Bonnie Whitesinger
Bonnie Whitesinger  
"I work for my children’s future.
I went to the International body (United Nations)
to make a stand for my people.
We have to keep going, there’s no place else to go."







Reported and Written By

Suzanne Marcus Fletcher



Suzanne Marcus Fletcher



It’s a mild afternoon in Big Mountain, Arizona, the northeastern tip of the Navajo Reservation. Decent weather is one of the perks for Bonnie Whitesinger and others living on a sacred swath of earth called Black Mesa.

Seated on some stained mattresses in a formerly abandoned shack, Whitesinger is welcoming, matter of fact, conveying little emotion when discussing a rigorous past and uncertain future. For the last 13 years, the dilapidated one room shanty has been home to her husband and six children. Amid piles of freshly washed clothes, Whitesinger details the intense struggle the Dineh have endured since 1974, when Congress passed the Navajo - Hopi Land Settlement Act. This law set n motion the most significant relocation effort since the Japanese were moved en masse to the internment camps in  1942.  In  the  decade  following,  more  than  12,000 Dineh' were

Bonnie Whitesinger's Home

forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands at a taxpayer expense in excess of 300 million, capping the largest, most controversial land dispute in U.S. history. And it’s not over yet.

At midnight, February 1, 2000, a new wave of Dineh were deemed eligible for eviction. Reservation zoning called "HPL" (Hopi Partitioned Land) changed hands, leaving the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A.), and moving to the legal jurisdiction of the Hopi Tribal Government. Dineh residing on HPL who have not signed a controversial agreement to remain, are scheduled for eviction pending final approval from the U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

Like Dineh Traditionalist, Pauline Whitesinger, Bonnie’s mother, refusal among many elders to abandon their homes is only part of the story. Unwillingness to defy a holy promise to protect Black Mesa is at the core of the issue.

Still, others take a different view. Resistance, say some, is a final act of conscience for more than 12,000 Dineh previously relocated. With the advent of HPL zoning 27 years ago, many became trespassers on land to which they are inexorably bound, refusing to sever ties with ancestral burial sites, religious shrines and the soil that has sustained Dineh religion since the Navajo emerged in the region centuries ago.

For the Dineh, meaning "The People," the Navajo’s self-chosen name, bearing out their fate as protectors of the natural world is a Traditionalist imperative, despite bitter opposition and more than a century of relocation. Some assert that the Dineh path is simply "manifest destiny" in action. Others maintain it’s business as usual, the inevitable outcome of a prophecy gone bad. Poverty, alcoholism, depression and suicide are some of the vestiges of what some have coined, "The war without end," America’s unresolved conflict with the First Americans.

Since the early 1970’s, an obstructive law called Bennett Freeze has been in effect on HPL and other portions of the Navajo reservation, making it illegal for the Dineh to fix their homes -- such as mending a broken window or repairing a leaky roof. The majority of Dineh hogans now appear frozen in decay, much as the Freeze suggests.

With a per capita income lower than that of many third world countries, the Dineh are among the nation’s poorest. Like most Big Mountain residents, Whitesinger has no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity.

Navajo Nation spokesman, Mellor Willie, suggested that some Big Mountain residents have access to solar power, yet few seem positioned to utilize it. Much of Big Mountain life is spent on survival. Whitesinger’s weekly rigors, which include child rearing, are further complicated by kidney failure, requiring her to travel hundreds of miles for dialysis treatment. "We used to live with my mother," she says. "We moved in here so my children could get the school bus."

Whitesinger points to the ceiling while adding, "There are wall mice here, and the smell of feces is bad during monsoon season." Used to bucking up, Whitesinger brightens: "I’ve got a few dollars for dinner, but I need gas to get to the store."

Getting to the Black Mesa store is a pilgrimage unto itself. Many Big Mountain residents travel miles of ungraded dirt roads daily for basic water and food. "We won’t let go of who we are," Whitesinger says. "We’ve lived with so much stress for so long."

Glancing at the soil beyond her door, she adds, "I work for my children’s future. I went to the International body (United Nations) to make a stand for my people. We have to keep going, there’s no place else to go."

