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Black Mesa – A Navajo Sacrifice Area
What if I told you that there is a place where the indigenous people were exploited? That their historical rights have been taken away? That their religious freedom has been completely violated? What if I told you it had been going for over 30 years and still happened with little change? Would you believe it if I told you it was happening in the United States? Some of you may not be surprised, but some may be surprised to hear that the situation on Black Mesa has come to the attention of the council of religious freedom of the UN, has had many books, articles and publications written about it and yet, if you ask the average person in America if they know about it, inevitably the answer is NO. I have been asking myself for the last 10 years, since I first heard this story, how can it be? How can a situation so grave, so unjust be so unnoticed by the people who live in this country, this country that is founded on democratic principles? For me the situation on Black Mesa was like a microcosm for the world in general. I have often said to myself, if this can happen to the people in our country, to our indigenous people that we should treasure, the guardians of our country, those who came before us, etc., etc. be limited to them. It is a stone, a forerunner of what is to be.
Black Mesa, also known as Big Mountain, is a beautiful desert land in the northeastern tip of Arizona. It is also a desolate land that is scattered with few houses and mostly sheep and other livestock. It is home to the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. These two peoples shared and lived in peace on this piece of land since time immemorial. But the United States government, which holds these peoples in its charge, drew its borders in 1974, which left more than 10,000 Navajo (Dine’, “The People”) and about 100 Hopi families from the wrong side of the line. This land is held sacred to these peoples. It is the physical representation of Mother Earth. So when it came to light that these borders were drawn to exploit the land for resources (coal, uranium and natural gas) in the land under the irony was too great. The people whose land was taken from them do not even benefit from the resources themselves – they have no electricity, running water or plumbing, not even a telephone. They make their way in this world as they always have, through their livestock and agriculture. But this same existence was now threatened to turn on the taste of Las Vegas and Phoenix and water their many golf courses, in the desert. Everyone in Dine’ knows that the wells have dried up, the fauna has disappeared, and the plants for pasture and sheep are increasingly scarce. Like most of these stories, these sad events and measures were approved by corrupt elements of the home government, greedy leaders who line their pockets at the expense of their own people.
The United States Government decided to solve this problem of homelessness by moving these Dine’ families who are now on the Hopi Reservation, to follow housing in the suburbs of Phoenix. This did not work for obvious reasons, such as the fact that most of these families do not know how to survive in urban areas. Many could not pay their mortgages because they could not find jobs, especially because a large percentage of these relocatees are elderly people who do not speak English and are illiterate. Therefore, many of these old people, who do not know any other way to live than to graze sheep and live off the land, began to resist this move and are still after thirty years fighting for the right to stay on their ancestral lands.
The United States government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then called the Hopi Tribal Police into action to implement and enforce laws to make life harder for families who resist, to make they start on their own. Things like impounding their livestock, because they are intruders, do not allow them to collect wood, as it is stolen, until bulldozing their houses and sacred spaces.
In 1998 I was called to action by my conscience. I went to Black Mesa to spend several months with an elderly couple, to help them with their daily activities and to watch over them. Winter is an unforgiving time on the Mesa. Many resistant elders die in the winter because the temperatures reach below zero, and with wood being so hard to get, many get sick, they have no wood to keep warm and they freeze. I also went to bear witness to the atrocity. It has been documented that families who had a white person living with them are not harassed by the Hopi Police, since white people in this country have a voice in the media and if something happened to a white person on the Mesa, it was documented. it would be in all the waves. What this situation needed and still needs is media attention in the United States.
During my time, I had the absolute honor of staying with the *Smiths.(*I have changed their name in this article, for their protection). But as my time with them continued, they were known to me as “Grandma” and “Grandpa”. My purpose in staying with them was to help and see first hand what was going on up there, but I think in the end, they helped me even more. When a person of relative privilege goes to a place where the basic comforts and comforts of home are absent, it forces you to become what is really in you, to call your deepest nature. It’s an experience where you discover what you’re really made of. Get down to the heart of you and just simplify everything. Don’t take running water and toilets or a hot bath for granted anymore. Things and the value of things become unimportant as you are more focused on the things that really matter in life. How long does it really take to be content and happy? What is happiness? It comes from things, or it is better to feel gratitude after a hard day’s work to graze the sheep and cut wood; that beautiful exhaustion that comes from having a real relationship with the land and the creatures of the land. I learned to talk to myself and listen. I ask myself, what are the problems in my life that I would be willing to fight for?
