Category Archives: The rights of indigenous peoples
I like Joanna Bock’s take on the #MeToo phenomenon, published October 19th in Yes! Magazine, except that she calls it a “movement,” which I think is a much bigger thing than just a Facebook/Twitter hashtag. Here are the main points in the article with which I agree:
“Movements like #MeToo can be powerful in many ways. But we limit their potential and pervert them when we insist that everyone get in a box and become one of three things: perpetrators, victims, or allies. How many of us don’t neatly fit any of those categories? How many of us are weakened by the divisions?Something similar happens when we talk about race and racism. People of color are the victims. Outright bigots are the villains. And among the rest of us, we make a mad dash to position ourselves as allies. To be allies, we have to publicly condemn the racist ‘other.’ [Or his/her behavior…]
#MeToo has given voice to the rage many female friends of mine feel at specific perpetrators of harassment and violence in their own lives. But the truth is that no one human being is to blame for this sickness of the culture we’re a part of. And our scramble to crucify the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world only obfuscates the issue, just as our scramble to line up simply as victims does.
In this oppressive system – where women’s bodies are not safe, where people of color’s bodies are not safe, and where women of color’s bodies are unspeakably violated terrain – we are all suffering. And in this system, where men’s internal and emotional landscapes have been violated from birth, as well as the bodies [and minds] of women, we are all victims – playing out our roles or resisting them when and where we can. We’re enormously alienated from one other. Our most radical option is to undo that alienation, but easy labels and unjust oversimplifications deepen it. We’re all responsible for saving each other.”
I agree with the gist of Bock’s message, but want to say that I Facebook-posted “Me too” to help show the extent of the problem and to show solidarity with other women similarly violated – not to express anger at my rapist, though I don’t go so far as to feel empathy with him. I don’t feel anger at men in general either, and deplore the boxes our society tries to put them in. My main concern is that we all recognize the extent of our sexist, racist, and violent, war-mongering culture as a necessary prelude to changing it for the better. It seems kind of ironic to say this while we have a racist, sexist, war-mongering president, proud of his selfishness and sexual predation, but maybe that’s what’s opened up the wounds – and the necessary conversations.
Let’s use empathy in those conversations – really listening to what others need to express. Some of it may be ugly, even poisonous. But feelings are never wrong – only behavior can be – and the poison needs to be exposed and transformed, however gradually, in love and acceptance. We’re challenged as speakers to be that trusting and honest and as listeners to be that compassionate. Alienation can become connection and caring community, but we can’t skip any of steps.
William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi have an incisive article “The Anarchism of Blackness” in the current issue of “Roar” magazine (roarmag.org), headlined: “The Democratic Party has led Black America down a dead end. The sooner we begin to understand that, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize against fascism.” The authors believe that “in the coming months and years, left and left-leaning constituencies in the United States will need to make clear distinctions between actual and potentially counterproductive symbolic progress.” They also think the Black liberation struggle has and will provide “a blueprint for transformative social change,” thanks to “its positioning as an inherently radical social formation.”
Under the heading “The Failings of American Liberalism,” the authors write, “The United States’ self-ascribed democratic traits have long been filtered through oppressive forms deemed necessary by the state and a capitalist system benefiting only a few. For many years now, American liberalism has been a bitter disappointment to many who somehow maintained faith in the two-party system. The Democratic Party has seemingly been the only choice for those who consider themselves progressives working for a better society, but the notion that social inequities will be solved through the electoral process was always naïve at best. The entrails of this system are lined with the far-right fascism currently rising and long bubbling under the façade of liberal democracy at the expense of non-whites in a white supremacist society. A system predicated on the over-emphasis of ‘order’ and ‘security’ is primed for authoritarianism.
Over time, the genocide, enslavement, and other forms of violence present at this nation’s birth have been displaced and restructured by more insidious and invisible modalities of community destruction facilitated by liberalism like the reservation, the prison system, and austerity policies. Over the past few decades, the United States has seen a shift in liberal politics leaving the Democratic Party in a completely compromised position. Instead of moving left, the Democratic Party pandered to the right, facilitating a conservative shift. Liberal support for the Iraq War, post-9/11 domestic policy, and the foreign policy extensions of the War on Terror have led to the current administration led by a plutocratic tyrant hell-bent on the destruction of vulnerable populations. Despite the optics of change and the promises of a new day and the moral victories of ‘going high,’ an old sun is rising on a white horizon.
Societal fascism describes the process and political logic of state formation wherein entire populations are either excluded or ejected from the social contract. They’re excluded pre-contractually because they’ve never been part of the social contract and never will be; or they’re ejected from a contract they were previously a part of. Black Americans are the former: residents in a settler colony predicated on the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans; residents in the United States, as opposed to citizens of. Despite a constitution laden with European Enlightenment values and a document of independence declaring egalitarianism and inalienable rights as the law of the land, Black existence was that of private property. The Black American condition is perpetual relegation to the afterlife of slavery as long as the United States continues to exist as an ongoing settler project. Black exclusion from the social contract is existence within a heavily surveilled and heavily regulated state of subjection.
Whiteness has long sought to grapple with the existential threat posed by Black freedom. Black repatriation to Africa was the solution for slaveholders concerned that the presence of free Blacks would inspire enslaved Blacks to revolt and worried that Black families would burden state welfare systems and that interracial labor competition would ultimately compromise wages for white workers. The ‘Back to Africa’ project was subsequently taken up by Black thinkers like Marcus Garvey in the late-19th and early-20th centuries following the failures of Reconstruction in the South, the first attempt to meaningfully extend citizenship to newly emancipated Blacks and protect them from white supremacist violence, and also the social and political disillusionment of Blacks who had migrated to northern states.
Since then progress has been secured by Black people’s mobilization rather than by any political party. We’re the ones who have achieved much of the progress that’s changed the nation for the better for everyone. Our organization can be as effective now as it has been in the past, serving every locality and community based on their needs and determinations. This can be achieved through disassociating ourselves from party politics that fail to serve us.
While bound to the laws of the land, Black America can be understood as an extra-state entity because of Black exclusion from the liberal social contract. Due to this extra-state location, Blackness is in many ways anarchistic. African-Americans, as an ethno-social identity comprised of descendants from enslaved Africans, have innovated new cultures and social organizations and have engaged in anarchistic resistances since our very arrival in the Americas. From slave ship and plantation rebellions, to the creation of maroon societies in the American South, to Harriet Tubman’s removal of enslaved peoples from the custody of their owners, to post-Emancipation labor and prison camps, to combatting the historic (and present) collusion between state law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, assertions of Black personhood, humanity and liberation have necessarily called into question both the foundations and legitimacy of the American state.
Liberalism can’t defeat fascism; it can only engage it through symbolic political rigmarole. The triteness of electoral politics that’s been superimposed onto Black life in the United States positions Black people as a mule for much of this nation’s social progression. Our hyper-visible struggle is a fight for all people’s freedom, and we die only to realize that everything gained can be reversed with the quick flick of a pen. While liberalism takes up the burden of protecting ‘free speech’ and the rights of those who would annihilate non-whites, Black people and other people of color assume all the risks and harms. The symbolic battles the Democratic Party and its liberal constituents engage in pose direct existential threats to Black people because they protect esteemed ideals of a constitution that has never guaranteed Black people safety or security. The current fascist moment is neither ideologically new nor temporally surprising; it’s an inevitability.
The mechanisms working against us deal death and destruction in countless numbers across the non-Western world while turning domestic Black and Brown neighborhoods into proxies for how to treat sub-citizen ‘others.’ The militarization of police, border regimes, stop-and-frisk, and ICE are clear examples of how the state regards the communities it targets and brutalizes. At the very least, a conversation on self-defense that doesn’t mistreat our survival as a form of violence is sorely needed. It would be even better if the conversation normalized anti-fascist organizing that prepared people for the possibility of a fight, instead of simply hoping that day never comes and respectably tut-tutting about those currently fighting in the streets.
Everyone has a stake in the fight against fascism. It can’t be defeated with bargaining, petitioning, pleading, ‘civilized’ dialogue, or any other mode of response we were taught was best. Fascists have no respect for ‘othered’ humanities. Regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, religion, physical ability, or nationality, there’s a place for each of us in this struggle. We’re always fighting against the odds because there’s no respite in a perpetually abusive state. It can only function through this abuse, so we can only prevail through organizing grounded in radical love and solidarity. This solidarity must prioritize accountability, and it must be authentic. Strategic organizing of this sort, organizing where we understand the inextricable linkedness of our respective struggles, is our means of bolstering the makings of a cohesive left in the United States. We no longer have time to waste on dogma, sectarianism, prejudice, and incoherence.
The sooner Black America in particular begins to understand our position as an inherently anarchistic element of the United States, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize. A better society has to be written through our inalienable self-determinations, and that will only happen when we realize that we are holding the pen.
William C. Anderson is a freelance writer, published by The Guardian, Pitchfork, Truthout, and at the Praxis Center for Kalamazoo College, where he’s a contributing editor covering race, class and immigration.
Zoé Samudzi is a Black feminist writer and PhD student in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her current research is focused on critical race theory and biomedicalization.
When “Democracy Now” interviewed two global feminists – Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues, and Congolese activist Christine Deschryver – on 2-14-17, Ensler said that “watching Trump and the people he surrounds himself with, we’re seeing the escalation of rape culture, a predatory mindset.” She added that if so many Americans “felt OK electing a self-confessed sexual assaulter” whose principal advisor, Steve Bannon, “is known to have beaten his wife, we know we haven’t really gotten to the root of rape culture in America. That predatory mindset is affecting everything. We’re gutting regulations on air, on water, and on the earth. We’re escalating extraction. We’re seeing a disparaging of immigrants. This is all part of a predatory mindset – one person in power who does what he wants without the consent of the people around him – exactly what rape culture is. You seize people’s bodies, you take them against their will, and you do whatever you want to them. We bomb Iraqis and destroy people in countries around the world, and then refuse to give them admission and safety.”
On the possibility of Trump signing an executive order that would deregulate conflict minerals, Deschryver said such an order would bring the Democratic Republic of Congo “back 20 years, legitimating all the perpetrators and rapes, and strengthening Central African dictators who want to resume plundering Congo, along with multinational corporations.” Ensler compared this process with the “way oil companies are using state violence in Standing Rock. She then described the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration as “an unbelievable outpouring of women demanding, speaking up for, and cherishing and knowing what their rights are. What did Trump do a day later? He destroyed reproductive rights and the support of NGOs who were offering a discussion about abortion around the world. That was his cynical, violent response to 5 million women and men rising around the world. And that is rape culture. It was like, ‘Really? You think you’re going to have power? Watch what I’m going to do the next day.’ So many of these executive orders are violent acts saying in no uncertain terms, ‘I do what I want, regardless of your needs, regardless of what you want in your body or your life, and I’m going to continue to do that.’”
Deschryver said this is why “grassroots women from all over the world have to be leaders, protecting Mother Nature, because we are Her.” At Deschryver’s project, City of Joy, in Bukavu, eastern Congo, “we receive 90 young women to heal their bodies and minds, and we train them to be leaders. Most of them were raped by militias, by the police, by their partners. And they’re all survivors of atrocities. They stay there for six months, transforming their pain to power. After that, some of them go to our farm to transform pain to planting. There we live with Mother Nature and give back to Her. I think City of Joy has to be an example for the whole world, because right now I think the grassroots women are the ones who’ve paid the most for everything that’s happened. Look in Dakota. Look in Congo, everywhere.” To read more about City of Joy, go to http://drc.vday.org/about-city-of-joy/
When Amy Goodman noted that Steve Bannon had called progressive women, quote, “a bunch of dykes,” Ensler said, “That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think this entire cabal are men who are terrified of women on every level, particularly powerful women. We only have to look at the censoring of Elizabeth Warren to understand that. They’re terrified of black people. They’re terrified of immigrants. They’re terrified of indigenous people. They are terrified of anybody who isn’t a white man or a white man billionaire or white man corporate. In many ways, this is the last major gasp of the patriarchal dragon, and last gasps can be deadly. But they’re not going to move us back to the past. Women aren’t going to stand for having rights being taken away. African Americans aren’t going to stand for it. Immigrants aren’t going to stand for it. We’re too far out to go back in. So now what we’ve got to do is go much further than we’ve ever gone before.”
The women then looked at the recent silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who tried to read into the Senate record a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King, opposing attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions when he was nominated for a federal judgeship. First, Amy Goodman noted that “Senator Warren was then prohibited from speaking for the remainder of the debate, which was hours-long. Male senators, her Democratic allies, like Senator Sanders, Senator Sherrod Brown, and Senator Merkley, were allowed to read King’s letter without rebuke. What’s also interesting is that when Coretta Scott King sent her testimony 30 years ago to the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Strom Thurmond, expecting it was going to be entered into the Congressional Record, he never entered it.”
