Black Mesa

The Black Mesa, as well as 27,000 Navaho and 10,000 Hopi, inhabits a reservation in Northeastern Arizona bordered to the north by the San Juan River, and to the east by the Colorado River (Zarsky 39). Billions of years ago, the environment was not the arid dessert the Indigenous People’s now inhabit (O’Sullivan 1). The Black Mesa Plateau at that time was covered in an expansive and lush lake. As millions of years went by, the climate changed and the lake dried; the vegetation became coal, and at 21 billion tons, it is now the largest coal reserve in the United States (O’Sullivan 1). While the surface water has largely disappeared, beneath the Black Mesa is also an enormous aquifer of 7,500 square miles (Zarsky 39). Fresh water squeezes through to the surface here and there, creating springs. Hopi tribes have been centered around these springs for a millennium, longer than any other people in North America. Oraibi and Shungopavi, two ancient Hopi towns, are the oldest inhabited towns in the existing United States. Villages are known for being independent and tightly-knit, perhaps the scarcity and vast distances between water sources. Each village is known for its own craft, and though the Hopi are one people, they are much less homogenous than other First Nations, in part due to distance between water supplies ( These water sources are considered alive and sacred to the Hopi people; a great amount of the tribe’s spiritual practices are closely tied to the springs from the aquifer.

Such a peace-loving people so closely tied to its water sources came head to head with another party very interested in not only the water beneath the  Reservation but also the coal. Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company on the planet, saw the opportunity for profit. Peabody Energy has holdings across the United States and Australia, and creates one tenth of the electricity for the United States, entirely by burning coal (Zarsky 40). During “a global coal conference in Paris, France, Peabody CEO Greg Boyce, described progress towards zero emissions in coal use. ‘Coal is not a bridge to the future,’ he proclaimed. ‘Coal is the future’” (Zarsky 40). However delusional the company’s direction was, they were able to see a huge profit margin in the Southwest. By taking the coal from Indigenous People’s lands, burning it and supplying the electricity to western states, which are currently booming in population but struggling in resources, the company could make enormous profits. Documents prove that the company was paying John Boyden at the same time he was advising the Hopi and Navaho peoples to lease out the coal and water of the Black Mesa (Zarsky 40). From 1970 to 2005, Peabody used 40 billion gallons of sacred water to transport coal using a system called a slurry line, which uses gravity and water to move coal. Peabody promised desperately needed jobs to the Hopi and Navaho, and then used their sacred ground water to tear their land apart for the coal underneath.

On the reservation, an existence that had been passed from generation to generation began to change drastically. With less water in the springs, the lifeblood of Hopi settlements for a millennium, Hopi and Navaho people were forced to drive up to 25 miles to water stations were they filled drums of water and hauled them back to their families. Both groups were thrust into survival mode. The already trying living conditions on the reservation became even more arduous with the lack of water; many without the means to continue traditions like terrace farming and sheepherding were forced to abandon practices that had lasted hundreds of generations. Their belief in the connectedness of all of nature and all of creation gave the Hopi and Navaho the conviction that Peabody Energy’s influence had caused the disturbance. But when challenged, the company cited eleven scientific studies that proved the changes were due to drought conditions in the area. In one Peabody-funded study rivaling in subjectivity the cancer research done by cigarette companies, the study found the effects of Peabody Energy on springs “too small to be measured” (Zarsky 42) But as the debate reached no conclusion, the side supporting Indigenous People’s grew and grew. In 1998, Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council joined the newly formed Black Mesa Trust against the environmental degradation occurring on reservation land (Bessler 5). With a protest outside a Peabody shareholder meeting, the filming of an educational documentary In Light of Reverence, and an article by Time Magazine, the conflict demanded national attention.

At the same time, a successful suit by The Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Resources Defense Council, and the National Parks and Conservation Association demanded the Mohave Power Plant update the plant with pollution control equipment. The Mohave power plant is relevant because it is the site where much of the Peabody coal is burned to make electricity. The plant, before undergoing the expensive procedure, wanted to secure its future but first needed to make sure its coal supply wouldn’t dwindle. Mohave Power Plant asked its coal supplier, Peabody Energy, to apply for a permanent mining permit. But with huge public support for the Indigenous People and their resources, Peabody was pressured to no longer take the sacred water from the reservation aquifer and agreed to change their water supply to a source 120 miles away. This victory was amplified when the deadline expired during the construction process and The Mohave Power Plant was shutdown, and with it, one of two of the Black Mesa Peabody mines.

However, the transition was not easy for the Hopi and Navaho people. During years the mine was functioning, the Navaho received 30 million dollars in reimbursement—one quarter of the Navaho tribe’s yearly fund. Similarly, the Hopi received 12 million dollars, one third of their annual fund (Zarsky 41). Though Peabody was no longer using the aquifer, the Indigenous People who live above it still struggled. Both water and money were hard to come by for the already stretched people of the reservation. To cope, the Navaho voted to bring six casinos to their land, but the Hopi voted overwhelmingly against the Casino initiative. As activist Hopi Vernon Masayesva says, “In our science, we know everything is interconnected” (Zarsky 42). It is such a belief in the connectedness and order of creation that must get them through the difficult times ahead. For them, the most important piece of their tradition is not to be rich by western standards, but to be rich in culture. Had they wanted to assimilate into society as the United States government demanded for so long, they could have submitted. This group continues the traditions of their forefathers by believing in the world they live them, and by paying respect to the earth, the earth will bless them in return. More important than the drive it takes to retrieve water using the drums in the back of the pickup truck, are the sacredness of the water retrieved, and the sacredness of the Hopi continuing on.

Today Indigenous Peoples, First Nations around the United States, sacrifice so much of what have for the sake of their spirituality and their traditional ways. By staying on the reservation in poor economic circumstances, the Hopi and Navaho show bravery and determination to keep their culture alive. The tribes fought for their sacred water, even though they were getting millions of dollars, in return for it. Such devotion to their land is not a concept understood by many westerners. Historically, Native Americans turned down offer after offer to move of the land in return for cash. This baffled government agents then, and corporate agents now. With support from groups such as the Sierra Club, the National Resource Defense council, and private citizens, First Nations will continue to fight for the lands and waters that are sacred to them.

– Chris Edmonds

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