Fri, 06 Dec 2002 13:03:35

The Navajo-Hopi Observer  

Strange Holes Trouble Black Mesa Residents

by S. J. Wilson

He isn’t quite sure what to call them. The best word Marshall Johnson can come up with to describe these odd holes is sinkholes.

His mother, Lorraine, raised Marshall and his siblings in the cradle of Tonizhoni Valley. She is 78 years old and has spent her entire life in this valley of “Beautiful Water” (in English). Lorraine has grazed sheep and cattle in the valley and has attended cleansing as well as other ceremonies there. Lorraine said she had never seen these strange holes until she built her new summer camp six years ago. “She first noticed the holes then but decided to build anyway,” Marshall said. He noticed the holes about 10 years ago but thought nothing of them until he helped shove logs into the first holes near his mother’s house during construction. It occurred to him then that perhaps these odd holes were not isolated. Since then, he has found hundreds and has traced them along valley floors up to 30 miles. He believes they follow a fault line and indeed can lead the curious to lengthy cracks into the earth, some quite deep. “It is as though the floor of this valley is just cracking up,” Leonard Selestewa, Black Mesa Trust president, said on the morning of Nov. 22. He and Vernon Maseyesva, a former Chairman of the Hopi Tribe and Black Mesa Trust executive director accompanied Johnson to areas along Oraibi, Dinebito and Tonizhoni Valley washes.

Black Mesa Trust is a grassroots organiztion formed in 2001 by a group of concerned Hopis to research the depletion of the N-aquifer, which lies below the Black Mesa plateau on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Big Mountain, Tonizhoni Valley, Oraibi Wash and Dinebito Wash are all either communities or washes that are located in the Black Mesa area. All fall within the one-time Joint Use Area near the Hopi Reservation. Some of this land is on Navajo Partition Land, some on Hopi Partition Selestewa had just returned from an independent inspection of a series of large gashes in the earth hundreds of feet from the nearest wash. “In my opinion, what I saw was not a wash,” Selestewa said. “It was too deep and narrow, cut too fast. “They were at least 30 feet deep. I believe they are cracks.”

Maseyesva viewed the first few holes, cautious to express an opinion on what might have caused them. But finally, in Lorraine’s camp, he became convinced that what he was seeing might actually be described as sinkholes. “I would definitely say these are sinkholes,” he said thoughtfully. Marshall has developed his own system of tracking the holes, strung along fault lines like beads on a string. “See that line of vegetation?” he asks, pointing off along a ridge of sandstone bluffs. “See how the ground has become indented? There are holes along there.”

When asked why the vegetation seemed lusher around the sinkholes, Marshall theorized that perhaps the livestock sense the instability of the earth there and avoid those plants.

He has talked with other elders such as Katherine Smith, who lives above Dinebito Wash in the Big Mountain area. They all tell him the same thing — these holes are something new. Marshall’s companion, Nicole Horseherder, accompanied this small expedition across the floor of several valleys. She too spends hours listening to the elders of the area, documenting the drying up of seeps and springs people used to depend on for fresh water. Many have dried up, others barely produce. “We’ve consulted with hydrologists about the pumping of N-aquifer water,” Marshall said. “We are told that the first sign of damage to the aquifer is the drying up of springs. This, we are told, is not serious. But another sign of aquifer damage are sinkholes and cause for greater concern.”

“We have been told that sinkholes are a sign that the aquifer is collapsing, and the damage is irreversible,” Horseherder added. Sam Tso, also a lifelong resident of the Black Mesa area, is one son of a family well known for its riding horses. He and his brothers have ridden all across this area, sometimes following livestock, other times for pure pleasure. Tso said that he first noticed the holes in the late ’80s. Tso said that he knows of similar holes along the north rim of the Grand Canyon and others indicative of uranium. But these holes, punched into the soft sand of various Black Mesa valleys puzzle him.

“Everyone out home believes they are the result of Peabody’s depletion of the N-aquifer,” he said. Not all of the holes, Tso stressed, are in the valleys. “There is a really big one over at Cow Springs, near Rena Babbitt Lane’s house,” he said. “Fry’s grocery store would fit in it. If you put Albertson’s and Fry’s grocery stores side by side over it, they would still fall in.” Everyone who spoke about these strange holes send the same message — all are puzzled and worried and invite scientists, hydrologists, geologists and even Peabody Coal Company to come visit the holes and offer their explanations.

“We welcome answers,” Marshall said.

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