Massive siphoning of the Navajo aquifer has reportedly left the Navajo and Hopi tribes of Black Mesa with critical water insufficiency. Since Peabody Western Coal opened the Black Mesa and Kayenta strip mines between 1970-1973, coal operations annually consume approximately 1.58 billion gallons of pristine water from the Southwest’s largest natural aquifer. The ground water is utilized to slurry coal via pipeline 273 miles to the Mojave Generating Station, a coal-fired plant in Laughlin, Nevada. Black Mesa coal provides electricity for much of the U.S. Southwest, including Los Angeles. According to leading environmentalists, Peabody’s operations have significantly depleted the ancient N-aquifer, leaving surface wells dry and in some cases, polluted by the mine’s contaminates. According to the Department of Interior, Office of Surface Mining, strip mining is expected to continue until at least 2011.

Despite serious water deficiency and pending evictions, most Traditionalists are not leaving. John Benally is among them.

"Coal mining has drained our water supply. Livestock we depend upon are confiscated due to strict permit laws. The B.I.A. treat us like we’re not even human, like we’re nothing. We have few resources, true, but we have the Creator, our prayers; and you’ll notice, we’re still here."

Peabody  Coal's  P.R.  spokesperson,  Beth  Sutton,  has repeatedly denied any corporate culpability on behalf of the coal company for Dineh' relocation. Consistent with previous comments, Sutton reportedly told Jerry Kammer

John Benally

of The Arizona Republic, "I’ve been saying until I’m blue in the face that Peabody has nothing to do with the dispute."

In 1977, Whitesinger and others traveled to the United Nations’ Geneva Summit to seek redress on the Dineh conflict and convey a message to U.N. leaders on Human Rights and Religious Intolerance.

Consistent with Native American philosophy, Traditionalists maintain that land is the center of life, altar and church to those chosen by the Creator to protect the earth. Yet the Dineh charge is even more specific. They avow to being the guardians of an area they claim, is the heart of America, perhaps the most sacred soil on earth: Black Mesa. Dineh lore says that the "Holy Ones" decreed that the Dineh settle within four sacred points: Mt. Taylor to the south, Mt. Blanca to the east, San Francisco Peaks to the west, and Hesperus Peak to the north. They call this area "Dinetah," home of the earth’s vital organs. Whether or not one subscribes to the Dineh account, Black Mesa remains an awesome stretch of such solemn authority, it continues to be a recognized power-spot since the arrival of Europeans.

Traditionalists are largely Grandmothers, elders of an ancient matriarchal culture who remain steadfast to a sacred promise to protect their sacred land. The "Grandmas" are known by yet another name, the "resisters," due to their steely opposition to relocation and refusal to sign an Accommodation Agreement PL - 104-301 sponsored and pushed through Congress in 1996, by Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Ostensibly, if signed, the Accommodation Agreement will allow Dineh residing on HPL to remain on the land with 75 year lease agreements under jurisdiction of the Hopi Tribal Government. Supporters of PL – 104-301 say it reduces the severity of the Settlement Act by allowing Dineh to remain as Lessees on HPL. Supporters further say that this law provides the Dineh three acres of homeland, up to 10 acres of farmland, access to utilities and approval to repair dwellings.

Detractors assert the Accommodation Agreement is not designed to improve quality of life. Rather, it denies the Dineh a community voice, precludes them all voting rights and defines the Dineh as "renters" on land their ancestors occupied for centuries. HPL cannot be conferred to Dineh children nor utilized for Dineh burials. Many who maintain traditional lifestyles further argue that the Agreement reduces livestock quotas to unsustainable levels. Dineh remaining on HPL will be subject to eviction if they fail to fulfill the Agreement’s terms. Moreover, Dineh Lessees lose all relocation benefits three years after accepting a homesite lease whether they stay or not, confirms Roman Bitsuie, director of the Navajo – Hopi Land Commission.

Since the creation of the Hopi Reservation in 1882 and the Navajo Reservation in 1868, reservation lines have been expanded, redefined and divided numerous times. Since the Hopis controlled the 1882 reservation, they were deemed the earlier inhabitants of the region according to a 1962 landmark ruling in Healing vs. Jones. Thus, in an effort to resolve what it perceived as a burgeoning range war, Congress approved the 1974 Relocation Act PL - 93-531 facilitating Dineh resettlement.

The Settlement Act called for yet a new designation of boundaries on land previously zoned a Joint Use Area for the Hopi and Dineh. New boundaries were called Navajo Partitioned Land where approximately 100 Hopi’s lived, and Hopi Partitioned Land, where close to 13,000 Dineh resided. Overnight, Dineh on HPL became illegal trespassers and over the next 10 years, forcibly relocated to small Southwest border towns such as Sanders and Holbrook, Arizona, and Gallup, New Mexico.

