Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Big Mountain Dineh Resistance: Still A Cornerstone

By NaBahe (Bahe) Keediniihii (Katenay), 2015


Big Mountain, Dinehtah (Navajo Lands) – In this remote high desert which is mostly covered with juniper and pinon pine forest in northeastern Arizona lays a region known as Black Mesa. The region was once so pristine but in the 1960s, Peabody Energy acquired leases to begin mining, building highways and massive industrial infrastructures, and extracting an ancient aquifer. Dineh (means The Peoples) who inhabited the region and who kept an ancient form of eco-conscious practices were now confronted with destructive and political upheavals. Traditional and non-English speaking Dineh were soon notified that “a Law” was made that will divide these territories and one half of it will go to Dineh’s close neighbor, the Hopis. Immediate concern and oppositions grew among Dineh and traditional Hopis, but this also exposed that major utility companies who served sprawling southwest cities were behind the lobbying and financial power that boost the U. S. Congress’s passage of the “Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974.”

Eventually, the federal-controlled Navajo government came forth with distorted information that, “the Hopis have disputed over these lands,” and the feds had figured out a way to settle this. However, Hopi chiefs and spiritual leaders who were of the traditional-based village autonomy told their Dineh friends there was a 20 yearlong effort made by commissioners, from the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), to established a U.S. run tribal council. A handpicked Hopi council was formed in early 1960, and the Peabody lease was signed soon after. The unannounced Relocation Law was already being drafted by Peabody lawyers and U.S. House members of Arizona about this time also. Traditional Hopis also told the Dineh that according to their lawyers’ findings the region will be further divided and which will forever endanger the tribal co-existence and the pristine state of the lands.

In regards to the mass media headlines of a “hundred year old land dispute” between these tribes, no evidence or proof went with their storyline. On the other hand, published articles and books pointed out that numerous utility companies were conspiring previously to target the Black Mesa coal field: have the Department of the Interior adjust the 1882 joint-reservation of the Dineh and Hopis, that leases can only be made through organized tribal ‘friendlies,’ and perhaps design a taxpayer funded Indian removal policy.


(Photos by Dan budnik, 1979) Black Mesa coal mine [L], Pauline Whitesinger & relatives on the demarcation line.

Local native opposition continued, but there was confusion that was caused by politically minded Dineh and as Navajo officials kept coercing local Dineh to begin plans to, give up their ancient culture, stop living in log and dirt huts, and move away to where elaborate dwellings will be built for them. The federal partitioning was becoming a reality with bull-dozed routes for the steel and barbed wire fences that would shut off the natural open ranges. In the fall of 1977, a lone traditional Dineh woman began having numerous encounters with government, Indian fence-construction crew. The crew also began humiliating her about her traditional life styles, but one day and to the surprise of the crew foreman, Pauline Whitesinger at five-foot-two ripped out a dead juniper root and flung it out at the retreating foreman. The heavy two inch root slammed into the side mirror of the government vehicle. The foreman scrambled to the microphone to call the nearest BIA Indian police in the area, but Pauline was too quick and was there with a two hands full of sand which she casted toward the foreman’s mouth.  The BIA foreman’s call never went over out. Other crewmembers were now in their trucks and in no time, the construction site was all empty and quiet, as Pauline stood alone again on her ancestral grazing pasture with her sheep nearby.

As the fall cold evening sun was going down, Pauline walked the herd back toward the sheep corral which was near her little log and dirt hogan, and a neighbor was passing by in their pickup truck. Pauline waved them down and asked (in Dineh language) for a big favor, “Please, tell the first household that might be down the road and if they can to also pass on my message. ‘This afternoon I must have over reacted and may have damaged a law that we were clearly told to never touch or interfere with. I had an altercation with that fencing crew,’ and tell our relatives that ‘I don’t know what will happen to me, but Washington’s police may all be on their way to take me away.’ Pass this message on for me in case tomorrow people will wonder what had happened to me.”

Many of Pauline’s clan relation and relatives showed up along the newly erected fence that same evening. Quickly, Dineh organized to work late and begin dismantling as much fence as possible and as much as their few trucks can haul away. During a meeting a day later and with Pauline still having her freedom, she was told by her relatives, “You have re-ignited the ancestors’ flame of resistance against the U.S. Army, those flames from a hundred and fifth teen years earlier. We will have to mobilize and have meetings to stop this invasion by Washington.” Pauline’s sheepherding range became the earliest stronghold for modern day Dineh resistance against colonization and Peabody’s sponsored terror of psychological warfare.