“Right,” agreed Ensler. “The only way Coretta Scott King’s letter could be entered was through the voice of white men. I think it was really disturbing that happened, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Warren to take her seat. It was an incredibly infantilizing moment, his attempt to take a woman of such stature and voice and power and reduce her to nothing. We’re not going to take our seats. That’s not going to happen now. The attempt by this administration to reduce women, to make women feel small, to feel that they don’t exist, to embarrass and shame them, won’t work. We’re past that point. As terrible as all this is, what’s really exciting is to see what this is evoking in people all across this country and around the world. We’re not only going to persist, we are rising up. That’s what we’re seeing this year in One Billion Rising, a global campaign through dance and resistance to fight all the forms of violence, whether it be the violence of racism or climate change or economic deprivations or workers’ rights. We’re seeing more risings this year across the planet, more militant risings, more joyful risings, more fierce risings, more specific and determined risings, because what we’re all feeling is not only are we going to not give up on the rights we have, but this is an opportunity to reformulate our progressive world into a much stronger, more unified, more visionary, more prophetic movement than we’ve ever had before and to really understand that the struggle for antiracism, the struggle against the destruction of the Earth, the struggle for women, the struggle against oppression – these are all one struggle that we’re part of. I’m very encouraged, in the little towns and places all across America, to see people in Texas standing up for Muslims, to see artists doing beautiful posters. There’s more creativity, more outpouring that’s going on right now. I want to finish by saying I think the resistance is the creation. As we’re resisting, we’re beginning to not only mobilize ourselves into a unified force, we’re actually creating the vision of the world we want.” For more on One Billion Rising, go to http://www.onebillionrising.org
“After 15 years of our movement, we were able to put out a call that was an invitation for women and men to rise and dance and resist violence against women across the planet. And that call was taken up, with each community making it their own. Each community took it to the places they wanted to take it and created this global solidarity and force of energy that really made violence against women central stage. Five years ago, we put out this global invitation for women to rise and dance at the places where they wanted to see justice, where they wanted to see violence end. It was massive, and every year, it’s grown and grown. It’s now in 200 countries. Twenty-two states in India are rising, 131 cities in Germany, 90 cities in Poland. We’re seeing all kinds of people – trans women, workers, indigenous people – everyone’s beginning to use this idea of dance resistance, because dance is so powerful. People are being traumatized every day by these executive orders, by horrible statements, by hateful, aggressive reactions. And I think one of the things we have to be very careful about is that we don’t get hooked on a cycle of trauma, retrauma, trauma, retrauma. We have to also come into our bodies and dance and feel our sexuality and feel our joy and feel our energy, because that will give us the fuel to keep fighting and keep resisting and keep creating the way we want to go.”
Deschryver added, “I think Eve had the idea when she was visiting Congo, and she saw all the raped women dancing. That’s what we do in Africa. It’s a way to express our feelings. We have One Billion Rising in Congo, and we rise also for Mother Earth, because Congo is the second lung of humanity. Without the forests in Congo, I think there is no more life all over the world. And we rise also for and with the women. All over DRC they use the word ‘rising’ in English. Every time they see something they disagree with, it’s like, ‘OK, we will rise for this.’”
Ensler: “In New York, on February 14th, we’re having an Artistic Uprising for Revolutionary Love. We’ve joined forces with a wonderful woman named Valarie Kaur and Reverend Barber, who have launched this campaign called Revolutionary Love. And we’ll be rising in Washington Square Park from 6:00 to 9:00. There are 25 amazing artists, a gospel choir, drummers, singers, and poets. And we really want everyone to come, because, really, we need art more than we know. We only have to look to Melissa McCarthy, her brilliant portrayal of Sean Spicer, and see the way artists and irony are changing consciousness.”
I just finished reading a really important book, Unreal City: Las Vegas, Black Mesa, and the Fate of the West (2014) by Judith Nies. It’s long, disorganized, and at times repetitive, but it contains invaluable chunks of information about the continued dispossession of Native Americans in this country and the way fossil fuel companies and other corporations dominate national and global decisions about energy use. That corporate domination of the energy discussion is, of course, keeping us on track for catastrophic global warming, an issue that should be uppermost in our minds, with the upcoming climate change talks in Paris.
One of the book’s many bottom lines is that Western cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, are as unsustainable in terms of their water and electricity use as coastal cities, properties, and small island countries have become in an age of global climate change (think of New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy). They have been for years, and the only way they’ve become as big as they are is that the corporate-dominated media have allowed us to view them instead as part of the American Dream, our collective “success story.” This is one of the chapters in the business-as-usual, we-can-keep-our-“lifestyle” story profitable corporations and the government representatives who come from and go back to them have been pushing on us, blinding us to the true costs to ourselves, to indigenous and other peoples, and to the earth on which we depend for life.
Nies starts by telling us about the thousands of Navajo families who have been and are being “expelled from a 4,000-square-mile reservation jointly occupied by the Navajo and Hopi Indians” that happens to “contain the Black Mesa coalfield, the largest low-sulfur coal deposit in the country. Two huge strip-mining sites on the reservation fed coal for years to two massive power plants running air-conditioners in Los Angeles, pumping water uphill from the Colorado River into Phoenix, and illuminating dazzling neon signs in Las Vegas.” One plant, the Mohave, in Laughlin, Nevada ninety miles south of Las Vegas, was built in 1970, ran on coal pumped as slurry from Black Mesa, and was closed in 2005, along with the mine that supplied it. The other, the Navajo Generating Station, “one of the largest generating stations in the country, located in Page on the Navajo reservation at the Arizona-Utah border, wasn’t owned by the Navajo, and more than half of Navajo families didn’t have electricity” when it opened in 1973. It’s still in operation, pumping water for Phoenix and Tucson, fueled by coal from the Black Mesa Kayenta Mine.
Nies then directs us to December 16, 1982, when a “well-tailored and glamorous Robert Redford arrived at the Phoenix Press Club to launch a three-day celebration of Hopi arts and culture. The only Navajo associated with the event were a small group of protesters clustered outside the entrance to the Valley National Bank, twenty floors below the press club. When a reporter from a small Arizona newspaper asked Redford how he felt about supporting a relocation project that affected thousands of Navajo families and was characterized as ‘a tragedy of genocide and injustice,’ Redford gestured to Abbott Sekaquaptewa, the Hopi tribal council chairman, to take the microphone.
Sekaquaptewa, who’d been tribal chairman off and on since 1962, said the Hopi had won ‘a centuries-old land dispute,’ in court, ending questions about the relocation project. Or about who wanted the coal that lay under the lands from which the Navajo were being removed. Or how the coal was being used to bring water and electricity to the desert cities of the Southwest. Or about where the profits from these massive strip mines were going.
Robert Redford was a superstar supporter who made intelligent films about the modern West, owned a ski resort in Utah, had married into a Mormon family, founded the Sundance Film Festival, and was an outspoken environmentalist and board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council. His pedigree as a liberal activist included raising money for progressive Democratic candidates such as Arizona’s governor Bruce Babbitt – later a presidential candidate and secretary of interior in the 1990s, and making public appearances for Mo Udall, then chair of the US House Interior Committee, and Stewart Udall, former secretary of interior. Having him on the stage with Abbott Sekaquaptewa validated the Hopi version of events, and,” Nies says, “if I hadn’t moved on to the Scottsdale art gallery [housing the Hopi art being celebrated] for the evening cocktail party, my doubts might have slipped away. The reporters from the afternoon press conference weren’t invited to the party. But if they had been, they might have come up with a few other queries. They might have noticed the vice president of Peabody Coal chatting with a vice president from the Bechtel Corporation, the largest engineering and construction company in the world. Peabody Coal was strip-mining the Navajo and Hopi lands on Black Mesa, extracting close to 15 million tons of coal a year to feed the two Bechtel-built generating stations. Bechtel was in the process of constructing a 300-mile open-air aqueduct that would pump water from the Colorado River over three mountain ranges into arid Phoenix and Tucson. The Central Arizona Project aqueduct and its fourteen pumping stations were the most expensive federally financed civil engineering project since the Hoover Dam. Observant reporters might have identified a vice president from New York–based Equitable Life Insurance, the single largest financier of mineral exploration in the country. Equitable Life and Bechtel were among the corporate owners of Peabody Coal through a private holding company.
‘Barry, come and join us,’ Governor Bruce Babbitt called to a white-haired man hovering on the edge of the terrace during the $500-a-person reception. Senator Barry Goldwater was Arizona’s most famous politician, the man who almost single-handedly had taken the Republican Party away from eastern moderates and put it in the hands of the states’ rights, small-government, no-tax, individual self-reliant western conservatives who’d elected Ronald Reagan in 1980.
I’d unintentionally intruded on the people whose companies were in the process of creating the water and energy infrastructure that would fuel the next thirty years of growth in the West. The irony was that the few people at the time who understood the implications of burning 15 million tons of unfiltered coal a year were the Indians, both Hopi and Navajo, whose traditional people had a different point of view from the tribal council members [who’d approved these projects]. They saw the boundary issue as having been manipulated in order to remove the people who lived on top of the coal. They knew that coal dust caused pollution and health problems, turned water toxic, lowered groundwater levels, and caused drought. But those Indians couldn’t get to the microphone…
In the 1930s Phoenix and Las Vegas were tiny towns surrounded by desert. Las Vegas, in the Mohave Desert, had a population of 5,000, and Phoenix, in the Sonoran, 48,000. But they’d seen the template for growth” in the benefits California had derived from taking the water of Owens Valley at the beginning of the century and later from “the federally, but privately built” Depression-era Hoover Dam, “and it involved water, electricity, air-conditioning, and, most important, federal money.
By the 1960s, Los Angeles needed more electricity, Phoenix needed more water for agriculture and housing developments, and Las Vegas casino owners were also realizing that they had to plan for water and electricity. The urban Southwest needed a new Hoover Dam to produce more inexpensive electricity and water.
Although the struggle over Black Mesa lands continues to be described as a local issue or a land dispute between two tribes, it’s actually an example of a global phenomenon in which giant transnational corporations have the power to separate indigenous people from their energy-rich lands with the help of host governments. If a group photograph had been taken at that Phoenix reception in 1982, it would have included not only Barry Goldwater and Robert Redford, but also the executives from the five corporations of the Peabody Holding Company as well as the heads of twenty-three utilities who needed the water and energy equivalent of a new Hoover Dam. This is the story of how they got it.
There’s no green space or even much public space in Las Vegas, a city where the best way to stop a conversation is to use the word sustainability. It’s a place where people come to avoid reflection, start new lives, make their fortunes, and gamble: a city divorced from nature and proud of it. Located in the middle of the Mohave Desert, it gets four inches of rain a year and has a climate like Baghdad. As a chef at one of the better restaurants put it, ‘Don’t talk to me about sustainability. Las Vegas is like putting a man on the moon. It has no water. Nothing grows here. And half the year, it’s over a hundred degrees.’
City leaders – a small group of gambling oligarchs – promote the glamour and spectacle of Las Vegas as a classless neon metropolis where anyone can live like royalty, as long as he or she has a credit card or a lot of cash. Gambling substitutes for income, night’s interchangeable with day, and the scale of excess refutes the idea of scarcity. As an international destination with 39 million visitors a year and fourteen of the largest hotels in the world, the city attracts more tourists than Great Britain. But a curious visitor might have questions. Like, with six months of summer temperatures over 100 degrees and annual rainfall of 4 inches, where does the water come from to keep its lawns and golf courses green? As temperatures rise with climate change – more than two degrees over the past three decades, drought’s an ongoing problem and air-conditioning’s required for longer periods. Behind Hoover Dam is Lake Mead, from which the townships of Las Vegas Valley get 90% of their water supply. In early 2010, Lake Mead was at its lowest level since the reservoir was filled. And what fuels the electricity that lights up the desert sky so vividly that astronauts 285 miles in space can see the Strip?
Las Vegas is like an atomic particle, with a bright nucleus surrounded by dense dark matter. The dark matter contains some of the most militarized real estate in the world. Nellis Air Force Base has individual parcels equivalent in size to Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The premier city in a state famous for its no-tax, small-government, hyper-conservative political culture exists in an economy buoyed by billions of dollars from the federal budget. The Nevada Test Site, run by the US Department of Energy (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission), with offices in North Las Vegas, begins 65 miles northwest of the city limits and covers approximately 1,350 square miles.
The curious visitor might speculate about why more than the average number of supermarket aisles are lined with plastic gallon jugs of water. Has the fallout from underground nuclear tests reached groundwater? ‘Oh, no,’ old-timers say. ‘That radioactive groundwater’s flowing toward Death Valley. Our drinking water comes from Lake Mead.’ Still, they urge you to drink bottled water. The level of Lake Mead has dropped 130 feet, so much that it’s triggered laws that require the Southern Nevada Water Authority to seek new sources of water. Following the Los Angeles–Owens Valley model, the Authority’s bought water rights to a valley 200 miles north of Las Vegas with a high groundwater level from mountain snowmelt.