Prior to the 1974 relocation ordinance, thousands of Dineh were still enjoying self-sufficient lifestyles of sheepherding, farming and weaving. Most did not possess survival skills to exist outside the reservation. Few spoke English, fewer still had experience in adapting to an industrial culture in relocation border towns. The New Lands development located near Sanders, Arizona, is the primary relocation site for the Dineh, purchased wholesale by the government in 1980. For many, living near Sanders remains as challenging as relocation itself. Sanders’ climate is hostile to herding and agriculture due to water insufficiency. Scarcity of water pales to Sanders' other problem. It's located 60 miles downstream from the 1979 Church Rock incident, site of the largest nuclear waste spill in U.S. history.

Debilitated by severed ties to their native soil and without authentic means of sustenance, critical numbers of Dineh fell homeless, augmenting a vicious cycle of depression, vagrancy and alcoholism. Suicide was the answer for some. Others tried to make it work. Destitute and tired, hundreds drifted back to Black Mesa.

Critics of Dineh relocation, including Hopi Traditionalists decry the notion of a land dispute. While the two tribes acknowledge cultural tensions, the Hopi and Dineh have lived largely in peace for centuries. For many, the so-called "range war" was a smoke and mirrors decoy manufactured by those who would profit handsomely to deflect the real issue at hand, perhaps the defining issue of the 20th Century Southwest: the mass extraction of North America’s most valuable resources from Indian tribal lands.

These resources are worth tens of billions annually to multinationals, utility companies and Indian tribal councils who, many claim, continue to flourish at the expense of the people.

In the early 20th Century oil was discovered beneath the Navajo reservation. Oil proved only the beginning. The Four Corners region and specifically Black Mesa would be soon proclaimed a motherlode, home to North America’s most concentrated resources of coal, uranium, gas and oil.

Beneath the Navajo Reservation alone lay an estimated 50 billion tons of coal, bested only by Black Mesa’s other gems: 40 million tons of uranium and 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Black Mesa transformed into a veritable hot- spot of powerful opposing forces -- as those who would compete over the land’s considerable wealth would ensnare the traditional people in a protracted, bitter conflict over mineral leases and land entitlement.

Peabody's massive coal extractions, Black Mesa

In 1951, a team of savvy, connected lawyers coupled with their energy clients descended on Black Mesa with deep pockets and an unquenchable zeal to tap into the land: The coal rush was on. Though several conglomerates would reap the benefits of oil and uranium mining, Peabody Western Coal Company, the world’s largest producer of coal energy, emerged as the dominant force in the region. Peabody ultimately established two adjacent coal operations: the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines, now covering more than 63,000 acres of tribal lands.

The 1950’s coal rush provided a new slate of enterprise, as the lure of lucrative mineral commissions proved a highly effective motivator for attorneys who would face years of government bureaucracy. Two powerful attorneys were made representatives for the Navajo and Hopi Tribes. Together, they urged Congress to rule on which tribe had authority to issue mineral leases. Congress suggested the two tribal councils engage in a "friendly lawsuit" in federal court to determine mineral rights. Years of legal bidding, negotiating and maneuvering produced the pivotal Healing vs. Jones, in 1958, where both tribes claimed rights to the 1882 reservation. Attorney Norm Littel represented the Navajo interests, his contract then stipulated 10% of all future coal revenues. Against the will of Hopi Traditionalists and without the majority of the Hopi Tribe’s approval, an ambitious, Salt Lake City lawyer named John Boyden maneuvered legal representation of the Hopi’s by appealing to the financial interests of Hopi Progressives. Fueled by the promise of immense coal royalties coupled with B.I.A. approval, Boyden nearly single handedly resuscitated the Hopi Tribal Council, despite vehement opposition from Hopi Traditionalists who enjoyed a long tradition of successful self-governance.

Placing Progressive Hopis in Tribal Government positions, Boyden’s Hopi Council emerged fully authorized to issue coal leases to Peabody in 1966. In addition to resultant coal commissions, both Boyden and Littel reportedly received additional 10% statutory fees made payable by the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) for cases legally finalizing the wrongful seizure of Indian lands.

The two attorneys are said to have pocketed fees worth millions.