I also helped grandma and dad. I was there when the Hopi Ranger came with a semi-automatic, into their house and began to question them in a language that I knew they did not understand. I was there to take care of the goats and sheep when Grandma needed to go to her heart doctor, 3 hours away in Phoenix. Alone and afraid, I brought the herd home when the snow and ice were so deep that walking on her all day ice balls had formed on her fur and it weighed so much on her, she could no longer walk. Relying on this new inner strength, I found a stick and began to beat the snowballs from the goats until I could climb the mountain and home and safety.
I was also there for the humor. The first time I participated in the slaughter of a sheep, I was given many small tasks to do. Slaughtering a sheep and preparing the meat afterwards is a process that takes all day. The Dine’ eats every part of the sheep. I watched as the grandmother sat emptying the intestines of the sheep into old coffee cans and cleaning the intestines in hot water. He took part of the layer of fat that had dried in the sun and began to wrap the clean pieces of intestines around it. Then put these packets in clean water to keep them fresh. She gestured for me to do something with the cup of water with the intestines and the dirty coffee can. I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to put my clean bowels in the dirty coffee can. So I pretended to do it and she nodded. Then I dumped the guts into the coffee can. I had almost deleted everything when she started screaming. She came to me with another bowl of clean water and gestured for me to take the intestines out of the coffee can and clean them. I realized then that all she had wanted me to do was dump the dirty water from the cleaning cup into the coffee can. I feel horrible. But instead of being mad, it became the joke of the duration of my stay. She started calling me “dygyss” (a form of “stupid” or “git”) and even when we had visitors she would tell the story of how the stupid bilaga’ana (white girl) would destroy clean food to be eaten in the dung of sheep . Maybe she still tells that story…
I received many gifts there, but the most precious gift they gave me was the gift of humility. The gift of knowing how much space I take up in the world. The gift of knowing more is not better. It is quality over quantity, always the gift of gratitude. That humility has nothing to do with weakness, but is perhaps the most powerful human attribute of silent power. To give when you have nothing and never presume to know anything. Since then I’m thankful that I don’t have to sleep with one eye open, worried about freezing to death or having my house blown down while I’m away. After all the pain and sadness these Dine’ resisters had lived at the hands of foreigners, they accepted me enough to invite me to their house, eat the food I made and made a place for me in his family is an overwhelming feeling; how much more advanced and forgiving and understanding people who are on the verge of losing everything can be. It really changed the perspective of how I think. Even now, almost ten years later, as I sit here writing this, tears are still welling up in my eyes because I still have so much to learn and wish I could have done more. When I was there, I even considered for a while just staying with grandma and grandpa and continuing to help them as my life’s work. But I knew that I had to return to my life, and that my job was to bring back these lessons with me, and implement them in my life, far from serenity and simplicity. And to tell people what is happening up there, in a beautiful desolate land full of people who “Walk in Beauty”.
As an update, things for the most part have remained the same on Black Mesa. The father died about 5 years ago, of old age. The grandmother, at around 80 years old, continues to live out her years, alone, on her piece of land with her sheep. In November, he suffered a minor heart attack after a nasty encounter with a Hopi Ranger while herding his sheep. To read his statement go to: (Link: [http://www.blackmesais.org/elderstakeaction.htm] ) Currently his case is ongoing and the pre-trial date is March 12.
“When you think about it, in all 50 states human rights and civil rights are reported every day on television. Every day situations across the sea are reported. We have the same situation here. We are human but our laws have been broken . All of these people’s rights have been violated. They are broken.” —Percy Deal, Dine’, Chapter Hardrock
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