Another section of Nellis, Area 2, is the largest aboveground weapons storage complex in the United States. Other parcels have names like the Tonopah Test Range, or Area 52, run by Sandia National Laboratories; Creech Air Force Base; the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range; and the now-famous top-secret Area 51, technically part of Edwards Air Force Base, but run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where U-2 surveillance were tested and from which the unmanned drones currently operating in the skies over Pakistan and Afghanistan are said to be ‘piloted.’ The US Navy SEALs who mounted the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan supposedly built a mock facility and practiced helicopter drills somewhere in the Nellis Air Force Range (formerly the Nevada Test and Training Range), some 5,000 square miles of land area and 12,000 square miles of restricted airspace…So, in addition to being an entertainment capital, a weekend getaway, a place to get married or divorced quickly, a conventioneer’s paradise, and a glamorous setting for popular movies and television shows, Las Vegas is the most sophisticated military border town in the world, a shadow capital for the planet’s largest military power. It runs on a combination of money, power, influence, and the ability to cultivate and wield political power.”
Nies goes back in time to tell us how Las Vegas became a gambling mecca run by “the American Mob,” that used to hang out in Havana. “California attorney general and future Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren campaigned for governor on the promise to shut down the illegal gambling boats operating outside the three-mile limit off Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. The boats catered to a glamorous, wealthy Hollywood crowd and were staggeringly profitable. True to his word, in the 1940s Warren shut down the boats. Nevada – remote, unscenic, and sparsely populated – was the only place in the US where gambling was legal. Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo hotel and casino demonstrated that a clientele from Los Angeles would travel to Las Vegas to gamble, so new properties were purchased and construction begun.”
Nies says that “director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, a frequent patron of the Desert Inn casino, focused exclusively on Communist conspiracies, because crime boss Meyer Lansky had obtained photographs showing him engaged in homosexual acts. It wasn’t until the 1960s under Attorney General Robert Kennedy that the FBI began to install wiretaps and electronic surveillance of crime leaders, many at Mob-controlled casinos in Las Vegas.
Barry Goldwater, a pilot with his own plane, frequently made the one-hour flight from Phoenix for a weekend of gambling and partying. In 1956 Goldwater was the unlikely US senator from Arizona, something many maintained was related to Las Vegas Mob interests. His political career came out of nowhere, his civic experience limited to eighteen months on the Phoenix City Council. When Goldwater ran for president, his Las Vegas life was edited out and he was portrayed as a true son of the American West. Some might say, however, that the spirit of Las Vegas – risk, ruthlessness, guns, and greed – is the spirit that settled the West.
The US Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, traveled around the country in 1950 and 1951 and held hearings in fourteen cities in order to document the existence of a nationally organized crime syndicate. Kefauver was an ambitious freshman senator from Tennessee and a Yale Law School graduate who had his eyes set on his political future. In his summary report of the hearings, the senator called organized crime ‘a phantom government,’ with its own laws, its own enforcers, and its own interest in dominating politics. Kefauver cited the extraordinary amounts of money that crime families were able to leverage in local, state, and federal elections and estimated that at any given point in time organized crime controlled more than $20 billion in untaxed dollars ($280 billion in current dollars). He presented a network of links between upper-world and underworld gangsters – businessmen, organized crime syndicates, and politicians. Kefauver wanted to hold a second round of hearings, and in 1951 the Senate majority leader, whose office held power over all special committee appointments, fell to Ernest McFarland, the powerful and highly respected Democratic senator from Arizona, who might have supported this. But in 1952, unexpectedly, McFarland lost to an inexperienced Republican – Goldwater.
In 1951, after 18 months on the city council, political neophyte Barry Goldwater was announced as the Republican candidate for the Senate. The official version of Goldwater’s long-shot election holds that he ran at a critical moment when the conservative tide was turning in Arizona, carrying him to victory on Eisenhower’s coattails. But Goldwater needed more than that to defeat an opponent like McFarland: he needed a lot of money and a new source of voters to provide a margin of victory. Goldwater outspent McFarland three to one, amid rumors of Mob money, paper bags of Las Vegas cash, arriving regularly at his campaign headquarters in Phoenix.”
Where could he get some new voters? “In 1952 the majority of Arizona voters were still Democratic, with miners and farmworkers outnumbering mine owners, growers, and land developers. The Hopi and Navajo Indians in northern Arizona would be voting for the first time in the 1952 presidential election, however, having been prevented from voting until 1948 by Arizona’s constitution. Goldwater wrote to the National Republican Senatorial Election Committee in Washington, asking for funds to help secure their votes. ‘The Indian traders will register these Indians, but it will take some money, as they’re semi-nomadic, and one has to gather them in by the use of sings, or barbecues as you and I would call them.’
Indian traders, who controlled all commercial goods sold on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, had to apply for a license from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and submit character references, often supplied by local landowners or politicians. Many were Mormons who saw the trading posts as a way of converting Indians to Mormonism. Since the 1850s, southwestern Indian agents, traders, and politicians, known as the Indian Ring, had been colluding to defraud the Indians of payments, supplies, livestock, land, mineral leases, or whatever Washington had promised through treaties and agreements. The government agents tipped off the traders as to when annuities were due to be paid to the Indian tribes; the traders provided credit in advance at inflated prices, and then kept much of the money or stole supplies, with a cut to the agent and the politician. Over time, the licensed trader’s role was enlarged to include postmaster, banker, and creditor, especially for trade goods Indians pawned like rugs, jewelry, basketry, and pottery.
When the votes were counted, Goldwater won by 4,600 votes out of 260,000, less than two percentage points. Despite Kefauver’s repeated requests, there would be no more Senate investigations into organized crime.
When Goldwater came to the Senate in 1953, southern senators, because of their seniority, controlled all the top administrative jobs and committee assignments. Goldwater felt at home with these conservative southern Democrats. Like them, he came from a state with a troublesome minority population that had to be managed with a minimum of federal interference, and like them, he believed in states’ rights, no government intervention, anticommunism, right-to-work laws (no unions), and a strong military. He became the spokesperson for a new hard-right, anticommunist, conservative, small-government agenda linking western conservative Republicans with southern Democrats. He was greatly disliked by moderate Republicans and lost the support of President Eisenhower after he called the Eisenhower administration a ‘dime store New Deal.’
In less than ten years, Goldwater was running for president of the United States. He lost big to Lyndon Johnson, but succeeded in transforming the Republican Party and shifting its power center to the conservative West. The beneficiary would be Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood actor turned politician who won the presidential election of 1980. Within the party Goldwater became a national statesman, a revered figure, the architect of the new conservative revolution, and the forerunner of the Tea Party movement. During the 25 years of his political career, the states of Arizona and Nevada changed dramatically. The war in Vietnam, aerospace military contracts, enlarged military bases, and new Air Force installations accompanied by huge housing developments brought a massive population shift to cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, as well as Los Angeles.
Until the 1990s, Black Mesa was home to more than 25,000 Navajo in the interior and 8,000 Hopi in cliff-top villages. The tribes’ reservation boundary issue, the consequence of an ambiguously worded 1882 Executive Order Reservation, was cleverly exploited in a series of bills sponsored or supported by Goldwater beginning in 1956.”
Two Navajo women came to Barry Goldwater’s Washington, DC, office in July 1978 to talk with him about the legislation he’d sponsored and supported. “Roberta Blackgoat, who spoke excellent English, did most of the talking, while Violet Ashke made occasional comments in Navajo. The receptionist asked if they had an appointment. They did not. They were part of a multi-tribal demonstration called the Longest Walk, a walk and caravan of 220 automobiles that had begun in San Francisco the previous February and been joined by Native Americans from many reservations as it traveled across the country. They’d come to Goldwater’s office to discuss Public Law 93-531, also known as the Navajo and Hopi Land Settlement Act, passed in 1974 with the sponsorship and support of Senator Goldwater and a freshman congressman from Utah named Wayne Owens. Roberta, like many others, believed that the legislation, the first land settlement requiring thousands of Indians of one tribe to move, ostensibly in favor of Indians of another tribe, had been passed in order to open their lands to coal mining. The law had set in motion the relocation of more than twelve to fifteen thousand Navajo in order to give their lands to the Hopi, who didn’t live there and had no plans to live there. The two women might also have mentioned that since the coal strip mining started, their well water and watering holes for livestock were no longer drinkable for either sheep or humans.
Congress had been told that only 800 Navajo would be moved, but after the law passed in 1974, the assistant secretary of interior who made those claims left the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to become vice president of Peabody Coal Company, and Peabody had opened a second mining site on Black Mesa. When the relocation started, no one in Congress had any idea how many Navajo families were going to have to be moved, how much it would cost, or how social services would be implemented. Two years earlier the government had begun constructing a barbed-wire fence that looped deep into Navajo lands for more than a hundred miles. All Navajo families living on the wrong side of the newly named Hopi side of the fence, including Roberta Blackgoat, had to move.
The women waited all day, but weren’t allowed to see the senator. The next day, they arrived as the office opened and asked for an appointment, but the receptionist said she couldn’t give them one. She asked again for their addresses. Care of the Dinnebito Trading Post. Keams Canyon, Arizona. Roberta Blackgoat’s Arizona sheepherding camp was twenty miles from the trading post, deep in the interior and accessible only by a spaghetti swirl of dirt roads, many no wider than a track and some barely discernible in the scrub. The Dinnebito Trading Post is gone now, but it was one of the trading posts where Goldwater had held his first Indian voter registration in 1952. Later voter turnouts on the reservation hadn’t been so kind to him. In the 1974 election, 90% of the Navajo vote had gone against him. When asked about it, Goldwater said that the Navajo had been lured to the polls by promises of free beer. The Navajo tribal chairman at the time, Peter MacDonald, said Goldwater’s remarks were ‘an insult to every Navajo who exercised the right of a citizen to vote.’”
The Navajo and Hopi tribal councils had been organized by energy companies who needed legal entities with whom to sign drilling and mining leases. Looking for Indians in these tribes who would work with them, they found some who’d lost their heritage after being forced to attend government boarding schools. The majority of Indians in both tribes, however, were still “traditionals,” disinterested in tribal councils or signing away resources. The Hopi tribal council, for example, had been created in 1936 after an election boycotted by 70% of eligible voters. “The Navajo Tribal Council had been assembled in 1922 without an election when Standard Oil Company of California wanted oil leases on the reservation and needed a legally authorized signatory. According to Peter MacDonald, the BIA chose five Navajo leaders to sign the leases.
Because the land partition, the sheep reduction, and the removal of whole families into poorly built and soon foreclosed-upon tract housing in Gallup and Flagstaff had come about as a result of legislation Goldwater had introduced and supported, Mrs. Blackgoat and Mrs. Ashke were in Washington not simply to lobby or inform him but to ask him to come and speak with the people at Black Mesa. On the second day, they again sat in the office all day, and again Senator Goldwater was too busy to see them.” Finally, on the third day, Goldwater spoke with Blackgoat and Ashke, and agreed to come to Big Mountain and meet with the Navajo.
“More than 200 Navajo prepared for Goldwater’s visit with a big spread of mutton stew, fry bread, corn, and peaches. Accompanied by an aide and several reporters, the senator came by helicopter from Phoenix two weeks after the Navajo women’s visit. A brush arbor had been erected to provide shade and a battery-powered microphone set up to ensure that everyone could hear him, even though many of the elderly Navajo didn’t understand English. Goldwater opened his remarks by saying that he was happy to be back in Navajoland, that the Navajo were special friends, and that he’d be happy to answer all their questions. But almost immediately, he displayed total obliviousness about the consequences of the legislation he’d introduced and guided through multiple rounds of congressional hearings. ‘There has been no decision that says you have to move,’ Goldwater insisted in answering one question about how many people would have to be relocated. He appeared unaware that the partition order of Black Mesa was already posted at the Dinnebito Trading Post and that a million-dollar barbed-wire fence looped deep into the interior, enclosing some eighteen hundred square miles. ‘No money has been appropriated for relocation,’ he insisted, answering another question, even though the Indian Relocation Commission was in operation on a side street in Flagstaff and had been receiving money for more than three years. He said he knew of no federal orders for mandatory stock reduction. The only stock reduction he knew about, he said, was the program organized by John Collier in the 1930s. So who, one woman demanded to know, had ordered the livestock trucks that showed up at dawn and kidnapped her sheep? Percy Deal, a member of the Navajo Land Dispute Commission, said, ‘I can tell you right now that relocation is in progress, livestock reduction is in progress, fencing is in progress, and you’re here telling us this has not come about yet. I would suggest that you go back to the Phoenix office or your D.C. office and tell your staff to get on the ball and keep you current on what’s going on out here.’ The final confrontation came when Daniel Peaches, a Navajo member of the Arizona Legislature and a Republican, implied that the Navajo knew Goldwater had sold them out because of the energy resources.”
