Rangers employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs rode in on horse back and four wheelers, armed with portable corals and livestock trailers, to take horses and calves from Dineh tribal elders living on Black Mesa, last week. Residents of the traditionally tribal land say the livestock seizure is the latest push in a relocation effort elders have fought for more than three decades.
“They’re violating universal human rights,” said Bahe Katenay, one of the Dineh people who lives in the Big Mountain Community of Black Mesa. Katenay grew up on Black Mesa and helps tribal elders maintain their traditions. “These people still have a right to food, to their culture, to safety, to health.
Rangers with the Hopi Tribal Government told Black Mesa residents that the roughly eight cattle and 25 horses were taken because they were not properly registered, said Derek Minno Bloom, who volunteers with the Black Mesa Indigenous Support collective. The collective is made up of people who do not live in the Black Mesa area and are largely non-native, but have responded to elders’ requests for outside help in order to stay on their land.
Some of the animals have been returned, Katenay said, although he did not have an official tally. Black Mesa Indigenous Support is raising money to help elders get their animals back, Minno Bloom said.
Louella Nahsonhoya, who works for the Hopi Tribal Government, said she would send members of the press a written statement about the livestock by the end of the week. Before then, she will be unable to answer any questions about why the horses and cattle were taken.
“This is part of forced relocation,” Katenay said, noting that the official U.S. policy is to relocate only those Dineh people who willingly leave their land. Approximately 40 tribal elders remain on Black Mesa, many of whom are at least 80 years old, Katenay said. None of them is willing to relocate.
“They are trying to maintain their culture, their heritage,” Katenay said.
The back story is convoluted, but the conflict stems from the U.S. government’s collusion with Peabody Coal Company Since the 1970s, the company has steered efforts to remove Dineh and Hopi people from their ancestral homes on Black Mesa, in order to mine coal there. The Bureau of Indian Affairs-approved Hopi tribal government is not so much a traditional authority. Rather they are deputies of the U.S. Federal Government, Katenay said.
Efforts to remove remaining elders from the land have made life there more difficult. Although people depend on animals for their livelihood, livestock roundups happen as often as twice a year. Officials have capped off water wells and destroyed pumps, although water is hard to collect on the arid mesa, Katenay said.
Still, relocating is not a viable or easy solution for the elders. Many do not speak or read English. They have a deep wealth of knowledge, but it largely pertains to traditional life: herding, weaving, histories and rituals.
Those who are relocated are put in modern homes, with less land and fewer animals. The amenities are unfamiliar: Someone who grew up without electricity and running water might not know which foods go in the refrigerator and which go in the cupboard, Katenay said. Younger people often are surrounded by modern distractions, leaving their elders in solitude.
“They’re not going to force these people out,” Katenay said of the remaining elders. “These people have been resisting for more than 30 years.”
Elders have seen, first hand, that coal mining leads to pollution, the depletion of clean water and other problems, Katenay said. In a sense, they resist relocation to help everyone. He tells the story of one woman who speaks no English, but has come to understand there is war and upheaval in the world outside Black Mesa.
“She is doing it for all the people in the world,” Katenay said. “They’re not only doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for all of humanity. If we allow this coal company to do what they want to do, we’re all in danger.”