I count 35 sheep, which means one is missing from the herd. I quickly retrace the tracks in the fresh snow that fell the day we arrived, pausing to scan the snowy landscape. Squinting through sagebrush, veering from one juniper to another, zigzagging through narrow washes and frozen ponds and beyond to where it all culminates to a thick dark green line on the horizon. It is here, at the intersection of green trees and pink sky that I pause to listen.
There is a dark cloud billowing from the easternmost edge of Black Mesa. Today, like every day I’ve been here, Peabody Coal Company is blasting. I cannot hear the explosions, but as I stand in hoof tracks, the plume in the distance reminds me of why I’m here and with whom my solidarity lays.
In 1974 the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 93-531, which required the forced relocation of more than 14,000 Diné and hundreds of Hopi families from the lands they have occupied and honored for more than a thousand years. In fact, there is evidence that native people occupied this particular mesa for 7,000 years.
This law, referred to as the “Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974” was proposed to address a so-called land dispute between the two neighboring communities. This “dispute” was quickly exposed by the Washington Post as a fiction designed to re-partition the land on behalf of the interests of Peabody Coal Company. It is no great secret that Peabody’s lawyer, John Boyden, made many attempts to form a Hopi Tribal Council from the traditional Hopi village-based governing bodies, which were not federally recognized. Because he needed a council that would bend to the wills of mining interests, he never had any luck. Boyden ignored the rejections made by traditional Hopis and, in 1964, handpicked a council of Hopi people that would support mining interests.
After this puppet government that did not represent the people joined forces with Peabody, Harrison Loesh, a Department of the Interior employee, had little trouble lobbying the law through congress. As soon as the relocation law passed, exploratory mining in the area began, and Mr. Loesh immediately became vice president of Peabody. And for the last 30 years Peabody Coal Company has operated the largest privately owned coalmine in the world.
After more than thirty years of constant harassment, hundreds of families residing in Black Mesa are in their third generation of resistance to relocation. They resist by living on the land, by honoring and protecting it. These small communities atop the mesa do not have grid-fed electricity or running water. Many of the most traditional Diné elders that live here do not speak English. Though families resisting relocation are proud, strong, and independent, there are certain times of the year, the incoming winter, for example, and planting season, when volunteer help goes a long way.
Black Mesa Indigenous Support (BMIS) is “a grassroots, all volunteer run collective dedicated to working with and supporting the indigenous peoples of Black Mesa in their struggle for life and land who are targeted by and resisting unjust large-scale coal mining operations and forced relocation policies of the US government.” BMIS organizes work-crews and connects them with families on the land that are in need of assistance. The sort of work most commonly needed is anything from planting, farming, wood chopping, water hauling, sheepherding, maintenance and repair of buildings and machinery, and much more. “By assisting with direct, on-land projects,” says BMIS, “you are helping families stay on their ancestral homelands in resistance to an illegal occupation.” It is with the help and support of BMIS that some friends and I were able to put together this small fundraiser.
The NO COAL Pedalers is a pedal-powered caravan of volunteers that road bikes from Flagstaff to Black Mesa during the holidays, bringing as many resources and supplies as possible. For safety during unpredictable weather and unforeseeable emergencies, and to maximize our impact in terms of resources and supplies, and to free riders from the weight of water, firewood, camping gear, and other provisions, we had one support vehicle that met up with riders every ten miles or so during the 280 mile round trip.
BMIS connected us with a family that were in need of roofing supplies to fix one of their two hogans. They also wanted to extend their roof in the back to create a back porch, so the dirt in front of the house would be less muddy, making many tasks easier, such as getting to the outhouse and piling wood closer to the house.
Throughout many conversations with the family’s youngest son, who will be referred to here as Lightning Two Feathers, a name he earned several years back when he was struck by lightening and, as he says, “given a second life,” I became intimately acquainted with his family’s on-going plight with the coalmines, the U.S. Government, and their own government. Lightning is 51, though he looks maybe 40; I spent more time talking with him than anyone else, usually early in the morning over a few cups of instant coffee, watching the sun rise through his kitchen window. Lightning’s parents, who reside there as well, built this house by hand not long after he was born.
“They want all of us gone so they can dig up the coal, but we’re not going anywhere. I will continue to fight for this land as long as I am alive.” When I asked him what he has done in the past to protect the land, I realized right away he didn’t mean “fight” as some kind of metaphor. “Well, when I have seen people from the mines or the government approaching, I get on my horse, grab my gun, and chase them outta here.”
On the Black Mesa Indigenous Support website, I had read about low-intensity warfare tactics implemented by local government that sound more like the evil colonization strategies of 150 years ago, such as livestock removal below sustenance levels, capping or destroying water wells and springs, militarized disruption of religious ceremonies, and bans on wood gathering, home repair, and new construction. Lightning told me about a time ago when they stole his sheep. “I wasn’t at home and when I came back they were gone. I had to drive a long way and spend a lot of money on gas to get them back.” He told me that other people have had to pay a large fee to get livestock back, but he talked his way out of it.