At this point, “Goldwater announced that his wife was ill and that he had to return to Phoenix immediately. As he and his aides began walking toward the helicopter, Roberta Blackgoat reminded him of his promise to ‘stay three days and sleep on sheepskins.’ He didn’t answer her. Instead, he turned to a reporter from the Navajo Times and said angrily, ‘I’ve lived here fifty years, and I probably know this land better than most of these Navajos here today do.’
When the Black Mesa to Laughlin (Mohave generating station) coal slurry–pipeline began carrying water mixed with pulverized coal 273 miles in the early 1970s, “some questions often went unasked. Like: where does the water come from to run the pipeline? And: how much water does it take to transport five and a half million tons of coal a year?” The answer, Nies says, is “4,300 acre-feet of water – roughly a billion gallons, which was drawn from an Ice Age aquifer called the Navajo or “N” aquifer, beneath the Hopi-Navajo lands on Black Mesa. In the original leases, the Hopi got $1.67 per acre-foot and the Navajo got $5. In 1987, almost twenty years later, the Navajo renegotiated the price to $600 an acre-foot, and the Hopi rate was reassessed to $427 an acre-foot. The water-table level had dropped from 10 to 70 feet in Navajo and Hopi communities using the aquifer, making their wells and springs unusable. (The level’s projected to drop as much as 175 feet by the year 2032.) During the public commentary section in the Black Mesa Environmental Impact Statement at a hearing held in 1988, many people said the water levels were jeopardizing an entire culture.
In 2001 an intertribal group of young adult Hopi and Navajo established the Black Mesa Water Coalition to advocate for a move away from the region’s fossil-fuel economy and develop a green economy to replace it. Wahleah Johns, the coalition’s solar project manager, pointed out that the promised riches from fossil-fuel development never materialized for the larger population. Millions of dollars in royalties didn’t change the 54% unemployment rate or alter the average income of $7,500 a year on the Navajo reservation.
The Black Mesa slurry pipeline eventually came to represent some of the most profligate and indefensible water use in the world. In March 1990, after it had been operating for more than twenty years, water holes on the reservation had turned to mud, Hopi springs were drying up, and Navajo sheepherders had to drive more than twenty miles to a deep-water well at the Rocky Ridge School to haul drinking water.” Nies says, “I went with 74-year-old Roberta Blackgoat to get water and watched her, using a hose and a nozzle something like a gas pump, fill a 100-gallon barrel in the back of her pickup truck. The processes of desertification were already visible. Plants didn’t reseed. Wells didn’t recharge. Drought conditions were lasting longer. As groundwater levels lowered, rain clouds didn’t form and coalesce. The winters were shorter and the summers longer.
While the Black Mesa pipeline gained a bad reputation, the Mohave Generating Station became known as the most polluting coal-fired plant in the United States. Built before the Clean Air Act without antipollution devices, on some days during its 35-year life, visitors at Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon National Park, hundreds of miles upstream, would get a soot-filled wind blowing in their faces. The polluting winds moved in a northeasterly direction, eventually obscuring views of the Grand Canyon with a scrim of white haze for more than 200 days a year. A coalition of environmental groups sued Southern California Edison, Los Angeles Water and Power, Nevada Power, and the Phoenix utility called the Salt River Project, the owners of the plant, for polluting the pristine air of the Southwest with ash, carbon, mercury, selenium, and sulfur dioxide. The Mohave plant closed in 2005 when the operating utility owner, Southern California Edison, determined it was too costly to bring it up to current environmental standards.”
Nies repeatedly goes back in history to explain the recent past and present. At one point, under the title “Gilded Age Land Grabs,” she goes all the way back to the 1880s, when “the best opportunities for great wealth in America lay in land development, mining, and opening public lands in the West to Anglo settlement. The conditions for success required political corruption, Wall Street speculation, and wild moneymaking schemes, not so different from our own era, which some journalists have called the New Gilded Age.
Chester Arthur, the 21st president of the United States, was an accidental president, but he was no stranger to turning public service into private wealth. One of the least studied of American presidents, his résumé included training as a lawyer; a rise to political prominence as a protégé of Senator Roscoe Conkling, the powerful Republican machine boss in New York; and his appointment as supervisor of the Port of New York, a patronage job that transformed him into a wealthy man. He became a vice presidential candidate when the reformer delegates at the Republican convention of 1880 who wanted a government civil service couldn’t come to an agreement with the patronage bosses. The compromise was the selection of reformer John Garfield of Ohio as the presidential candidate, and Conkling’s choice for vice president: Chester Arthur.
Four months after his presidential inauguration, Garfield was shot in a Washington, DC, railroad station. He died in September 1881, after lingering for two and a half months. Arthur took over the presidency, but refused to occupy the White House because it was lacking in elegance and not up to his Gilded Age standards of conspicuous wealth. He rented an opulent mansion at taxpayer expense and called in his New York decorator, Louis Tiffany, to undertake a thorough redecoration. He ordered new china and glassware. He brought a French chef from Delmonico’s, one of New York’s best restaurants, to supervise the kitchen, and stocked the wine cellar with imported French wines. He entertained lavishly and often. The guests at his 14-course dinners were political bosses, wealthy industrialists, military men, lobbyists, and representatives of European royalty.
President Arthur gave the United States the dubious distinction of becoming the first sovereign nation to give diplomatic recognition to the Congo Free State, King Leopold’s spurious claim to a huge chunk of Africa later renamed the Belgian Congo. Decades later, the world learned that the Congo was Leopold’s private estate, from which he extracted millions in rubber and gold and enslaved or killed an estimated 6 million African laborers. As Adam Hochschild points out in King Leopold’s Ghost, the money didn’t go to the Belgium treasury, but went instead to the king’s personal bank accounts.
In America a similar fever for land and mineral wealth gripped speculators, along with the compulsion to contain nomadic Indians onto reservations, making their former lands available for farming, ranching, or mining. Among Arthur’s dinner guests were investors willing to pay for access to public lands in the western territories – Oklahoma’s Indian Territory being especially prized. Arthur authorized the opening of 500,000 acres of Creek and Winnebago lands in Oklahoma to speculators, homesteaders, and ranchers. Although the authorization was declared illegal after he was out of office, the displaced Indians, overwhelmed by a flood of white settlers, obtained no redress. Farther west, in the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, said to be especially rich in minerals, America had its own version of Leopold’s Congo.
It was during this period that the Black Hills of South Dakota were claimed for gold miners and the Lakota Indians chased north and west to reservations. The gold mountain in Ledeville, which is still producing gold (and was the model for the television series “Deadwood”), was the source of the Hearst family fortune. (The Hearst newspapers came later.) Millions of acres of Indian treaty lands were lost. Half of the Navajo tribe, which had been prosperous and living in northern New Mexico, was also rounded up by Kit Carson and his battalion of soldiers, marched 350 miles to the New Mexico border at Bosque Redondo, and imprisoned in a desolate labor camp near Fort Sumner because their lands were believed to be rich in gold.
In 1882 the superintendent of Indian affairs came to President Arthur with a problem in northeastern Territory. The agent in Keams Canyon was getting complaints from the Hopi because white men, believed to be Mormon missionaries, were coming into their villages, harassing them about religion and claiming lands they farmed. The agent was powerless to do anything because of the lack of a federal reservation boundary. The new Hopi reservation that the superintendent proposed was approximately 36 square miles and enclosed all the clifftop Hopi villages and some of the dry washes where they grew crops. Although no record exists of the conversation between President Arthur and his Indian superintendent, other correspondence and maps show that there had been lively discussion about the possible mineral resources of the area and that the Interior Department had a series of maps showing where they were located.
Arthur had an Executive Order drawn up that created a 3,900-square-mile federal reservation known as the 1882 Executive Order Reservation. The order described the 2,508,800 acres of the reservation and proclaimed that the land ‘is hereby withdrawn from settlement and sale and set apart for the use and occupancy of the Moqui (Hopi) and other such Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon.’ That same year, Thomas Edison electrified J. P. Morgan’s mansion in New York. One square mile of Manhattan was lit up by tungsten lightbulbs, replacing gaslights. The energy source: the coal-fired Pearl Street Generating Station. With Morgan’s financial backing for Edison’s coal-fired generating stations, electricity systems spread to cities throughout the country, and coal lit up America.”
Coal has been important for a long time, Nies says. “Since 2000, though not recognized, the biggest increase in global energy output has come from coal – double that from oil and triple that from natural gas. In 2013 British Petroleum (BP) published its annual Statistical Report of World Energy Use, showing that coal use has not only equaled oil in volume, but has increased more than any other fuel. The United States is second only to China in its consumption of coal. The major impetus in coal use has come from increasing electricity demand by a growing population using ever more electrical devices. America still gets more than 40% of its electricity from coal. In the arid cities of the West, electricity is doing more than running air conditioners and computers. It’s also pumping water. Coal-fired energy runs the pumps that suck water from distant rivers and deliver it to the urban centers of the Southwest. Without electricity to pump water from water sources hundreds of miles away, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and metropolitan Los Angeles wouldn’t exist as the population centers they are today.
Francis Peabody started the Peabody Coal Company in 1883. He was a coal retailer, buying coal from mines in Carbondale, Illinois and transporting it by rail to sell to Chicago homeowners and businesses for heat. In addition to coal as a heating fuel, coal was the power source for America’s ever-expanding railroads. At the turn of the century,” as we’ve seen, “a major new market for coal appeared: electricity generating stations. By 1913 Francis Peabody’s coal company owned several mines and had won a long-term contract to supply Chicago Edison, a major electric utility. As the century unfolded, Peabody’s business evolved into the production of electricity as well as the mining of coal. Rate setting, plant siting, distribution systems, peak loads, and use projections were all factors in Peabody’s contract negotiations and coal pricing. From a small Illinois operation to a dominant force in the industry, Peabody Coal became the owner of more than thirteen mines and supplied the major electricity utilities in the country. Long-term, high-volume contracts put Peabody Coal ahead of most other companies, and by the time of Francis Peabody’s death in 1922, his company had contracts with major utilities throughout the country and owned the largest mines in the Great Basin states. He had a personal fortune of $35 million ($487 million today) and a business fortune of $75 million ($1 billion).
By the 1950s, Peabody Coal was the 8th-largest coal producer in the country and had added many more mines and utilities to its portfolio. Led by Merl Kelce,
Peabody began a global growth spurt in 1966 that led it to its becoming the largest coal company in the world. Kelce was able to buy the leases on Black Mesa, Arizona, at the time considered the largest untouched coal reserve in the country. (Powder River, Wyoming, and the Montana mines were still in the future.)”
The Big Mountain coal reserves set aside in Arthur’s 1882 Executive Order came back into play in the 1950s, when, Nies says, Barry Goldwater was “instrumental in getting the special court set up that first heard the so-called Hopi-Navajo boundary dispute. The lawyer who arranged for the court was the Hopi’s (and Peabody Coal’s) attorney: John Boyden, a millionaire from Salt Lake City, candidate for governor of Utah, and a Mormon bishop. Boyden had a background in Indian law before becoming the Hopi tribe’s lawyer in 1951, and he understood that the law was plastic when it came to Indians, and could be shaped according to new needs and new industries.” Here Nies reminds is that “according to legal definition, ‘an Indian reservation consists of land set apart for the use of Indians, under the superintendence of the government, which retains title to the lands.’”
When he first “arrived on the Hopi mesas in 1950, Boyden was part of a new generation of Mormons,” Nies says. Born and brought up in Coalville, Utah, whose coal mines sustained Salt Lake City, he had a special affinity with coal. In the years between presidents Arthur and Truman, the United States had been transformed. The country had 150 million people instead of 50 million. It had fought two world wars, and it was the world’s leading industrialized nation. Coal had been the fuel for that industrialization.”
John Boyden came to Black Mesa looking for another Indian Claims Court client. He’d just earned over a million dollars settling a claim for the Ute tribe, and believed the Claims Commission had only a few more years to run. He went to the Navajo tribal council in Window Rock, because he knew their legal system. “But someone on the council remembered his role as a US attorney enforcing the livestock reduction of the 1930s, theoretically a policy instituted to prevent overgrazing and encourage land conservation, but really to lessen silt buildup behind the newly opened Hoover Dam. During the depths of the Depression, in what seemed incomprehensible to Navajo families, tens of thousands of Navajo sheep and goats were shot and burned.. Hundreds of once prosperous, but now impoverished Navajo families never recovered. The Navajo tribal council told Boyden, ‘No thanks.’