There were failed attempts to get the BIA’s Navajo government support, and even protests that turned violent in front of the federal-tribal headquarters. Elders and their Dineh supporters along with AIM advisors turned to the federal agencies and the courts, but the feds’ response was that only Congress can repeal the relocation law. It was realized then that that would take millions of dollars of lobbying efforts to convince the feds to think otherwise about these particular Indians. The tribal government would be prohibited by the BIA to finance such repeal efforts.

Meanwhile on the lands of Big Mountain, there were still threats of fencing, livestock confiscation, aerial patrols, capping off of water wells, disruption of traditional ceremonies, coercion by relocation program, and federal Indian police presence. Dineh youths and elders set up resistance outposts despite the new federal “restrictions on new construction and improvements.” By 1980, Big Mountain Dineh resisters and their few but growing non-Natives allies began network strategies that reached as far as Washington State, southern California and the east coast. Non-native support collectives began bringing themselves and logistics out to the now restricted zones. Both the indigenous community and non-Natives shared the need to document the deliberate violations of human rights, to stop forcible occupation to extract fossil fuel, to halt the desecration of human religions, and to let the world know that the U.S. is committing genocide. Dineh elders and youths felt that by working alongside non-Native allies, they can rebuild and strengthen Dineh culture and livelihoods that were under siege.

(Photo by Bay Area Big Mountain Support Group, 1987) Ashiike' Bi'ts'ii' [center] and family joining supporters at sheep corral construction site.

This was a traditional and land based resistance taking place in modern colonial America and which was initiated by non-English speaking matriarch and patriarchs. This was a sovereign movement that recognized its treaties made with the U.S. by their ancestors. This was a movement that relied on sacred laws of existence and therefore and once again, they rejected the Anglo-colonizers’ aggressive methods of governing. Big Mountain Dineh resistance was so unique, not only by the beauty of their country and culture, but that they were able to deter federal Indian dominance of earth based on real estate and to hold off Peabody coal from expanding.     

The year 2000 brought new federal laws that would attempt to clear out those elders and their families who have not yet made legal agreements according to numerous mandates that were amended to the original relocation law. Most but a few of the original Dineh matriarch and patriarchs were still around to direct how resistance communities should respond and so, it was reaffirmed that resistance will continue, this time in the name of human survival. The elders felt this is their only option since all of Black Mesa, including Big Mountain, is to be mined beyond 2054. This meant that if the Dineh failed as caretakers of mother earth, they would allow the escalation of climate change and the end of Big Mountain religion. All Dineh who were around then could not believe that they were still at “war,” the resistance to the inhumane relocation laws, but corporate profits and intense Indian policing were gaining over the now sparsely Dineh holdouts. Non-Native supporters and helpers however kept vigil alongside their surviving elder hosts; while a small amount of the Dineh cultural resources were being maintained.

The small consciousness in America that realizes we live “in the belly of the monster,” the vicious colonial beast of the world, perhaps. Within its urban guts, there is daily surveillance and monitoring of our every movements, activity and conversation, and are analyzed by video and national data centers. Indian country is different because they are wards of the state and are confined into guarded enclosures. It does not matter how spirituality and nobility is said to dominate, natives are easily steered by greed, poverty and that readily available acts of jealousy. Those colonial conditioning factors have eventually infested both the Hopi and Navajo reservation, and this is altering identity and pride. This also has penetrated so-called ‘activism’ as groups or a few bunches rally only when contribution dollars are flowing, and while the core purpose of their traditional elders are overlooked, almost purposely. Outside non-Native alliances for indigenous or global causes are also being dissected by this American terror of fear, policing and civil order. Those ideas of peaceful or loving understanding for collaboration are only words of décor and are not being defined and discussed as to how those can be re-applied. Meanwhile, Wall Street trades and mergers maintain their genuine trust and profits gains to feed its police state and its war machines.        

Long and short term non-Native helpers are sometimes the only full-time member at Dineh elder homesteads. Sheepherder has been the underlining, volunteer position title, but there were much skills and challenges that went with the endless manual work of water collecting, cooking or heating, sometimes farming and harvest, believe it or not even traditional ritual assistance, and human rights observation. In more recent times, these means of association has become the strategy to help resisters maintain presence on the ancestral lands, the sheep becoming a tool of resistance and re-occupying the homelands.