The Pit

Beyond Boyden’s formidable legal background, he served as counsel and Deacon of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church then held an 8% interest in Peabody Coal. In a stunning conflict of interest, it was later learned by Charles Wilkinson, attorney and professor of law at the University of Colorado, that Boyden represented both Peabody Coal and the Hopi Tribal Council in Healing vs. Jones. A charismatic negotiator, Boyden and other counsel portrayed the Navajos as "appropriators" of Hopi culture, "takers" of Hopi land. Boyden’s defining argument positioned the Hopis as direct descendants of the Anasazi, the earliest of the Southwest Pueblo Peoples.

Boyden further argued that the Navajo were comparatively recent immigrants to the region, concluding the lion’s share of coal leases belonged to the Hopi. The court agreed. Healing vs. Jones would rule that 100% of coal revenues from an area known as District 6 would belong exclusively to the Hopis; the rest of the 1882 reservation would be a Joint Use Area. The Hopi and Navajo tribal governments were ordered to split mineral rights to the Joint Use Area.

Ultimately, John Boyden staged one of the largest land heists in U.S history when Peabody Coal reportedly obtained subsurface rights on Hopi territory and subsequent coal leases for a fraction of their value elsewhere.

Fueled by arguments of a growing "range war" between the two tribes, coupled with the powerful support of several energy concerns as well as Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, Boyden persuaded Congress to pass PL - 93-531 in 1974. The law resulted in further land divisions, increased corporate access to coal reserves and marked a grim new chapter in Navajo relocation.

As Healing vs. Jones proved, the ancestral genesis of the Hopi and Dineh and the dates of their Southwest emergence played a pivotal role in land entitlement nearly a thousand years later. Though the Hopis are one of the oldest links to the Anasazi, Anthropologist David Brugge, author of the "Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute," says new advances in DNA testing provides highly credible evidence that the Navajo tribe is actually a synthesis of the ancient Anasazi and the Athapaskan tribe of Canada. The Athapaskans migrated to the Southwest approximately 1500 AD, though some suspect earlier. This puts Navajo emergence in the region far earlier than the latter 18th century theory successfully employed in Healing vs. Jones. Though many anthropologists affirm the new DNA findings, it has not thwarted evictions.

Eviction deadlines for the Dineh have come and gone for years, yet for many, February 1, 2000 symbolized more than relocation. It was a global declaration of the Navajo record, a legacy rife with conflict and struggle.

To be sure, the Dineh have endured one of the darkest paths in Native American history. In 1863, Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson implemented a scorched earth policy that saw federal troops torch thousands of acres of Navajo corn. Watering holes and hogans were completely destroyed. Navajo livestock were slaughtered en masse crippling the tribe’s economic base. With no place to hide and ripe for capture, the stage was set for the "Long Walk," perhaps the darkest chapter in Navajo history. In 1864, under orders of General Carleton, Carson set out and succeeded in capturing thousands of Navajo from their ancestral mesas, many surrendered on their own. Ultimately, more than 8,000 children, women and men were chained and forced to walk 300 miles in freezing temperatures to Central New Mexico’s Fort Sumner internment camp. Some historians noted that pregnant women who could not keep pace were shot. Thousands more died of exposure during the five year imprisonment.

In 1868, despite a sharp depletion of the Navajo tribe, the Dineh emerged from Fort Sumner a force to be reckoned with -- demonstrating a powerful will to survive -- and a steely will to return to their soil.

Most informed Congressional officials consider the forced relocation of over 12,000 Dineh a tragic failure -- even those who supported the Settlement Agreement. Barry Goldwater, who championed the Agreement through Congress later confessed,

"The relocation of the Navajo was the worst mistake of my career."

Prior to resigning his post as Director of the Government Relocation Commission, Leon Berger was more explicit, "The forcible relocation of the Navajo is a tragedy of injustice that will be a blot on this country for many generations." Relocation expert and Cal Tech Anthropologist Dr. Thayer Scudder agrees, "For the Navajo, relocation is about the worst thing you can do to them, short of killing them. It’s one of the worst cases of involuntary community resettlement I have studied throughout the world."

Legal fallout from what has been coined "the last Indian war" rages on. In March 2000, the Associated Press reported that the Hopi Tribe joined the Navajo Nation in a lawsuit against Peabody Coal and several utility companies deriving coal energy from Black Mesa. The tribes allege they were defrauded out of full and fair compensation for coal resources in recent renegotiations for coal mining leases.