Undeterred, Boyden continued west on Route 264, heading toward Keams Canyon, where the Hopi lived in eleven pueblo villages at the southern tip of Black Mesa. The Hopi Indian agent, H. E. O’Harra, told Boyden that the Hopi had a good land-claims case, but no functional tribal council with authority to hire him. The council that had been recognized in the ‘30s by the BIA was ignored by the majority of the tribe and hadn’t met for more than a decade. Boyden met with some of the progressive, Christianized Hopi, who had a history of cooperating with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Among the most prominent was Emory Sekaquaptewa, who’d been educated in Indian boarding schools, spoke excellent English, and was in favor of a modern tribal government. Sekaquaptewa got the support of some village leaders in addition to the disbanded tribal council, and an oral contract was entered into with the tribe. Later a letter signed by the Hopi traditional priests appeared in a local Gallup newspaper and was forwarded to Senator Goldwater saying that Boyden wrote up a contract and had the assembled people agree to it by voice vote ‘without consulting the Hopi people. The majority of the Hopis are against Boyden as a lawyer.’ Boyden knew his oral contract wouldn’t hold up long against such a legal challenge, so he moved quickly to transform it into an official written document. Because all the new tribal council members were unelected, he arranged for all sixteen of them to travel to Salt Lake City to be sworn in by a federal judge. The date was July 12, 1951.
Among the many things Boyden didn’t tell his Hopi clients was that no actual land was ever returned in the Ute case. The $32 million settlement was for 1.5 million acres of lands taken by signed treaty but never paid for. In addition, reimbursement was based on the price of land at the time it was taken in the 1880s, not on present market value, and the government placed many strings on how the Indians’ money was disbursed – the Ute needed a business plan to explain how they were going to use the settlement money, while the lawyers got their fees immediately. Boyden filed a similar land claim for the Hopi and eventually won a $5 million settlement for the tribe and another large fee for himself ($2.7 million). Again, no return of actual land was possible, the financial settlement was based on the value of the land when it was taken in the 19th century, and finally, and most important, in accepting the financial settlement, the tribe would relinquish forever any title. The Hopi refused to cash the check. Rather than return it to the commission, Boyden worked out an agreement whereby the money would be put in a trust account in Salt Lake City in case a future tribal council saw things differently. The check sat for years, earning interest, and by 1990 was supposedly worth $11 million. [The same thing happened with the federal government’s payment to the Lakota tribe for the Black Hills.]
Meanwhile, there was the question of how the Hopi, a people with a subsistence economy, could keep earning enough money to build tribal offices, pay salaries for tribal government, and pay Boyden’s legal fees (by this time Boyden had also been appointed as tribal attorney). Mining was the most promising avenue for economic development, and it was this possibility that eventually took Boyden to the Department of the Interior to clarify the Hopi’s right to issue mineral leases on the 1882 Executive Order Reservation.
Although Chester Arthur’s 1882 Executive Order specified that the 3,900-square-mile reservation was for the Hopi (Moqui), it also,” as noted above, “included ‘for other Indians’ as a general category. At the time, an accompanying report estimated the number of Hopi to be 1,100, the Navajo at 300, and an uncounted number of Paiute – some 1,500 people in an area three-quarters the size of Connecticut. The thousands of Navajo families who’d settled on Black Mesa naturally claimed they were those ‘other Indians.’ Consequently, neither tribe had clear title to mineral leasing on the 1882 Executive Order Reservation land. And without clear title, no mining company would take a chance on signing a lease with one tribe that could be challenged by the other.
Boyden repeatedly petitioned the secretary of interior to clarify the boundaries of Hopi and Navajo lands. Each time, the interior secretary and his legal counsel told him that the determination of all Indian reservation boundaries lay solely with Congress. With typical thoroughness, Boyden studied the problem and came up with a bold, but ingenious, solution: using the precedent of the Indian Claims Commission to set up a special three-judge court to hear a ‘friendly’ suit between the Hopi and Navajo. All it would take was an act of Congress.
Boyden arrived in Barry Goldwater’s office in 1956 and presented his idea for a bill. Although Senator Goldwater and attorney Boyden maintained that their bill was solely for ‘justice for the Hopi,’ and adamantly denied that the bill had anything to do with mineral leasing, the real intent was inadvertently made clear by freshman congressman Stewart Udall, the bill’s cosponsor in the House, who added an ‘interim leasing clause’ that provided for royalty monies from mining or oil drilling to be put ‘in trust accounts’ for the Hopi and Navajo while the special court was deciding the case. Goldwater’s bill passed the Senate without the interim leasing provision, but not the House. US Attorney General William P. Rogers (later secretary of state) said all reservation boundaries were the responsibility of Congress, and that this was an improper use of a three-judge court. Individual Hopi also argued against the bill, and asked Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona to open an investigation into how John Boyden and the tribal council came to power.
Goldwater and Udall introduced the bill again in 1958 without any mention of mineral leasing, and it passed. In 1959 Boyden and the Navajo counsel filed papers, the case was heard in 1961 with the US Attorney’s Office appearing in opposition, and in 1962 the decision was handed down. If the conflict had really been about establishing a boundary, everything would have been settled. But because it was about mining, other issues like water rights and access to the coal seam remained to be settled. It also turned out that John Boyden was representing the Hopi at the same time he was representing Peabody Coal and Kennecott Copper. In any other state but Mormon Utah, he would have been a candidate for disbarment for representing two sides in the same legal issue in a clear conflict of interest.”
Here Nies goes back into Mormon history, saying that “alkali soil and the lack of reliable made agriculture difficult in what otherwise should have been the Mormons’ promised land.
The second phase of Mormonism ‘beyond the Rocky Mountains’ began under the leadership of Brigham Young and the removal of the church to the alkali kingdom of Alta California, called the Empire of Deseret by Young and his apostles and Utah Territory by the US government. The map of the Mormon state of Deseret included some or all of nine future states – slices of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, all of southern California, all of Nevada and Utah, half of Colorado, much of northern Arizona, and a wedge of New Mexico. Deseret was short-lived, because the year after the Saints arrived in Salt Lake Valley, the United States won the Mexican-American War, and Alta California became part of the United States, the country the Mormons had tried to leave behind.
Mormon leaders weren’t deterred. Within the first ten years of arriving in Salt Lake, Young sent out explorers and missions to establish more than 100 colonies in the nine Deseret states. Two of those missions are important to this story. One was in Tuba City, Arizona, which contained the Mormons who caused the Indian agent of Chester Arthur’s era such annoyance that he threatened to resign unless the Indian Bureau created a reservation boundary for the Hopi; the other was a small outpost and fort in Las Vegas that lasted for only two years, but remained a location for future Mormon settlers.
Unlike the individual pioneers who claimed lands under the Homestead Act and frequently lost them for lack of water, the Mormons scouted water sources ahead of time and sent parties of twenty or thirty families at a time to establish settlements, equipped with the layout for a town plan and tools for farming, irrigation, and/or mining. The church also provided colonists with information about how to file mining claims and claim public domain lands through the Homestead Act, the Desert Lands Act, and the Timber Act.
Tuba City was founded as a Mormon settlement in the 1870s. On the Navajo reservation, it’s near the Hopi town of Moencopi and named for a Hopi headman, Chief Toova. At some point in 1880, the Mormon leader, Jacob Hamblin, who spoke six Indian languages including Hopi, took Toova and his wife, Talasnimka, to visit Salt Lake City. Seventy years later Talasnimka’s great-niece Helen Sekaquaptewa recalled the first cast-iron stove on the Hopi mesas that arrived after that journey, as well as her family’s long connection with Mormon missionaries and Anglo institutions.
Helen Sekaquaptewa lived in Phoenix during the 1950s while her children attended the Phoenix Indian School. On Sundays, as a baptized Mormon, she attended meetings of the Mormon Relief Society – the Mormon women’s organization whose purpose is to ‘build faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and help those in need’ – on the Maricopa reservation, outside of Phoenix. She frequently got a ride with Louise Udall, wife of Levi Udall, chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, a member of a particularly well-connected Mormon family. A Udall cousin was the mayor of Phoenix; another was married to the president of the Mormon Church. And two of Louise’s sons were en route to impressive careers in Washington, DC. One, Stewart, was a congressman, and during the years his mother attended the Women’s Relief Society meetings with Helen Sekaquaptewa, he rose in the world to become secretary of interior. Another, Morris, took his brother’s congressional seat and was working his way up to become chairman of the House Interior Committee, the powerful congressional committee that oversees all national legislation pertaining to mining, mineral rights, water, energy, and Indian lands.
The Udall and Sekaquaptewa sons had a major role in extracting the coal for energy for the urban centers of the Southwest. Abbott Sekaquaptewa negotiated the coal leases that Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall approved in 1966, saying they’d bring ‘new jobs, large tax benefits, and tremendous economic advantages – not only for the two Indian tribes, but for the entire southwest.’ The leases, which ran for 35 years and were renewable for another 35, violated every guideline the Department of the Interior had set up for leasing on public lands: no competitive bidding, no automatic renegotiation clauses, and a fixed rather than a percentage royalty rate.” As noted above, “the Hopi got $1.67 per acre-foot for water rights that in 1987 were renegotiated at $427 per acre-foot. The Navajo got $5 per acre-foot. The royalty rate on public lands for coal mining was $1.50 per ton. The Hopi and Navajo split a rate of 37 cents per ton. Author and photographer Alvin Josephy, who was working in the Interior Department at the time and who took the photographs for Secretary Udall’s environmental book, The Quiet Crisis, later wrote in Audubon magazine that the Black Mesa leases were ‘a textbook example of the lack of accountability by government agencies working hand-in-glove with industry in the United States today.’
Stewart Udall described himself as a New Deal Democrat, even a radical. ‘I was always involved on behalf of minority groups and their causes. I had the kind of New Deal feelings about labor unions, economic justice, social justice.’ He launched his political career in 1956 as a congressman from Tucson. In 1960 he was still an unknown second-term congressman from a minor state when he stepped into the national spotlight as head of the Arizona delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Everyone expected the western states to give their votes to Lyndon B. Johnson – a westerner, a man who understood the needs of the Southwest, but Udall stood firm for Kennedy. His support in the face of Sam Rayburn’s pressure and his political skills earned him a cabinet appointment as secretary of interior, a move hailed by conservationists. In the West the interior secretary is considered a more important appointment than secretary of state.
In the 1960s, Helen Sekaquaptewa’s connection with the Udall family led to involvement with John Boyden in shaping the new Hopi tribal council. Her son Abbott served on the tribal council during the 1950s and as chairman from 1961 to 1964, and 1971 to 1981. In the decade from 1966 to 1976, he also served as chair of the Hopi Negotiating Committee, charged with working out a land-sharing arrangement with the Navajo. Another son, Wayne, owned the English-language newspaper and a construction firm and was president of the Mormon stake on the reservation. Emory Jr. worked as executive director of the tribal council.
After the Goldwater-Boyden-Udall bill passed in 1958, setting up the special court, Boyden filed the necessary papers, the case was heard in 1960, and the decision was handed down on September 28, 1962. The Navajo appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Court declined to hear the case, supposedly after some input from Secretary Udall. Horrified that sacred land was going to be leased for strip mining and assisted by the Native American Rights Fund, traditional Hopi elders went to court to try to stop the strip-mining leases, claiming that they’d been obtained illegally at a time when the Hopi tribal council didn’t have a legal quorum. They also called Secretary Udall’s approval of the leases ‘arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.’ The Court ruled that the elders had no standing before the Court; only the Hopi tribal council had legal standing and could sue in the name of the Hopi people.
Emory Sekaquaptewa Sr. was five years old in 1906 when government officers raided the Hopi village of Oraibi before dawn, plucked sleeping children out of their beds, tossed them in horse-drawn wagons, and took them to the Keams Canyon boarding school. Once at the boarding school, the Hopi children couldn’t go home till their parents signed an agreement promising they’d return for future instruction. The next year, Helen, who was six, was also snatched from her family. More than 70 Hopi fathers from the families who’d resisted Anglo education for their children were taken off to jail, some for 90 days, others for years. Emory Sr.’s father was sent to the Indian prison in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, while Helen’s father was given a year at Fort Huachuca, in southern Arizona.
Although the government policy was to keep the children at school for nine months and send them home for the summer, if the parents didn’t sign the form, the children couldn’t go home. Helen and Emory Sr. didn’t get to see their parents or their village again for another five years. The boarding school staff became their surrogate parents, and they adapted to institutional life. They were given Anglo names, forbidden to speak the Hopi language, and punished if they sang any of their traditional songs or did any dances. The school matrons cut their hair, gave them military uniforms to wear, and housed them in a military-style dormitory with cots in long rows. For the next twelve years, home was a succession of boarding schools – first in Keams Canyon, then the Indian school in Phoenix – all regimented by military bugle and drill and Christian instruction. Corporal punishment was administered with a harness strap. The Indian children were taught skills they could use in the Anglo world as part of the servant class – laundry and sewing for the girls, and carpentry and construction for the boys.”
Roberta Blackgoat, who went to the Keams Canyon school over a decade later, “was one of the many children who resisted and ran away. Others feigned acceptance, never losing their Indian ways of thinking and being. But for a few, like the Sekaquaptewas, the uniforms and strict discipline came to be their way of life. By the time Emory Sr. got to high school in Phoenix, the school authorities considered him so trustworthy that they sent him after the Indian runaways.