The BIA and its Indian police however begun, in late 2014, to initially target this native elder – white supporter bond, and sheep herds were threatened once again. It is so obvious when police staged raids after days of endless drone and foot commando surveillance, and then specific family homestead are targeted. Over 300 sheep and goats were confiscated and were never returned by the BIA–Hopi agency. As of now, non-Native volunteer organizers and on-land helpers could face being arrested and prosecuted, then excluded. The few and the pride elder matriarchs and their volunteer helpers will resist orders to acquire “official” permission, and it’s not known how this outcome will be because there are no monies for a legal fight nor are there willing lawyers available to represent this type of a defense.

White oppressors invade the Indians and white or non-Native sympathizers get in the way. Reminds me of what a Lakota man said one time at Black Hills, South Dakota, during a protest against uranium mining, “Someday us Indians may not be around to protect our mother earth, and if that happens, you white people may have to stand up.”

Today, the original surviving elders are advanced in age and unable to direct the movement they helped start. The flames that the late Pauline Whitesinger re-ignited still flickers in the distance out there in remote southwest Big Mountain. Now, the dark winds of climate change and the delusional-trendy America are about to blow it out. Those that are left and are somewhat disconnected to their elders’ past revolutionary journeys have succumbed to colonial victories while they blindly retract failed avenues of democratic forgiveness.

“Legacies of great wisdoms” is how I would put it in reference to my 40 years of working for these traditional elders who were mostly women, matriarchs. Would the now weakened societies allow another indigenous America to fade away by mere ignorance, and because how those coal and carbon-saturated shale fields of Big Mountain are so necessary for the short-term future of consumption and waste?

‘Stop your fears! Believe strongly in yourself!’ - Ida Mae Clinton, Star Mountain

February 5, 2015 -  The first thing I must acknowledge is that, though I will do my best, my words could never do Ida Mae Clinton or her struggle, justice. There is no way to adequately describe her strength, her resolve, or the depth of the spiritual relationship she had with the land that sustained not only her, but countless generations before her. Ida was what in a sane world would be considered a “national treasure,” yet her passing and the passing of others like her [5 elder resisters in 2014] have taken place with barely a whisper, barely a mention.


First and foremost, Ida was an activist fighting to save her way of life from the forces of colonialism. During the 1980s Ida and other elders on Black Mesa took their activism to another level and opened up their homes to “supporters” who came from all over the world to see firsthand what was happening.

 Supporters began staying for weeks or months at a time herding sheep and providing elder care and domestic assistance. One important task of the supporter is to spread the word about what is happening in that area. The message of Ida’s resistance must be heard. Her message, her truth, is exactly what we need to hear In today’s world of multiple and overlapping crises, many of them stemming from our warped or totally nonexistent relationship with the land we live on and the natural forces that sustain us.

Ida Mae Clinton was one of the last of a generation that truly knew what it was to be free. Their worldview is almost incomprehensible to us. How many of us can go down to our local river or stream and drink from it? How many of us can feed, clothe, and house ourselves without the aid of money or huge corporations?
Imagine learning everything you need for life without expensive universities and tedious hours of absorbing and regurgitating useless facts and information. Imagine a way of life that does not pollute and destroy the earth we depend on for survival. Though the modern world has given us much, the price has been steep and something has been lost, something fundamental to our humanity and to our ability to be good stewards of this precious earth.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Baby Boomer generation was coming of age and driving the expansion of cities and suburbs in the increasingly energy-hungry southwest. Amazingly, at that time and despite all the assaults against indigenous people over the centuries, many traditional Diné still thrived on the so-called reservation. Around this time is when the U.S. government instigated land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes began in earnest.
It was no coincidence that the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act came into effect during this period of settler expansion in the southwest. This legislation that officially disenfranchised many thousands of traditional Diné was enacted in 1974. The Navajo Generating Station power plant was officially brought online two years later in 1976; it ran on coal that was strip mined from lands that had until a few years before been occupied by traditional Diné and Hopi living together in relative peace and harmony. Essentially, there was cultural genocide in exchange for cheap, dirty energy.