For Dineh Traditionalist, Rena Babbitt Lane, regrettable actions by government officials and decades of unresolved lawsuits have taken their toll. Rena Lane and her husband John sustain an ancient, traditional lifestyle of sheepherding and weaving on land her ancestors have occupied for centuries, now "HPL." Once a large, unadulterated expanse, the Lanes’ property is now sealed with barbed wire, an apt metaphor for those separated by cultural divide.

Lane's hogan is now located approximately 300 ft. from where Peabody placed a coal slurry pipeline.

Dineh Elder Rena Babbitt Lane
Years of wrestling the effects of the land dispute have produced physical injuries for Lane, as well as a pacemaker, which she assigns to stress.

Resistance has its price. The family has experienced livestock confiscations more times than they care to recall, each time with more devastating results. Livestock in "excess" of theirHPL grazing allowance are subject to seizure without remuneration. During livestock impoundments, the 80-year-old elder sustained a broken wrist, a twisted neck and a permanent back injury due to entanglements with Hopi Rangers while protecting her turf.

The Lanes have incurred major livestock seizure in recent years. On one occasion, their prized sheepdog disappeared. The family suspects the dog was killed while defending the herd.

For what is arguably a large sum, Lane was permitted to buy-back her own livestock from B.I.A. impoundment yards, a feat made possible by an East Coast friend who stepped up with the funds. Told a cashiers check was unacceptable by Keams Canyon B.I.A. officials, Lane’s friend reportedly wired funds at an additional expense to the Keams Canyon Hopi B.I.A. before Lane’s livestock would be eligible for pick-up.

Fred Chavez, Land operations manager for the Keams Canyon, B.I.A., views the matter from another perspective. While not confirming or denying individual incidents, Chavez maintains that grazing permit laws must be enforced on Hopi Partitioned Land. "We give them a five day notice of the action to be taken," says Chavez. They have two weeks to collect [the livestock] before we begin advertising in the papers or send them to auction. Excess livestock should be moved off the land."

Chavez summarized the situation this way, "How would you like it if I was squatting on your land? I’ve spoken to Pauline Whitesinger and others on HPL, I have listened to them, but I can’t change the laws. If it were me, I would move to my side of the fence."

Rena Babbitt Lane breaks a stoic veneer after nightfall. The smell of Juniper remains in the air, compliments of the Mesa. She recalls a friend, Sonny Manygoats, who froze to death returning home on foot after his horse was confiscated. She speaks her native tongue through a translator, alternately weeping and gesturing while describing the Dineh conflict.

Lane derives solace in creating sacred rug weavings in the family’s one-room hogan. "They symbolize Black Mesa life," she offers, "One day, the land will be reborn." If Lane harbors any doubts in her ability to endure, she does not betray them.

"We live always in fear," she says, "Who are these men that have caused us so much pain, so much suffering?" She waits for an answer. "How can they act with such hatred toward their own people?"

The Lane Home

Some have called Black Mesa a microcosm of the world, wherein numerous factions warring over land epitomize the ideologies of opposing cultures: The Traditionalists vs. the Progressives.

For others, Black Mesa embodies America’s widening spiritual divide. For Dineh and Hopi Traditionalists, their position might best be summarized by Thomas Banyacya, a translator of the Hopi Prophesies. "The Dineh and Hopi are bound for a reason. We are the natural stewards of the Four Corners area, guardians of its colossal resources until America understands how to use the land’s power for positive ends."

Hopi Prophesies which date back more than a thousand years predicted the energy/land conflict and, according to Hopi Instructions, warned that should Black Mesa be destroyed, and should the world’s indigenous protectors perish, the earth would no longer be in balance. If this comes to pass, say Traditionalists, the earth will respond in kind with a process called "Purification," purging all life.

In the interim and as history would prove, protecting the land’s eco-future has its price, as Black Mesa continues to propel the Southwest’s massive energy consumption while forging some of the most pivotal chapters in Native American history.

For "The People" known as Navajo Dineh, the conflict that is Black Mesa is a morality play of such immense proportions, some say, it could have only been staged by the Creator himself.


Please contact smfletch@prodigy.net with feedback and comments.



Article and Photos:
© January 2001. Suzanne Marcus Fletcher. All Rights Reserved. First world serial rights granted by the author to SENAA International, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Amsterdam.

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