The better they adapted to boarding school life, the worse these young people fit in when they went back to the reservation. In 1919 Emory Sekaquaptewa Sr. returned to the Hopi reservation and went to work for the BIA Agency in Hotevilla, in charge of maintaining the buildings and the power plant. Hotevilla was the new ‘friendly’ village, founded in 1906 after a schism in Oraibi between the ‘hostiles’ and ‘friendlies’ over education. When Emory and Helen married, they had both Christian and Hopi ceremonies. The Christian ceremony, performed by a Mennonite minister, didn’t sit well with their neighbors, nor did the fact that they welcomed white teachers and government workers at their home. While the Sekaquaptewas had strained relations with their neighbors, they were invaluable to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They were Christian, progressive in attitude, spoke excellent English, and had adopted Anglo ways. They encouraged their children, also Christian, to get an education – not one of the five Sekaquaptewa sons was initiated into the Hopi priesthood. And, during a crucial period, they all occupied pivotal positions in Hopi government.”
In 1971 the Central Arizona Water Project, needed to pump 1.9 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River into Phoenix and Tucson, making it necessary to open a second mining site on Black Mesa to increase electricity generation at the still-to-be-constructed Navajo Generating Station. So, “John Boyden and Barry Goldwater introduced another bill in Congress, the Hopi Land Settlement Act, a bill that would physically divide the Executive Order Reservation, giving 2 million acres to the Hopi, and removing the Navajo who lived on top of the coal. Coached by John Boyden and the public relations firm of Evans and Associates (employed by the 23 utility companies building the power plants that needed the coal), Abbott Sekaquaptewa appeared before a congressional hearing in 1973 to introduce the image of a range war between Navajo aggressors and peaceful Hopi. For two years national newspapers ran photos of burned corrals, shot-up stock tanks, and roadside signs riddled with bullet holes. People on the reservation said white men from out of town shot up the signs. Coal, the power plants, and importance of energy for the Sunbelt Boom weren’t mentioned.”
Nies gives us the back history of the Navajo, detailing a persecution and impoverishment before the 1930s stock reduction that also brought them into northern Arizona. “Before the 1850s,” she says, “the Navajo were prosperous and wealthy, living in northern New Mexico, their struggles mainly with the Spanish who kidnapped their women and children for slaves. After the United States won the war with Mexico in 1848, however, the Navajo gained some new enemies: Anglo-Europeans who believed their lands were filled with gold and silver. The Civil War provided the occasion to forcibly clear the land of the troublesome Navajo, so that mineral prospecting could go forward. Early in 1862, a Texas general named Henry Hopkins Sibley crossed the Rio Grande with a regiment of Texas cowboys and claimed Santa Fe and the New Mexico Territory for the South. On September 16, 1862, General James Carleton arrived in Santa Fe from California as the new commanding general of New Mexico Territory. After expelling Sibley, Carleton organized companies of irregular soldiers, many of them slave raiders, to fight the Navajo. He enlisted Kit Carson, famed frontiersman, explorer, and Indian fighter, to be his field commander. Carleton’s policy toward the Navajo was that of total war: killing the men, taking women and children prisoners, destroying the tribe’s food base, and removing them from their lands. Carson drove the Navajo west, into Arizona Territory, and many fled into the depths of Canyon de Chelly. Carson set up a blockade at the canyon entrance and waited out the winter. In the spring of 1864, he sent a detachment of men into the canyon, rounded up 1,500 half-starved Navajo, and began the infamous Long Walk to Fort Sumner, 300 miles away. During the march through spring blizzards, the soldiers shot anyone moving too slowly (including women in labor), raped women and girls, and physically mutilated their prisoners. Hundreds died, and many froze to death.
The march was merely a preview of what awaited the Navajo at Fort Sumner. There, other Navajo who had either turned themselves in or been picked up in other raids were brought together in a prison camp inadequate for their number (8,000, 9,000 by the following year). Carleton saw the camp, Bosque Redondo, as a permanent solution to the Navajo problem, and directed that a 40-square-mile area be set aside as an internment zone. Corn, beans, melons, and pumpkins were planted, but drought conditions withered most of the corn, and grasshoppers, worms, and severe storms devastated the melons and squash. The water was brackish, stagnant, and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Carleton had few farm tools to give the Navajo, and the supplies he ordered were stolen by the Indian agent. The Navajo were starving, and many of them were stricken with malaria or dysentery.
Because the camp never became self-sustaining, Carleton was relieved of command at the end of 1868, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, fresh from his Civil War victories, was sent to Fort Sumner to negotiate a treaty with the Navajo. He tried unsuccessfully to convince them to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, then agreed to a strip of reservation land overlapping the Arizona and New Mexico border, recognized even at the time as being too small and arid to support the tribe. During the five years of the Navajo imprisonment, white settlers had moved into their old lands, their previous economy and agriculture had been destroyed, and the government never gave them the promised sheep and cattle to rebuild. The tribe eventually moved far beyond the reservation’s paper boundaries, going northwest to Utah’s San Juan River Valley and west to Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain.
The Parker-Keam line, established in 1891 with the cooperation of both Hopi and Navajo leaders, was honored for the most part. This agreement facilitated by Thomas Keams, the Indian trader who gave his name to Keams Canyon, stood in practice and principle until 1958, when John Boyden started filing legal claims on behalf of the Hopi against the Navajo. By 1974 the Hopi Land Settlement Act had passed both houses of Congress and was awaiting President Ford’s signature. It was theft, but it was all done legally, and Black Mesa became a crucial resource colony for the expansion of the New West,” and another blow to the Navajo tribe.
Going back to early Las Vegas history, Nies tells us that in 1905 “Senator William Clark of Montana established it as the town site for his railroad depot. He needed a supply depot for the new railroad line he was building between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, and the spot, with its springs and underground aquifer, had the key resource he needed: water for the steam engines. The oasis, named Las Vegas, “the meadows,” by the Spanish, had been pointed out to them by Paiute Indian guides. Brigham Young had sent thirty Mormon families on a mission to settle there. The Indians who’d used the water for thousands of years were used to wagon trains going through, but this new group built houses and a wall. Summer heat, Paiute incursions, and alkali soil brought an end to the Mormon settlement after two years in the mid-1850s, but Mormons remembered their history, and many came back to work on the railroad, explore mining claims, ranch, or farm. In 1921 a torrential summer rainstorm washed out 100 miles of track, and the railroad had to shut down. When the track was rebuilt, the railroad was under control of a new owner, E. H. Harriman’s Union Pacific, and Las Vegas was no longer the supply depot. Southern Nevada became known as ‘the empty quarter,’ and Las Vegas settled back into desert torpor.
When Warren Bechtel came to Las Vegas in 1930 to scout the location where he and his partners were about to build Hoover Dam, thirty miles south on the Colorado River, Las Vegas had fewer than 4,000 people. Although the Bechtel Corporation would emerge as the named builder of Hoover Dam, and still highlights the dam as the signature megaproject on its website, at the time it was two Mormon brothers from Ogden, Utah, who actually spearheaded the project. Edmund, known as “E. O.,” and William “W. H.” Wattis were the heads of Utah Construction, the largest construction company west of the Mississippi. The brothers had begun by grading railroad beds in Canada at the turn of the century, and eventually built a major construction company, becoming the major builder for the Union Pacific Railroad. They also expanded into dam building, including the dam that created the controversial Hetch Hetchy Reservoir north of San Francisco.
The dam project on the Colorado River, budgeted at $50 million, had been in the works for more than fifteen years, and was the largest civil engineering project in US history. It would be the first dam on any major river in the world. (The hydroelectric plant was budgeted at another $50 million and bid separately from the dam.) In February 1931 all six principals along with their lawyers and bankers met at the Engineers Club in San Francisco to work out the contractual details. With $1.5 million invested, Bechtel and Kaiser were the largest investors in the Six Companies consortium, and when the dam bids were opened in March 1931, it had the lowest bid. Many people thought the partners would go broke, but when the dam was completed in 1935, two years and three months ahead of schedule, every partner was a multimillionaire.
Warren A. Bechtel, born in 1872, grew up on a farm in Peabody, Kansas. He hated farming, but liked tools and equipment and was said to be able to diagnose and fix any piece of mechanical equipment. Although he dated the founding of W. A. Bechtel Construction to 1898 when he was 26, his actual equipment during the first years of his career was two mules, a slip grader, and a strong back. When he arrived in Las Vegas in 1931, however, he was president of a large construction company and one of the two senior partners in the Six Companies consortium. The other partner was Henry Kaiser, owner of a sand and gravel business. By the time the Bechtel-Kaiser partnership became the largest investor in the Hoover Dam, the Bechtel family lived in a large Victorian house in Oakland, Mrs. Bechtel was on the board of the San Francisco Opera, and Warren Bechtel had four adult children, one of whom, Steven, became the purchasing agent for the project.
Although Hoover Dam is generally believed to have been a great New Deal public works project, it was actually built by private enterprise, funded by the government, and put in motion by the business-oriented Hoover administration to help the landowners of the Imperial Valley of Southern California.
Thousands of unemployed workers converged on Las Vegas to apply for construction jobs. Some took jobs with Union Pacific, building the thirty miles of railroad track that would carry materials and equipment to the dam site. Others built the concrete plant on the Arizona side of the river. More than 100 workers died on the job from heatstroke, falls, explosions, or being struck by heavy equipment. Six Companies also settled at least fifty cases of carbon monoxide poisoning out of court.
In 1933 Warren Bechtel dispatched Henry Kaiser to Washington to launch a public relations campaign and to lobby Congress to keep funds flowing. At the time, many congressmen argued that in the midst of such devastating economic times the federal government shouldn’t be spending money on a western dam that would mainly benefit California. Though private company profits are estimated to have been more than $18 million, the workers who built it under brutal working conditions didn’t share in the financial rewards. When the dam was finished, it was a seamless curve of concrete across the Colorado River, higher from foundation to crest than the Empire State Building – the first dam on any major river in the world.
The dam, its huge reservoir (Lake Mead), and the accompanying hydroelectric plant provided the western states, but mainly California, with the water and electricity to break free of the East and to develop their own industries. Within 30 years, California had grown to be the fifth-largest economy in the world and the most populous state in the nation. The dam also gave Las Vegas reliable electricity and 300,000 acre-feet of water. The city still had its own aquifer at the time, but by 1955 had lowered the groundwater level by 200 feet and begun pumping its Colorado River water allocation into the city.
By the late 1930s, America’s leaders were preparing for war and commissioning Army Air Force training bases in the Nevada desert around Las Vegas to train pilots and soldiers. Bechtel teamed up with Utah Construction and Morrison-Knudsen to get military contracts, and built military bases in Nevada, Arizona, and California, as well as in war zones around the world. The West Coast was the staging area for the Pacific theater and the beginning of a large population shift. Bechtel expanded to new projects (oil refineries, marine ports, pipelines, road systems, airports, tunnels, and generating stations), and with the beginning of the Manhattan Project in 1943, built storage plants for nuclear materials. In 1950 it helped construct the atomic test site, 65 miles from Las Vegas. Today Bechtel is also the manager and operator of the privatized nuclear research labs at Los Alamos in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The Nevada Test Site, part of the Department of Energy, is southern Nevada’s largest nongaming employer, with 3,000 employees. Until 2010 it had another large workforce hollowing out Yucca Mountain, at the edge of the test site, the location that was supposed to become the nation’s national nuclear waste depository. Budgeted at $18 billion, its funding was stopped during the Obama administration because of local opposition and questions similar to the ones that a reporter asked Frederick Tarantino, president of Bechtel-Nevada, in 2004. ‘How do you reconcile the proximity of projects involving nuclear waste, hazardous materials, and rocket launchings so close to America’s greatest tourist destination?’
Today, 90% of Las Vegas water comes from the 300,000 acre-feet allocated from Lake Mead (the ever-diminishing waters of the Colorado River), though city water planners have spent more than a decade formulating new water schemes and buying up water rights in and running a pipeline to two valleys 200 miles to the north. The model for this future water supply was created a century ago in Los Angeles with the construction of the aqueduct that brought water from the Owens Valley 250 miles to Los Angeles. Roman Polanski’s classic movie “Chinatown,” based on the events that took place in 1913, placed them in the 1930s. It hit a few of the high points of the collusion between city officials and private landowners, but left out much of the political stealth involved, including federal involvement reaching to Teddy Roosevelt in the 1908 White House. As Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert, everything the city did was legal, though whether one can justify it is another story. Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies to get the water it needed. It milked the Owens Valley bone-dry, impoverishing it, while the water it got made a number of city businessmen rich. From 1908 to 1913, during the five years that LA was building the 233-mile aqueduct from Owens Valley, Mayor Fred Eaton, LA Times publisher Harry Chandler, and a syndicate of friends were buying up lands in the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of the future irrigation water, and this became the first use of the new water, making them millionaires. Within ten years, by 1924, the Owens Valley Lake had been pumped out, and William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water and Power Authority, began buying up groundwater rights and valley farms in order to drain the Owens River. By 1928, Los Angeles owned 90% of the water rights in the valley, and the lake, the river, and the valley’s vegetation were gone.
