Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Caught in a Tangled Web of US-Indian History in Their Long Fight to Remain on Ancestral Lands, Navajo Dissentersopposed to Forced Relocation Hope the United Nations Will Take Up Theircause

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Caught in a Tangled Web of US-Indian History in Their Long Fight to Remain on Ancestral Lands, Navajo Dissentersopposed to Forced Relocation Hope the United Nations Will Take Up Theircause

Article excerpt

From the hilltop above her ancestral homeland, Navajo elder Glenna Begay sees a glorious past, an uncertain present, and an unwanted future.

Looking off toward the horizon, her eyes fall on a giant crane rising above the escarpments of pion, sage, and juniper. The machine's spindly arm suspends a bus-size shovel bucket that slams into the earth, exposing a rich vein of coal and sending up a dust cloud that's visible as far away as the Grand Canyon, 80 miles west.

The story of this country, the coal mine, and a group of Navajo families is a morality play of the American Southwest - one rooted, as is often the case in this part of the country, in a pitched battle over how to use the land. "This story encompasses every key dynamic of the postwar West - cultural change, redistribution of wealth and power, transition from agrarian to industrial society, limited resource bases, and questionable futures," says historian Catherine Feher-Elston. Now, after 25 years of fighting over this territory and multiple efforts by Washington to intercede, the outcome remains more murky than ever. Only one thing seems clear: The 125 or so extended Navajo families scratching out a subsistence living from this red-rock tract of land - in defiance of US law requiring them to move - will not leave voluntarily. "This is an Indian war, and we will never stop until we have victory," vows Leonard Benally, who lives near the mining area. "What happens here will be the turning point for US relations with all native peoples. It starts here at Big Mountain, Arizona." To stay on their ancestral land - and to ensure future generations can do the same - this group of traditional Dineh Navajo is appealing to what may be the court of last resort: the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Two years ago, Dineh representatives filed a complaint with the UN, charging that US policy of forced relocation violates their human rights. Now their argument appears to be winning support with the international body. "Lives, indigenous native American culture, and human rights are being sacrificed in order to provide short-term profits for a nonsustainable {coal mine}," says Marsha Monestersky, co-chair of the nongovernmental Human Rights Caucus at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. "Because all efforts to obtain justice in the US judicial system have been exhausted, the Dineh people have no other choice but to formally request the UN to investigate these glaring violations." Enter, the United Nations Last year, a representative of the UN's Commission on Human Rights visited the tribal lands to hear stories and collect information. The findings are expected by April, but a preliminary report may come within days or weeks. While the UN findings will have no legal status in the US, Dineh families and their supporters hope the glare of the international spotlight will shame the US into amending its law. Indeed, even influential congressmen have indicated the US policy is flawed. The late Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who helped get the relocation law through Congress in 1974, called the episode the biggest mistake of his career. Current Arizona Sen. John McCain has concurred. "The purpose of ... relocation was to settle land disputes in a timely and orderly fashion," he said. "The Navajos have lost, the {neighboring} Hopis have lost, and the attorneys have won. It's clear this program has failed to meet its objectives." The history of Navajo relocation is a convoluted narrative that stretches back to 1882. That year, the US created a reservation for Hopi and other Indians, and set it within what has become a much larger Navajo reservation. Hopis lived on 500-year-old ancestral sites, adjacent to the Navajo, and survived by traditional methods of dry-crop farming. No real problems occurred until one of the world's densest deposits of accessible coal - representing about $10 billion in revenue - was discovered in the 1950s beneath land occupied by both tribes, known as the "joint-use area. …

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