navajo elders and the deliberate effort to deprive them of their ability to remain on their lands did not.  

If the federal government really wants to improve its relationship with American Indian tribes, it should start by ending its historical collusion with energy corporations to displace people from their lands for natural resource extraction. The BIA and Department of the Interior should immediately stop impounding Navajo sheep and terrorizing the residents of Black Mesa. 

The federal government should then work to forge collaborative nation-to-nation relationships that honor all Native people’s right to decide for themselves how to live on and develop their ancestral lands. your social media marketing partner


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+48 # RnR 2014-12-28 10:23
+72 # Working Class 2014-12-28 10:30
Gee - armed US storm troopers and helicopters needed to resound to a Native Americans grazing sheep on their own land. WOW - where were these resources when the Bundy clan were trespassing on federal grazing lands? There is more than sheep going on here.
+39 # WallStWallFlowerGirl 2014-12-28 11:51
Fellow Proletariat, Working Class-

Two paragraphs into this article and one image came to mind: Cliven Bundy riding high on a horse with a comically huge American flag. (Only equal in size to Sean Hannity's ego.)

Livestock. Over-grazing. Government. Only difference is between a group of Bible-thumping, history-interpr eting Caucasian people and Native Americans. Am I alone in wondering how conspicuous Bundys absence has been since he rode into mainstream media like a Super Bowl commercial?

"The Navajo and Hopi had peacefully coexisted in the area for decades until the discovery of coal led to policies that created corporate-backe d tribal governments and divided the tribes over resource exploitation." (RSN)

Resource exploitation, funded by a corporate-backe d government, is funded by We, the People; both entities would not exist if we did not buy. Yet as a nation, it seems that more people are interested in "ice bucket challenges" and celebrity butts than in becoming informed citizens on subjects truly vital to our survival.

Yeah... The world is unfair, messed-up and resistance seems futile, but... to just give-up and bow to the powers that be is to leave my grandson a mop. His generation is deserving of us to do all that we can to leave them a better world, not a mess to clean-up.
+34 # Bourbaki 2014-12-28 10:46
I occasionally wonder why I read RSN. Seems like the vast majority of the articles just remind me of what a F'd up place I live in.

I try to make this a better place, but at times it starts to feel hopeless.

Last night I watched Lord of the Flies and thought we as a nation really are about the same as that murdering tribe of little boys.
+15 # nogardflow 2014-12-28 13:35
Bourbaki, I read RSN because it seems to be populated, for the most part, by commenters willing to do some research and not just go off on inflammatory headlines. And yes, I believe we do live in a F'd up place, but unfortunately so do many other people in this world. I also get disheartened at times, but the intelligence often displayed by the readers of RSN gives me hope and lets me know that I/we are not alone in the struggle to try and improve the human condition one small piece at a time.

"But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful."

Elizabeth Edwards
0 # Texas Aggie 2014-12-29 03:18
I once asked the editors of another magazine that regularly prints news items showing how screwed up the world is. (In TX there is no other kind of news.) They told me, "Dogs, dogs make it worthwhile."

Also, those things in the picture are Angora goats, not Navajo sheep.
+19 # m s 57 2014-12-28 10:47
The Navajo have only been cooperating grazing their lands and shepherding as a way of life in harmony with the land for hundreds of years. This is an overt threat to the corporate state. Time to send in the SWAT teams!
+22 # Edwina 2014-12-28 10:48
In the 1980s Hopi and Navajo elders were working against the resettlement plan. Both peoples are poor, and vulnerable to exploitation. The U.S. government could invest in a sustainable energy program, which would provide jobs, reduce environmental devastation, and resolve the land-use conflicts.
+36 # progressiveguy 2014-12-28 11:26
This is what really upsets me about the Obama administration. An impoverished Native American has too many sheep so they send in a swat team. "Working Class" asks a great question, where was the swat team when the thugs at the Bundy ranch stared down law enforcement. To this day no arrests have been made there. Imagine if a group of Native Americans confronted the swat team with weapons. What if a group of black men pointed weapons at federal agents. Can you imagine the slaughter? Nothing in Arizona surprises me, when the Navajo vets returned from WW2 they still weren't allowed to vote, at least in Arizona.
+10 # geraldom 2014-12-28 12:13
This also reflects the continued betrayal of Indian upon Indian which has been happening ever since the White-Man landed on this continent, and it is supposed to shield the White-Man forces of the U.S. government from any responsibility.

They're using men from the Hopi tribe to oppress the people of the Navajo tribe. That's why the Indian nations destroyed themselves. The U.S. government uses the theory of divide and conquer.

If all of the Indian nations had united together to fight their common enemy, the White-Man from the very beginning, they would have won their right to exist as an independent and sovereign nation, but they fought amongst themselves and that was their undoing.
+18 # Helen Marshall 2014-12-28 12:25
I just became aware of the Native American Rights Fund, a non-profit law firm working to protect Native American rights from corporations and the government. Worth a contribution just to help right the balance.
+16 # jwb110 2014-12-28 12:36
Bundy and Ferguson get a pass and the Hopi get screwed. What is that all about!?
+17 # Benjamin Franklin 2014-12-28 13:00
Wonder if the Tea Party will rally to the defense of the Navajo? After all, aren't they concerned with property rights above all else, and sworn to oppose an encroaching federal government?

Am holding my breath.
+9 # jimbo 2014-12-28 13:43
the theft of these resources is just another link in the chain to steal trillions from Americans and deposit it offshore untaxed, with those funds stolen from Americans. It is time to put an end to this theft, this step to American fascism. Fuck the thieves and the governmental resources that help the theft. Join the effort to bring the stolen taxes back to Americans, and stick a big dick up these who steal from Americans.
+2 # jimbo 2014-12-28 13:50
watching a football game on cbs, have to watch the staged christianist horseshit, with the stupid pointing at the ceiling and using other christianist dominionist stupidity. But these clowns wouldn't get the exposure without the network whores who use the christianist pandering and propaganda. Instead of you stupid network mofos using the christianist horseshit to keep viewers, why don't you provide programing that will keep them, you fooking trash. This horseshit is common with cbs, nbc, abc, espn and of course fux, to those trash. Stick your christianist proselytizing up your ignorant slimy asses.
+12 # Archie1954 2014-12-28 14:18
Even after all this time, the great white father is still screwing the natives!
+7 # Jayceecool 2014-12-28 22:42
First they came for the Hopi...then they came for the Navajo...then they came for us...

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