Restoring Natural and Cultural Resources on Black Mesa

Sheepherding has become an active and visual resistance to the extractive industries attempting to control the mesa. (WNV / Sam Koplinka-Loehr)

Sheepherding has become an active and visual resistance to the extractive industries attempting to control the mesa. (WNV / Sam Koplinka-Loehr)

by Sam Koplinka-Loehr / Waging Nonviolence

As the Arizona sun crests the ridge of Big Mountain, it casts a deep red hue on Peabody Energy’s Black Mesa coal mine. Less than a hundred yards away, in the shadow of the towering coal processing plant, the Benally family gets ready for a day of school, work and sheepherding.

Black Mesa Mine is one of two coal mines located in the middle of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona — the other is Kayenta Mine, just five miles down the road. Both mines opened in the late 1960s, but the Benally family has lived there for generations.

Norman Benally has been a community activist almost his entire life and remembers herding sheep on this land before Peabody arrived.

“I’ve seen the landscape change, literally,” he said.

Many of the wells that Benally visited as a young child are now buried and poisoned by mining runoff from the surrounding mountains, which have been blown up, mined out and reshaped by bucket loaders. Daily living next to an active mine is a hectic one, and Benally describes it as “egregious,” with smog clogging the air.

For the past eight years, however, the Benally family has gotten a respite from the constant noise and air pollution of Black Mesa Mine. Peabody closed it in December of 2005, following decades of grassroots activism. But starting in January, the company is planning to re-permit Black Mesa Mine under the lease for the nearby Kayenta Mine, which would bring full-time extraction back to the Benally’s front door.

If granted a new permit — approving operations through 2044 — Peabody could begin strip mining thousands of acres of prime grazing land, drying the aquifers, reshaping the landscape and dispossessing the Navajo families currently living there. Despite this threat to their land and livelihood, the consensus was clear among the Benally family: “We are not moving.”

This position stems from a longstanding and intimate history with Peabody. Daniel Benally, Norman’s father, worked at the Black Mesa Mine for over 30 years before retiring in the mid-2000s. One of his other sons, Daniel Jr., now works at Kayenta Mine as an electrician. From decades of working at the mines and living next door to the extractive operation, the Benally family has an up close and personal view of the impacts and inequalities of the mining industry.

Norman Benally has always felt that something was deeply wrong with Peabody’s presence on Black Mesa. He began his activist career as a young adult at public meetings, translating for elderly grandmothers who wanted to speak out against the extraction of their lands, but could only speak their native language, Dineh. Benally says he was radicalized during these meetings, seeing how the political process was inaccessible to people directly affected by the mining operations.

Now he spends a lot of time traveling between the mesa and Phoenix for work, observing first-hand the disparities between living on Black Mesa and the nearby big cities.

“When you compare the Phoenix metro area to life out here, you start to realize that it really is wrong,” he said. “All the development, all the golf courses and everything you see out there — the source of it is here.”

While Peabody Energy is a Fortune 500 company with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues each year, the tribal government and local communities of Black Mesa receive only a small fraction of the value of their coal. Even as high-transmission electricity lines cross overhead, many homes on the reservation remain without electricity or running water.

“Nothing as far as development is happening up here,” Benally said. “We have a coal processing plant that feeds the coal to one of the major power plants in the Southwest, and we don’t get any of the community infrastructures that the mainstream is benefiting from.”

Since those early years of activism against the mines, resistance has taken many forms. There were blockades at the mine in the mid-1990s to stop the expansion of the coal storage facility, as well as horseback rides across the reservation to the tribal government headquarters, where community members demanded better representation in opposing Peabody’s operations.

For more than a decade now, a coalition of community members called Black Mesa United has been working on a new initiative: bringing running water to the families in the area to sustain their livelihoods and resistance. Earlier this year, Black Mesa United and Many Mules Waterline received $5.2 million to build the first phase of the project, bringing water to over 80 families in the area. They hope to receive full funding for all phases of the project — for a total of close to $30 million — in the coming years.

Ideally, as the Benallys see it, getting this water will encourage people to fight for their right to the land and resist relocation at the hand of Peabody and the federal government. Without it, they believe it is easier for multinational corporations to displace people.

“Once people are uprooted, they never reestablish themselves,” Norman Benally said. “We have to reverse that. Once you get that first waterline to that house, it’s permanent and then people start building out from there, start redeveloping their culture. That’s the only way to get people to realize that the land is part of the culture.”

Such an understanding used to be a given. According to Fern Benally, Norman’s sister and vice president of the local government chapter, “Before Peabody’s arrival, natural springs were plentiful. Our animals, both wild and domestic, quenched their thirst effectively without needing to search for waters. Wildlife was in abundance, as were domestic livestock. Natural springs are extinct now. Black Mesa residents now face the daily chores of hauling water.”

For the Navajo, or Dineh as the people are called in their own language, sheepherding is a crucial part of the culture and — through its continued practice — has become an active and visual resistance to the extractive industries attempting to control the mesa. In recent years, native and non-native coalitions have formed to support sheepherding and the struggle for indigenous sovereignty.

One such group is Black Mesa Indigenous Support — an organization founded on the principles of decolonization and solidarity that brings non-native people from around the globe to work on the mesa with community members and resisters. Volunteers learn about everyday life, as well as provide some relief for Dineh activists, who are often managing dozens of responsibilities at home and in the community, including meetings, protests and spiritual practice.

“When I was there, it was important to check this white savior complex that has been inculcated in me,” said Barrett Smith, a Black Mesa Indigenous Support volunteer. “Instead, it was me bearing witness to the struggle that is going on out there, being grateful for being invited into their space and attempting to work in solidarity with them while I was there.”

Part of that struggle includes the tension between those who support the mine for the income it generates for families and school districts, and those who see the devastating environmental, social and health impacts. Black Mesa Indigenous Support volunteers and community activists understand the economic benefit to families on Black Mesa, many of whom are living under the poverty line. But most, including Smith, see this as a false choice between making a living wage and destroying traditional livelihood.

“It is messed up to be paying people to destroy the land that they are living on,” Smith said.

The Many Mules Waterline project provides an opportunity for people on both sides to bridge that gap, working together to connect more deeply with the land that their families have lived on for generations.

This sense of community is vital in a struggle where Peabody and the federal government are working hand in hand, often with money exchanged. The United States Bureau of Reclamation is the oversight agency for Peabody and the re-permitting process. It is also, however, simultaneously the majority owner in the Navajo Generating Station, the power plant that uses Black Mesa coal. Given this situation, members of the Benally family wonder how a fair and equitable re-permitting process could be achieved.

“It has been like fighting a battle when your back is against the wall,” Norman Benally said. “The federal government is really a rubber stamp for the industry.”

Despite the visible corruption and community divisions, the native and non-native coalitions on Black Mesa are taking the long view. After all, over 40 years passed before the Mojave Generating Station and Black Mesa Mine were initially shut down in 2005. Furthermore, the Dineh people have survived legacies of colonization and are still maintaining their culture, livelihood and resistance in the face of tremendous opposition.

Together, the resisters on Black Mesa and their non-native allies are planning to yet again meet Peabody head on in the coming re-permitting process that starts in January. From public meetings to frontline direct actions, their demand is loud and clear: “Respect our livelihood, protect our cultural resources and end the extraction.”

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