Commerce secretary Herbert Hoover, a Californian, a Republican, and a former mining engineer who’d worked all over the world, was selected to undertake the task of apportioning the waters of the Colorado River. For eleven months in 1922 representatives of all seven states met with him in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hoover divided the river and the states at Lee’s Ferry, forming two artificial groups: the Upper Basin (Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin (California, Arizona, and Nevada). The states of each basin were to allocate 7.5 million acre-feet of water among themselves. In the Lower Basin, California was to get 4.5 million acre-feet, Arizona 2.5 million acre-feet, and Nevada 300,000 acre-feet. Mexico was allocated 1.5 million acre-feet because Mexican farmers had prior use (the Colorado River ran through two Mexican counties for 90 miles). The final document, known as the Colorado Compact or the West’s Constitution, was signed in 1922.
The same year, Arthur Powell Davis, director of the Reclamation Service, presented Congress with an inclusive report on taming the Colorado River. Referencing its early California roots, it was called ‘Report on Problems of Imperial Valley and Vicinity’ and encompassed flood-control dams, storage reservoirs, and hydroelectricity to fully exploit ‘the American Nile.’ The report was translated into congressional legislation called the Boulder Dam Project Act. (Boulder Dam was the early name for Hoover Dam.) For the next six years, the bill to authorize the money to construct a dam, a hydroelectric plant, and an aqueduct to the Imperial Valley was introduced in Congress, and every year it was successfully defeated in the Senate by Carl Hayden of Arizona because Arizona wasn’t satisfied with its water allocation. California growers understood the need for a stronger political hand, so they decided to run their own candidate to be the first US president from the West: Herbert Hoover. As soon as Hoover’s election was announced in November 1928, the Boulder Dam Bill passed the Senate. Access to the White House was too important a carrot for senators to continue to support Arizona in its opposition.
By 1938, Hoover Dam had been built, with the reservoir behind the dam providing water for millions of people in greater Los Angeles and irrigating more than a million acres in southern California’s Imperial Valley. California got much more than its allocated 4.5 million acre-feet of water, because Arizona didn’t have the infrastructure to tap its allocation. Las Vegas didn’t use its allocation either until the 1960s when it built a pipeline from Lake Mead, so California was probably using Nevada’s water as well. Until there was a second dam farther upriver (Glen Canyon Dam, near Page, AZ, built 1956-66, with Lake Powell as a reservoir), the Upper Basin states had no stored water to tap. At the time it didn’t seem significant, because the mushrooming population growth of Phoenix and Las Vegas was still in the future. It was only after World War II when the advent of commercial air-conditioning coincided with the homecoming of millions of war veterans, who’d trained at military bases in the West and were looking for a new start in a sunny climate, that the full potential of the Colorado River was exploited. By the beginning of the 21st century, more than 30 million people were dependent on the waters of the Colorado River. At the same time, its flow was diminishing every year.”
Nies writes, “by the time I drove along the shrinking Lake Mead in February 2010, it was on its way to its lowest point since being filled. The water’s going down because snowmelt into the Colorado River’s been way below normal for the last decade. This has combined with increased evaporation from rising temperatures. (Overall median temperatures in the Southwest have increased by almost two degrees Fahrenheit as a result of climate change.)
Glen Canyon Dam is now catching much of the silt that used to build up behind Hoover Dam, and its reservoir, Lake Powell, is at 48% of capacity. Marble Gorge, a third planned Colorado River dam, was never built, a Sierra Club victory that proved disastrous for the Hopi and Navajo of Black Mesa, since the coal under their land ended up substituting for the hydroelectricity a third dam would have generated. Udall’s Department of the Interior authorized the construction of the Navajo Generating Station, a 2,250-megawatt power plant at Page, AZ, from which the Bureau of Reclamation would purchase a fourth of the electricity in order to run the fourteen pumping stations moving Colorado River water 330 miles over three mountain ranges into Phoenix and Tucson.” As noted above, “this Arizona aqueduct was called the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, and in 1973 a second coal-mining site opened on Black Mesa, the Kayenta Mine, to supply coal for the new power plant. Finally, after forty years, Arizona would be able to use its full allocation from the Colorado River. The Navajo Generating Station is the only coal-fired power plant in the country majority-owned by the federal government through the US Bureau of Reclamation. Phoenix, which had five dams high in the Superstition Mountains on the Salt River, had pumped out all its groundwater. Rerouting the Colorado River into CAP made it the world’s most expensive water system. Apart from the $8 billion required to build the system, it requires 750 megawatts of electricity to run the pumping stations that move the water through the highest pump lift in the world. The water goes to irrigation for agriculture, to municipal water for the city of Phoenix, and to provide a million gallons of water a day for each of Phoenix’s 247 golf courses.
By the 1990s, the casinos of Las Vegas had been renamed ‘gaming enterprises,’ and the city was being rebranded as a convention and family-vacation destination. Its population was doubling and tripling every year, making it the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. It still has the highest per capita water use in the country. In line with the hedonism of the Strip, land-development companies didn’t attract new buyers by telling them about the need for a desert aesthetic and water conservation. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has bought up ranches in Spring Valley to the north, spending $22 million for one ranch and $78 million for a dozen more. Once one ranch sold, other ranchers in the valley began to sell, figuring that once the city started pumping water out and the water table fell, their land would be worthless. Since the Bureau of Land Management owns the hundreds of square miles between the northern valleys and Las Vegas, the pipeline will be crossing 250 miles of federally owned land, requiring a federal right-of-way. On December 27, 2012, the Bureau of Land Management authorized a right-of-way for the Southern Nevada Water Authority to build the 263-mile pipeline between Las Vegas and Lincoln and White Pine Counties. The pipeline will cost between $3 and $15 billion, and will probably come at federal taxpayer expense.
In September 2013 the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it would reduce its release of water to Lake Mead by 750,000 acre-feet. This meant that Lake Mead could drop another 25 feet by the fall of 2014, putting the water level in the danger zone below the Las Vegas intake pipe and triggering automatic reductions in water withdrawals. Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, went to Washington, met with Nevada Senator Harry Reid, and made headlines when she said the drought on the Colorado River was a natural disaster no different from Hurricane Sandy and that Las Vegas should be declared a disaster area eligible for federal aid. She later backpedaled, but some believe this was the opening argument for federal dollars to help build the Northern Nevada Water Pipeline Project.
The two prime contractors for building military bases in Vietnam were Bechtel and Brown and Root, a Texas construction firm that beginning in 1940 helped finance Lyndon Johnson’s political career. Thirty years later, during America’s ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two prime military contractors for the US government were once again Bechtel and Brown and Root, though Brown and Root had a new parent company, Halliburton, the former employer of Vice President Dick Cheney.
In 1974 Steven Bechtel Jr. decided the company needed a new framework for strategic planning. Although it was still building nuclear plants throughout the world, nuclear power was no longer a growth industry. What was the next growth industry for energy? Feeling that the company needed some outside perspective, Bechtel offered the position of executive president to George Shultz, Nixon’s secretary of the treasury. As a former dean of the University of Chicago Business School, former secretary of labor, and former treasury secretary, Shultz was known as a skilled analyst of business trends, as astute as any investment banker in buying up the companies needed to dominate a new industry. Shultz grilled the Bechtel’s Metals and Mining Division about coal and its Power Division about coal technologies. America had stunning reserves of coal, and American utilities were still getting 60% of their electricity from coal. In short, Bechtel decided to buy Peabody Coal, America’s largest coal producer. The new technology that could change the economics of coal was the coal-slurry pipeline Bechtel had invented. As it had done with nuclear plants, Bechtel planned on an international market. Russia and China had huge reserves of coal as well as plenty of rain and groundwater. Kennecott Copper didn’t want to sell Peabody Coal, but a year after Shultz stepped into the president’s office at Bechtel, the US Justice Department declared it in violation of antitrust laws, saying its ownership of Peabody Coal created barriers to entry in the coal industry and was in restraint of trade. Kennecott had to sell, and private holding company called Peabody Holding, another consortium of six companies, was put together to make the purchase for $1.2 billion. (The companies were Bechtel, Newmont Mining, Boeing Corporation, Fluor Engineering, Williams Technologies, and Equitable Life Insurance.)
By the end of the 1970s, Bechtel was in the unique position of having built four of the major power plants on the Colorado Plateau – Mohave, Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners, and Coronado, and the Black Mesa coal-slurry pipeline, and it now owned the coal company that mined the coal supplying two of them. Most important, it was about to begin building the $8 billion Central Arizona Project, the largest civil engineering project since the Hoover Dam.” According to Wikipedia, “The Four Corners Generating Station, not to be confused with the Navajo Generating Station, is a 2,040 megawatt coal-fired power plant built in the 1960s near Fruitland, New Mexico, on property located leased from the Navajo Nation. The Arizona Public Service Company (APS) owns Units 1, 2, and 3, while Units 4 and 5 are operated by APS but owned by five companies, with APS owning 63%, Public Service Company of New Mexico 13%, the Salt River Project 10%, Tucson Electric Power 7%, and El Paso Electric 7%. The station is cooled using water from Morgan Lake, which is man-made and is replenished by about 28 million gallons of water each day from the San Juan River. The plant burns coal from the nearby Navajo coal mine, delivered by the Navajo Mine Railroad. Project Mercury astronauts reported that they could see two human-constructed things from space: the Great Wall of China and the ‘plume streaming from Four Corners Power Plant.’
In November 2010, APS announced that it would purchase the SCE share of Units 4 and 5, add air pollution control systems to these units, and shut down Units 1, 2, and 3. Following the shutdown of Units 1 through 3, the capacity of Four Corners will be 1,540 megawatts. This proposed transaction is being reviewed by various regulatory authorities and should close in the last half of 2012.
After a lawsuit by a coalition of environmental organizations, the plant owners and the plaintiffs reached a consent decree in 2015. According to the decree the plant will reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, and pay $1.5 million in civil penalties and $6.7 million in healthcare and other mitigation costs for people in the affected parts of the Navajo Nation.”
The 773-megawatt Coronado Generating Station Coronado Generating Station was built in the 1970s by the Salt River Project electric utility near St. Johns, in eastern Arizona. According to the SRP website, its fuel source is the McKinley mine, located east of Window Rock near the New Mexico-Arizona border on the Navajo reservatio], and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. It has “electrostatic precipitators to control fly ash, scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide, and the water reservoir is lined to help recover and contain ‘process waste.’”
Like Bechtel, Peabody Coal had (and has) a substantial political presence. It owned coal mines in ten states, and the twenty senators and dozens of congressmen of those states were aware of the company’s interests. In addition, in other states where they didn’t have mines, Peabody supplied coal to some of the largest utilities in the country, and those utilities had political relations offices. As a result Peabody Coal had a significant government affairs department.
In 1980 the Bechtel Corporation was a major supporter and behind-the-scenes fund-raiser for the presidential candidacy of California governor Ronald Reagan, for which it was well rewarded. Caspar Weinberger, Bechtel’s legal counsel, became Reagan’s secretary of defense, and Ken Davis, head of Bechtel’s Nuclear Division, was appointed assistant secretary in the Department of Energy. By then George Shultz was chief executive officer of the Bechtel Corporation, the most important of Bechtel’s three operating companies, second only to Steve Jr. in authority. In 1982 George Shultz left Bechtel to become Reagan’s secretary of state.
During the 1980s, all efforts to amend or soften the Navajo relocation law were defeated. Many former Bechtel executives held lesser posts throughout the Reagan government, particularly in the Departments of Energy and Interior, including the Office of Surface Mining and Enforcement. Bechtel’s influential presence in Washington accounts for not only the difficulty the Hopi and Navajo had in presenting alternative views of the ‘range war,’ but also for the consistent failure, despite many efforts, by several prominent senators and congressmen to modify the original legislation.
When Senator Alan Cranston of California introduced a bill that would have placed a moratorium on the relocation of the Navajo for an 18-month period, Senator Goldwater ‘took exception to’ it, and soon Navajo tribal chairman Peter MacDonald, also in opposition to relocation, was being investigated by the IRS and sued for fraud. The first person to testify at his corruption trial was a vice president of Peabody Coal. By the time the Reagan administration was over, MacDonald was serving jail time, Peterson Zah was Navajo chairman, and there were no more official objections from the Navajo Tribe to relocation.
All four Bechtel Colorado River power plants, along with two nuclear plants, were part of a larger energy design called the Grand Plan, organized by 23 utilities to provide electricity for the booming West. Authors Bob Gottlieb and Peter Wiley later characterized the Plan as a failure, saying it marked ‘a raid on resources that would turn some of the most beautiful and scenic areas of America into a vast industrialized energy colony under the control of major corporations headquartered in cities hundreds of miles away.’