Ida lived far enough from the mine and the Navajo Generating Station to avoid the very worst aspects of this turmoil (devastating pollution and a marring of the landscape), but she was still swept up in the tragic events due to living on the wrong side of the newly created Hopi partition boundary. In the very beginning she could have taken a settlement and moved to relocation housing like many others were compelled to do, but she did not. As the years wore on, and as she grew frailer, rather than take the easier path of moving in with relatives to live out the rest of her days in relative comfort, Ida chose to continue residing on her land despite the hardships she knew she would face.

Her own tribal leaders, many of them brainwashed by the settler education system and more concerned with money and status than with anything else, turned their backs on her and the other resisters. Services like road and home repairs that were provided to most tribal members were denied to Ida because, according to the bureaucrats, technically she was no longer living on the Navajo Reservation. I remember Ida telling me several times how she and her daughter Rose (who was special needs and required a lot of care) would often resort to eating potatoes for days on end. There were times when she would be fearful of people trespassing on her land, yet there was no phone line, no electricity. Living as a resister to relocation also caused rifts between Ida and members of her family who had made different choices. There was bitterness on both sides; some relationships fell apart and were never mended.
Knowing the physical and emotional hardships she would face, why did Ida choose to stay? Well, when the land dispute kicked into high gear, she recognized right away that the future of the Diné people was in jeopardy. She understood instinctively that dislocation from the land would mean a loss of tradition, a loss of language, and that the loss of these things constituted a form of violence. This is why she advocated for direct action. When the livestock impoundments began, Ida fought back. Along with her friends and family in Star Mountain valley she confronted BIA officials, even going as far as to get into physical altercations with them. She marched, she protested, she traveled to faraway cities to spread awareness about the threats facing her traditional way of life.
Here are some of her words from the last video recorded interview she gave to NaBahe Katenay Keedihiihii for Big Mountain Productions: “Our livelihood, like the sheep, all of it they confiscated! The sheep are our savings and income, food as well. There are the cornfields, the sweat lodges, places of holiness — all of these they destroyed in our area. To me it is unacceptable! Another solution with more force perhaps; stronger plans initiated from here; our supporters and non-Native allies notified — Access into [the] coal mine pit needs to be blocked, a barrier set up and their operations halted.”
During the last weeks of Ida’s life the Hopi and BIA assault on Black Mesa elders was renewed with the tacit support of the Navajo tribal government. Swat teams complete with helicopters descended on Black Mesa after a lull of over a decade, terrorizing and arresting people and confiscating livestock. Though Ida was recovering in a nursing home far from her own land at the time, and though her family did not dare let her know what was happening, it was almost as if she could somehow sense what was going on. The small progress she had managed to make began to reverse itself. She became “agitated” according to the nurses, and began insisting on being allowed to go home immediately.
I wish I could say that Ida passed peacefully from this world after her decades of inspirational struggle, but that would be a lie. Thanks to a fundamentally broken geriatric care system, her last months on this earth were very difficult. The details are too painful to recount here. In the end, her heart that was so strong and warm and full of love failed. Because of the situation on Black Mesa she could not be buried on her beautiful ancestral lands, but instead was laid to rest in some strip mall border town. Sadly, the circumstances of her passing are not unique and will be familiar to many reading this.

What is unique is the way she lived. She lived life on her own terms. She fought for what she believed in, drawing upon wells of strength that must have been quite deep. In the days following her passing, many family members came out to her land over a period of several days to pay their respects, as is their custom. Seeing Ida’s great-grandchildren and other young relatives taking the sheep out to pasture made me smile in spite of my grief. She had left them an important gift; she had been a living example, a living testament to the importance of holding onto their traditions. Her sacrifice was not in vain.

 Over these past few months I think I’ve cried more for her than I cried for my own grandmother when she passed in 2010 (rest in peace). This was surprising at first, but then understanding dawned on me. Yes, Ida was not related to me by blood; she was not flesh of my flesh. Yet flesh can be corrupted, destroyed, and obliterated. Flesh rots away and blood can be tainted. Spiritual bonds and emotional ties born of shared experiences, mutual respect, and an acknowledgement of another person’s humanity and uniqueness — these bonds are not so easily broken. Some might say that these bonds transcend our earthbound existence; they are, or can be, immortal.

 I will end this with Ida’s own words: “The aggressors force requires prayers to confront them, “Stop your fears! Believe strongly in yourself!”

 Ron Lester Whyte
Philadelphia, Pa.