In February, a group of ten people ranging in age from 5 to over 50 left their homes in the Great Lakes to offer support and accompaniment to the Dine still engaged in a struggle for land and self determination that has lasted for over a hundred and thirty years.
Since 1864 when Kit Carson forced the Dine people to march from their ancestral lands to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, the Dine have been embattled for control of their land and livelihood. When the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1962 approved an exploration lease for 75,137 acres of Navajo Tribal land just north of the 1882 reservation (which later became Peabody’s Kayenta Mine), a new cycle of devastation had been set in motion. Lines began to be drawn for a twenty year dispute between those who welcomed the corporations and “development” and those who wanted to honor and preserve the ways of their ancestors. Our local group had been in contact with the Sovereign Dine Nation office and they had related incidents of harassment and violence against those who stood in the way of the mine’s current operation and expansion. Homes had been mysteriously bulldozed when residents were away, leaving their owners homeless (it is currently illegal for repairs or building to take place on the lands still in dispute). Animals had been poisoned or impounded at great cost to their owners. In one instance, a van used to transport elders to organizing meetings had been set afire and destroyed.
An important series of legal proceedings were being held in Phoenix, Arizona February 10-13 where testimony as to the impact of relocation was being solicited.
Residents of Hopi Partition Land and organizers were anxious to attend to go on public record as being in opposition to the “Fairness Act” that would rob them of their homes. In an attempt to secure the safety of Dine homes in the absence of their owners, the SDN office sent out a call internationally for activists to come and help. During the week we were there, approximately 100 people from all over the U.S. ( even a few folks from Germany and Denmark) answered the call.
We arrived in the evening in Flagstaff, where the SDN office is located. We were given maps with directions to take us onto the reservation and to the homesite of one of the organizer’s families. We did not realize at the time how easy it is to get lost (even with explicit directions) for an outsider. The Dinetah is big country, beautiful and treacherous to those not used to its hazards of muddy and rocky roads. It was late and completely dark when we found the Tso’s residence. The situation had changed, even since we had left the SDN office a few hours before, and the families we had been assigned to (and which would have placed our group together in one geographic area) no longer needed the assistance of supporters. Frances Tso, a Dine organizer and our benefactor for the duration of our stay, quickly reassigned members of our group to various homesites. We parted company and supplies and separated into smaller groups of two and three. It was not until morning that it became clear we would maintain only minimal contact between the sites.
It is exactly these factors of distance and lack of telecommunication that make defense and support of the Dine resistors so challenging. But it is also these same things which make the Dine traditional life so worthy of preservation.
For my part, I was prepared for a week of facing down confrontational rangers, of taking photos of suspicious vehicles, of doing my best to nonviolently protect the home of the family where I had been placed. I was warned that the Dine are intolerant of freeloaders and expected supporters to help with the work of running a sheep ranch.
Even so, it was only some small help in preparing me for the type of physical work that sheepherding, cooking, cleaning on a traditional Dine homesite might entail.
The morning after I arrived, I had a few hours to talk with our soon to be absent hostess, Leta O’Daniel. She told me of her work doing support for the elders of her community. Because of the legal restrictions on building and the herd limitations imposed on the Dine living on HPL, many families find that the young adult members have to move off the reservation to find work and places to live (it not being possible for their families to build them houses or feed them). This encourages their assimilation into Western culture and makes it more difficult for them to maintain ties to their families and the land. With these young people gone, there is less of a support system for the elders to depend on. Organizers like O’Daniel are trying to cover these responsibilities by caring for the elders, even as they work to make it possible for the young folk to return. In addition to this work, O’Daniel and her family work on a permaculture project that attempts to replace the plants that were present on the land before the current mining projects. It is her hope that the traditional Dine diet of gathered plants for teas, food and medicine can someday be returned to. Then the Dine would be able to be less dependent on animal husbandry, and would therefore be less vulnerable to restrictions on herd-size as a way to chase them off the land.
The Dine group left from Hardrock Chapterhouse by mid-morning headed for the Fairness Hearings and we were left behind (with the exception of one supporter from our group who went to help with transportation logistics in Phoenix), to attempt to manage things.
Days are long, beginning at dawn. A traditional (octagonal, one room) hogan has its doorway opening east, so the first view of the day is the rising sun. The concept of “beauty” is a cornerstone of Dine culture and there could be no more clear way of setting your mind in the proper frame to appreciate and contemplate beauty than to wake to an Arizona sunrise each day. The hogan I stayed in had a gas stove as well as a wood stove, so cooking was not too different than what I’m used to. There is no running water, so all cooking, cleaning and bathing entailed chopping water out of the ice in the storage barrels and heating it on the wood stove. The outhouse, which stands a bit outside the compound, had two fist sized holes punched into it. The owners joke that the vandals are taking their spying duties to an extreme. Breakfast and cleaning is done by 9 am or so, and then the sheep are released from their corral and basically followed to go where they want to begin grazing. Because of the fact that many livestock had been impounded recently by the Hopi Tribal Council, I was asked to keep the sheep away from the roads and to stay close. This proved to be quite a challenge as one sheep in particular seemed to know what a novice I was and purposefully kept me running to always keep one step (literally) ahead of him. I had been told to sit down to let the sheep graze, that they would go slowly if I did. Sometimes that worked. Often I had to figure out where my obstinate friend wanted to go and get there sooner (if it was an “off limits” place, like a neighbor’s land or a road). It was mostly serene and contemplative to walk with the sheep, however.
The smell of sage as it was chewed by thirty sheep is pungent and fresh. The wind and the sun feel good and everywhere there is unspoiled natural beauty. When evening falls, the sheep are brought in. Usually this is around 5 or 6 pm. They are fed scraps and penned back in the corral, with the dogs for protection from coyotes. Then there is dinner, dishes, some good conversation and bed.
It was the first time in my life that I lived without money, stores, traffic, noise pollution, the sounds of factories, the voice of advertisement persuading me to buy something, the unnatural routine of modern work and ever-present police. In short, it was lovely. The rhythms of a good life were healing even to an outsider like me. It was hard to match this experience with expectations of conflict that I had come with. But things seem to change quickly in this country, as many people were quick to assure me.
During my stay, I spoke with Dine supporters and residents who had in the past seen satellites hovering over the homesite where I stayed. Although things were relatively peaceful, twice planes buzzed the sheep scaring them. On one occasion, a truck slowed down to watch me and the sheep, drove on and then turned around to drive past us again. There was a sense of hush and anticipation, as if at any time the situation could become very different. Long-time residents told me that the cycles of violence had come and gone for as long as they could remember.
Because of our particular mission this time out, we got to spend very little time with Dine resisters. We hope in the future to organize another group to go out and participate in the fight to maintain sovereignty for the Dine, to preserve their lands from unwanted development and to protect them from harassment from Peabody, non-traditional Hopi’s or other agents that come between them and the continuance of their traditional way of life.
The Sovereign Dine Nation office has put out a call to everyone to participate in a May campaign to create a human shield between the Dine resistors and the forces of relocation. Please contact the SDN office in Flagstaff at:
PO Box 30435
Flagstaff, AZ 86003