“Peabody has been a pain in the neck from day one,” according to Lightning’s older sister, who is finishing up her degree at Northern Arizona University this semester and also looks much younger than she is. “I remember when I was a little girl and they were building what is now the Black Mesa Pipeline, we thought we were getting a brand new school and we didn’t have to go to boarding school anymore. I don’t know how long it took me to realize exactly what it was they were doing.”
With the donations we received, we were able to buy exactly all the roofing supplies we needed, including felt, tar, an industrial brush, nails, and gloves. Some friends donated other materials like tools, screws, metal brackets. Okay, all that actually came from one really good friend. We collected food and warm clothing and Food Not Bombs gave us the biggest sack of bread I think I’ve ever seen.
Some downtown businesses also supported us. Phyllis Hogan, owner of Winter Sun Trading Company, gave us some natural salves that came in handy for windburn and muscle sores; she also provided natural chap sticks and sun block, much of which we were able to hand out just before we left. Absolute Bikes furnished us with everything we had in mind from a bike shop, including extra tubes, chain links, patch kits, bottles, cages, and protein bars. Anthony Quintile, general manager of the shop, donated a solid 5 hours of his own time to make sure our bikes were rollin’ safely. When we arrived back in town, we headed straight for Diablo Burger, where owner Derrick Widmark treated us hungry pedalers to a much-appreciated welcome home meal.
Fellow rider and organizer Rudy Preston (ethos7.com) made us a website, a logo, and let us share some space on his groovy wind and solar powered server. Northern Arizona University Communications instructor, and fellow rider and organizer, Carly Long, let us use her sweet camper, which really made this trip successful. We also ate really well throughout the trip because of all her pre-ride preparation.
On the way there, I was amazed at how quickly my body adjusted to being tired and cold all the time. Though it was clear that none of us would have traded it to sit in a car. Cruising in an automobile, with the windows up, music blasting, and the heat cranked is akin to sensory deprivation. In this way, riding a bike is more attuned to a human-scale, whereby we are not detached from the natural elements, or the sounds, smells, and bumps along the journey. By experiencing the land in a meaningful way, we believe we arrived at Big Mountain with a great respect for the landscape in which Black Mesa communities are situated. Even Carly’s 9-year-old-daughter, Marley, clocked in a solid 35 miles on the way there!
Like someone blowing softly through a wicker basket, I only hear the wind and the trees. Sheep, sheep, sheep!” I call out in a voice that sounds like I’m imitating a small bird. I don’t know how to call for lost sheep, so I made this one up. Suddenly, I hear Stinky (who we called “Halloween” on account of his black and orange fur), barking from behind a thick sage bush growing beneath the largest juniper around. I look just in time to see a startled sheep jump out and make its way to the herd. This is not the first time this sheep dog has impressed me.
The sheep walk ahead of me in a single file line, moving up the hill between the Hogan and the old corral where a fresh sheepskin lay draped over a weathered, wooden frame. Much of the blood toward the bottom is still red, reminding me that there was one more sheep to count this morning. I recall the morning, wrestling several sheep to the ground, looking for one specific ram. Female sheep are not slaughtered just in case one is pregnant. I remember the blood pouring from the neck into a large pot, and I remember the grandfather handing me his knife, so I could join the other members of the family in skinning the ram in the traditional Diné way.
But more vividly than anything, I remember stroking the soft fur on his face, as it lay bound on the ground; looking into his eyes, I did not see fear and torment, but peace and acceptance. I was surprised at how little the ram struggled. It was said that each sheep provides a month’s worth of sustenance for the family. Nothing is wasted.
I guided the sheep back to the pen to where there were 16 lambs waiting for their mothers to come back. Okay, so the dogs did most of the work, while I yelled “sheep, sheep sheep!” and periodically clapped my gloves together. In fact, it was clear that the other sheep dog, Squeegee (who we called “The Quiet One” on account of her not allowing humans to get near her), only tolerated my presence.
As the sheep made their way closer to the lamb, they began to call for each other. The sheep file in as the sheep dogs guard the entrance to the pen, growling fiercely at any other dog that gets too close. After the gate is closed the lamb make a mad dash for their mother’s milk, knowing, of course, exactly which sheep is their mother. As each lamb gets in a taste, fluffy little tails swing frantically from side to side, which is more adorable than I can possibly describe here.
That evening, another sheep dog, which usually stays near the family’s guard dog, the constantly erect “Hungry Jack,” gave birth to a litter of puppies. We’ve all heard the phrase, life springs from death, but to witness a litter of puppies born on the same day that we slaughtered a sheep really made this clear.
It has been said that there is no word for “relocation” in either the Hopi or Diné languages. To be relocated, they say, is to disappear forever. “I wouldn’t know how to live on some other land,” Lightning said one evening gazing across the horizon, as we watched the day’s last bit of light fade into darkness. “I wouldn’t know that land, and it wouldn’t know me.”
I told him I wanted to come back in the summer to herd sheep. “I will be here,” he said. “We will all still be here.”
Visit our website to learn more about our trip, and future fundraising excursions on two wheels. www.justpedal.org
For more information about the situation on Black Mesa and to find out what you can do to help, visit www.blackmesais.org