Alexander Cockburn's America: The Navajo Indians Are Resisting Pressure to Capture Their Lands

New Statesman (1996), May 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

Alexander Cockburn's America: The Navajo Indians Are Resisting Pressure to Capture Their Lands


In 1979 Katherine Smith, a Navajo grandmother, confronted tribal police and Bureau of Indian Affairs fencing crews with a shotgun, firing a blast over their heads. This was the first shot in a resistance to the forced relocation of 12,000 Navajo from their traditional lands on Big Mountain in northern Arizona.

"The federal government took me to prison because I wouldn't relocate," Smith says, "but I will go to prison again if they try to take me from my land."

And that fate is precisely what Smith and 200 other Navajo families are facing this spring, after resistance to forced eviction.

The whole affair has been played in the press as a century-old land dispute between the Navajo and the Hopi. The truth is somewhat different and has to do with coal. The coal in question, which lies in the richest 100 square miles in North America, is in high demand because of its low sulphur content. The ardent desire of mining and oil companies to extract the treasure was thwarted by Navajo refusal to lease the land; and by the fact that the Hopi had no central government, but separate independent communities.

Enter John Boyden, a Mormon attorney who ingratiated himself with the Hopi and soon concocted a "Hopi tribal council" consisting of pro-mining leaders from three of the 12 Hopi villages.

In 1962 Boyden got his Hopis to file a suit demanding that the federal government concede that the Hopi had equal rights to the coal deposits under Navajo-controlled lands on Black Mesa. The suit prevailed. In 1966 Boyden signed leases to Peabody Coal covering 100 square miles of coal reserves on Black Mesa. The Navajo Tribal Council, not wanting to be left out, quickly signed similar deals.

It emerged soon after that not only was Boyde, n operating on behalf of the Indians, but lie was also a hired agent of Peabody Coal. In order to consolidate the mineral wealth, he needed to partition the "joint use lands" occupied by the Hopi and Navajo. To further this aim, he required Congress to pass a law realigning the reservation boundaries.

Boyden hired a PR firm, Evans & Associates, to concoct a scenario of internecine Hopi-Navajo enmity from time immemorial. The firm produced films and features, successfully planted in Life, buttressing the theme that the only way to protect the Indians from themselves was to divide the land between the tribes.

Boyden's strategy was successful. In 1974 Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, dividing 1.8 million acres between the two tribes. Any member of either tribe on the wrong side of the line was forced to up stakes and move across. There were 100 Hopi on what was now Navajo terrain, and no fewer than 10,000 Navajo on lands now officially Hopi. Coincidentally the Hopi side contained most of the known coal reserves. The language of the bill was written by Boyden.

As an inducement for the Navajo to relocate speedily, the law passed by Congress required an immediate 90 per cent reduction in livestock grazing on the lands now assigned to the Hopi, under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. …

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