Help save the Dineh Nation at Big Mountain

by by Steve

The history of the white colonization of North America is replete with atrocities committed against the continent’s original inhabitants. In his mad search for gold, Christopher Columbus slaughtered and enslaved thousands of Arawak Indians he found living in Haiti. In the 1820s, President Andrew Jackson forced 70,000 Native Americans to migrate west of the Mississippi and killed hundreds more who refused to go. After the Civil War, the U.S. government prepared the way for the white settlement of the West with a series of ruthless, openly genocidal military campaigns directed against the Pawnee, Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne. And on and on.
Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a step in the territorial expansion of the United States that hasn’t left some native casualties in its wake.
Though most people think that U.S. persecution of the Indians ended with the disappearance of the buffalo and the establishment of the reservation system, government brutality toward the indigenous peoples of North America persists to this day. Consider, for example, what is happening to the Dineh (Navajo) Nation of Big Mountain in northeastern Arizona.
Ever since it was discovered that Big Mountain sits over the largest coal deposit in the country, our government has done everything in its power to relocate the reservation’s residents and open up land for mining by Peabody Coal Company. Congress passed a law authorizing relocation in 1974. Since that time, approximately 10,000 Dineh and 100 Hopi people have been moved off the land, destroying their self-sufficient farming and ranching lifestyle in the process. Many of those evicted have been settled in substandard tract housing in an area called the “New Lands” that in 1979 was the site of a massive uranium spill.
Today, only 1,500 Dineh remain on the land at Big Mountain resisting relocation — the majority of those are aging elders who have lived on the reservation their entire lives.
Currently, Dineh resisters are being asked to sign a draconian “accommodation agreement” that allows signatories to stay on their land but prohibits them from making any improvements to their farms. It allows them to keep only one sheep, one cow, one horse and one goat. As of April 1, resisters who’ve refused to sign the agreement face eviction at the hands of the U.S. marshals.
Luckily, radical environmentalists and others outraged by the government’s actions at Big Mountain have lately begun to rally to the Dineh resister’s cause. In late April, the Twin Cities Dineh Defense Alliance (TCDDA) sent a caravan of five activists to Big Mountain for more than a week to demonstrate solidarity, as well as to learn more about the situation.
“This is a pretty blatant case of genocide by the U.S. government,” explained Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr, a University student who was among the five who made the trip. “It is the largest relocation of Native Americans this century. Lots of people believe this kind of behavior is long past. But it’s not.”
“The uprooting of the Dineh is all part of a land-grab for energy,” said David Miller, another member of TCDDA who traveled to Big Mountain. “The only thing that stands between Peabody and all that coal is these 70- and 80-year-old grandmothers who refuse to leave.”
Miller and Trotzky-Sirr said the relocation policy has already taken a dreadful toll on the Dineh nation both on and off the reservation. Miller said that since relocating, 4,000 out of 12,000 people placed in the “New Lands” have died of cancer and other radiation-related diseases. He also points out that the birth defect rate among “New Lands” families is roughly 12 times the national average.
Miller and Trotzky-Sirr say pressure on the Dineh who’ve refused to either move or sign the “accommodation agreements” is mounting. Agents of the Peabody-friendly Hopi Tribal Councils, charged with relocating people living on mineral-rich reservation land, have taken to threatening resisters and have impounded their cattle for insignificant grazing infractions. The U.S. government has also been harassing resisters with low-flying jets and helicopters.
The Twin Cities activists also witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of Peabody’s ongoing mining operations on the once-pristine environment of the reservation. “They are making the land uninhabitable,” charged Miller.
“They’re taking the water out of the aquifers and making it impossible for people to farm,” said Trotzky-Sirr. “Also, a number of livestock have died from drinking water contaminated by Peabody mines.”
The TCDDA isn’t the only group that has come to the aid of the beleaguered Dineh resisters. Earth First! and other environmental groups from around the country have also gotten involved in the struggle. Miller said that a group of radical environmentalists called the Cascadian Forest Defenders are now down at Big Mountain and intend to blockade access roads if U.S. marshals decide to move against the resisters.
To help raise awareness of the struggle at Big Mountain, the TCDDA is screening “Broken Rainbow,” a 1985 documentary about the Big Mountain evictions at churches and other venues around town. The group has also arranged for two Dineh spokeswomen to visit the Twin Cities later this month. With enough of a public outcry, it is hoped, perhaps Peabody’s corporate juggernaut can be stopped, and the United States can avoid adding yet another atrocity against indigenous people to the pages of our national history.
For more information about upcoming events or for updates about the situation at Big Mountain, call the TCDDA office at 341-1038.
Steve Macek is a former columnist for the Daily. Patrick Reinsborough is an environmental activist and a member of the Twin Cities Dineh Defense Alliance.