Although Roberta Blackgoat, Katherine Smith, Pauline Whitesinger, and the many Benallys, Yazzies, and Begays who signed the Declaration of Independence of the Big Mountain Diné Nation on October 28, 1979 were invisible to American media, over the next 30 years they became known at the United Nations, the European Parliament, and the newly established Commission on Indigenous People in Geneva. They’d joined other native peoples with resources being extracted by global corporations in ways that decimated their land-based cultures. Roberta Blackgoat’s sheepherding camp, gone now, was located 18 miles south of the Kayenta mine in the area around Big Mountain, the highest point at 7,000 feet on Black Mesa.” Nies visited the camp February 1991, “driving from Flagstaff with Blackgoat’s daughter Vicki. On that visit, Roberta was 74 years old. A large Rand McNally map of the world was tacked to the curving wall of her hogan opposite the entrance. Each continent had colored tacks that marked locations in Africa, Australia, Asia, and South America where other indigenous people were fighting global corporations, several of them the same corporations she was dealing with on Black Mesa. One of approximately 16,000 Navajo being removed from their lands on Black Mesa, Blackgoat helped organize hundreds of families in 1979 to sign the Proclamation of the Big Mountain Diné (Navajo) Nation declaring their independence from the Navajo tribal government. The proclamation made a demand for the repeal of the Hopi Land Settlement Act, Public Law 93-531, as well as a declaration of intent to present charges of genocide and racism to the United Nations.”
In addition to the devastation wrought by coal mining on the Navajo reservation, mines there “supplied more than three-fourths of the uranium used in the 1,000 atomic tests held at the Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas. Tuba City, AZ still has an abandoned uranium mine on the outskirts of town, its tailings pile covered with black sand still blowing radioactive dust.” And that’s by no means the only abandoned mine.
“Roberta Blackgoat visited San Francisco at the height of the 1970 Native American occupation of Alcatraz. In November 1969, fourteen activists calling themselves the ‘Indians of All Tribes’ occupied the island in San Francisco Bay. The former prison had been closed, and the occupiers invoked an 1868 government agreement with the Lakota that granted Indians first rights to buy government ‘surplus lands.’ They offered to purchase the island for $24 in glass beads,” the price the Dutch reportedly paid a band of Lenape Indians for the island of Manhattan. (Actually, according to Wikipedia, Manhattan – or, most probably access to it – was exchanged “for trade goods worth 60 guilders, often said to be worth $24, though (by comparing the price of bread and other goods) it actually amounted to around $1,050 in 2014.” Getting back to Nies’s account, the goal of the Alcatraz activists “was to draw public attention to the history and treatment of all Indian tribes: the unmet terms of the 363 Indian treaties ratified by the US Senate, and the more than 800 treaties the US government had signed but never kept.
Among the occupiers was Wilma Mankiller, a college-age Cherokee from Oklahoma. At Alcatraz she learned the story of the ‘competency commissions’ in oil-rich sections of Oklahoma that had the power to declare Indians incompetent to handle oil leases on their lands and appointed local lawyers as their ‘trustees’ who often separated the Indians from their royalties and lands. [For more, read the novel Mean Spirit (1991) by Linda Hogan.] This history so influenced her that she later returned to Oklahoma, went to work for the tribal government, and eventually become the principal chief of the Cherokee. Another person involved in the occupation was Lorraine “Rain” Parrish, a Navajo social worker from the reservation who spoke Navajo and English and arranged for Roberta’s visit to Alcatraz. As it had with Wilma Mankiller, the Alcatraz occupation had a powerful long-term influence on Roberta.
By the time the Alcatraz occupation ended in June 1971, a new assertive Indian movement had been born, not afraid to take on Washington. The Paiutes of Nevada sued the Interior Department for the draining of Pyramid Lake, claiming, rightly, that Indian water rights were superior to those of either California or Nevada. The two states had signed an illegal agreement, allowing California to pay Nevada for taking water pumped from the lake. The Alcatraz occupiers organized a caravan of automobiles from San Francisco to Nevada to support the Paiutes, with publicity reaching network television news. Soon the Interior Department was renegotiating the California-Nevada agreement and stabilizing water levels at Pyramid Lake. In another Alcatraz-related event, the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico pressed for the return of their sacred Blue Lake. In the 1920s, the corrupt interior secretary Albert Fall, who owned ranch lands adjacent to the lake, drained its water for his own use. With the help of John Ehrlichman in the White House, Congress finally passed legislation returning the lake to the Taos Pueblo. The year the Alcatraz occupation ended, Vine Deloria’s groundbreaking Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto was published, becoming a bestseller. The book refuted many romantic notions about the American West and told the history of American expansion as a story of imperial power and conquest. [The best book on this by far is An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: Re-visioning American History (2015) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.] By 1972, America’s official Indian policy of termination of Indian tribes – first introduced by Senator Arthur Watkins of Utah in the 1950s – had also changed, and three years later Congress officially repudiated termination policy (after thirty tribes had been terminated) by passing the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act.”
Going back even further with Roberta Blackgoat, when she “was nine or ten years old, her mother died, and she went to live with her father’s relatives. It was a time in the mid-1920s when services to the western Navajo reservation – health care and food supplements – had been curtailed. Families were starving, so her father’s family sent her to the boarding school so she would get enough to eat. Each time she ran away, the family brought her back. She stayed for five years, until the ninth grade, and was then sent to the Indian school in Phoenix,” but she never became acculturated to white ways.
When the second piece of Hopi-Navajo land legislation passed Congress in 1974, the government began building a hundred-mile barbed-wire fence that looped deep into the interior of Black Mesa. The new Hopi lands included Roberta’s sheepherding camp. Then came the administrative orders of implementation, one of which said that she could keep no more than 70 sheep – at the time she had 400 – and couldn’t repair her house, even though the roof was leaking. In her short visit to San Francisco in August 1970, Roberta Blackgoat had received a full education in activism, media relations, public articulation of grievances, grassroots organizing, Indian history, Pan-Indian communication, and perseverance. After Senator Goldwater’s visit to Black Mesa in 1978, Roberta understood there would be no help coming from his office, or from the Navajo tribal council, legally obligated to enforce the law.” Nies says, “I asked her why the tribal council and its chairman, Peter MacDonald, had been unable to help. She was silent at first, then shook her head sadly. ‘He speaks a wonderful Navajo. The old people like him.’ I asked about Peterson Zah, the new tribal chairman. She shook her head again. There was good reason for her sadness. As we were speaking, Peter MacDonald was being tried for various federal crimes and was on his way to a 12-year prison term on various counts of fraud and inciting a riot. The charges were later found to be dubious, but MacDonald became an object lesson for any Native American tribal chairman, including Peterson Zah, who might want to be too aggressive in dealing with energy companies. In addition to being the head of the Navajo tribal council, MacDonald had organized CERT, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, composed of the thirteen tribes whose reservation lands held the largest energy reserves in the West. His point of view was that with the amount of oil, coal, uranium, and natural gas being mined on the Navajo reservation, the Navajo people and other ‘energy tribes’ should have much higher per capita incomes. With his experience in business – trained as an engineer, he’d been a vice president at Hughes Aircraft in California for more than a decade – he wanted to improve the Indians’ bargaining position. MacDonald’s template for the Council of Energy Resource Tribes was OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and the steps the Middle Eastern countries took to get out from under the control of ARAMCO and British and American oil companies. CERT’s stated purpose was to hire legal experts outside the BIA, share information about different companies, renegotiate contracts, and increase lease royalties.
MacDonald came from a family that had been devastated by the livestock reduction of 1934 and ’35 in the Utah part of the reservation. Trained as a medicine man, he enrolled in the Army at the age of sixteen and was trained as a Navajo code talker in World War II. After the war, he graduated from the University of Oklahoma with an engineering degree and went to work for Hughes Aircraft in California, where he had a successful career and rose to the position of vice president. Politically, he was a Republican and a friend of Barry Goldwater. Then in 1963 he took a leave from his job to return to the reservation to run the Navajo Office of Economic Opportunity. Goldwater, who wanted to showcase an Arizona Indian who was a Republican, proposed MacDonald as a speaker at the 1972 Republican National Convention. But by then MacDonald had read the Hopi Land Settlement Bill and recognized that he was expected to preside over the disastrous relocation of thousands of Navajo. He hired lawyers to lobby against the bill and defeat it.
In 1987, when relocation was well under way, MacDonald, now Navajo tribal chairman, testified before Congress about the lack of humanity in the relocation bill and its ‘botched-up’ execution. He asked why no planning had been done for where these elderly sheepherding families were supposed to go. Senator Goldwater appeared before the same committee and said that the Navajo were ‘trespassers,’ undeserving of money or subsidized housing. He said the money for resettlement should come from Navajo coal royalties or other monies the US government gave the tribe. Goldwater also suggested that the IRS do a tax audit of the Navajo tribe and Peter MacDonald’s accounting practices, which resulted in MacDonald being charged with tax evasion. Soon he was also charged with fraud over a ranch purchase that he’d approved, misuse of federal funds, and inciting a riot in which two people were shot and killed. The charge of inciting a riot came about in 1989 when a divided tribal council put him on administrative leave while the charges were investigated. A group of MacDonald supporters stormed the council chambers, where two people were shot, who eventually died. Although the Navajo tribal council later pardoned him, MacDonald served an 11-year jail sentence. MacDonald was also pardoned by President Clinton in 2000 after an appeal from Congressman Patrick Kennedy.
In 1991, when some of the less salutary aspects of energy extraction on Navajo lands began to overtake the Hopi-Navajo centuries-old land-dispute narrative, the ownership of Peabody Coal changed yet again. Lord Hanson of Britain bought it from the private holding company composed of six of America’s largest corporations, all of whom had some connection to the exploration, mining, transport, or burning of coal. Like the Australian Rupert Murdock or the American Ted Turner, Hanson had taken a modest business inherited from his father and built it into an international behemoth of construction, tobacco, and energy. Hanson’s Ltd. was a multinational conglomerate with subsidiaries on five continents, and Hanson himself has risen to the highest echelons of Margaret Thatcher’s England. In April 1996 he brought together 2,000 of his wealthy shareholders, the international financial press, and some well-known celebrities and government officials to announce his decision to restructure the company. A small delegation of Hopi and Navajo Indians was clustered behind one microphone, their brightly colored shirts and silver jewelry a splash of vivid color in the sea of beige and gray. After a documentary film was shown about Hanson’s business investments that described American Indians as his ‘friends and business partners in Arizona,’ each member of the delegation stepped forward to explain his or her experience of living with Peabody Coal in Arizona’s high desert. In unmistakably sincere voices and slow cadences, they described the realities behind the stockholders’ quarterly dividends: the toxic water that killed their sheep, coal dust in the air causing skyrocketing asthma and bronchitis rates, land stripped of vegetation that could never be reseeded because of inadequate rainfall, mountainous slag heaps of gray earth that once had been valleys of piñon and juniper, thousands of ancient archaeological sites destroyed in the dragline buckets, Hopi springs and Navajo wells going dry because of billions of gallons of water pumped out of an Ice Age aquifer to run a coal-slurry pipeline, increasing desertification, and, finally, the ongoing removal of thousands of Indian families, mostly Navajo, who lived too close to the coal.
Lord Hanson couldn’t contain himself. ‘Are we going to have to listen to you all day?’ he barked as an elderly Navajo woman began to speak. ‘Shut up! Nobody wants to hear what you have to say. You’re a bloody nuisance.’ The woman at the microphone was Roberta Blackgoat, now in her late seventies. Lord Hanson didn’t intimidate her. The hand that grasped the microphone was steady, and her eyes were canny. ‘I only wanted to offer a prayer for you,’ she said in her soft, raspy voice. ‘Oh.’ Lord Hanson was momentarily disarmed. ‘I apologize.’ In her prayer Mrs. Blackgoat called for the well-being of the thousands of people gathered at the meeting and for ‘balance to be restored to the universe.’ Her prayer was for the health of the planet and that narrow membrane of land, air, and water where all life takes place. Strip mining, she said, was no way to treat the earth. ‘Coal is the liver of the earth. When you take it out, she dies,’ she concluded. As soon as she finished, a dozen security men swarmed around the delegation and forcibly escorted them out of the room.
Hanson’s sold Peabody Coal to Citizens Power of Boston, now a Peabody subsidiary, and Lehman Brothers of New York. The investment bankers were restructuring Peabody Coal as part of a private equity fund. When the Lehman Brothers shareholders meeting took place on April 2, 2001, a few weeks before Peabody Coal was to become a public company as Peabody Energy, Inc. (ticker symbol BTU), another Hopi-Navajo delegation was in the audience. Roberta Blackgoat, now 85, and Arlene Hamilton, organizer of Weavers for Life and Land, had purchased two shares of Lehman stock to gain entrance to the meeting. They mentioned the spiritual bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and predicted dire consequences if the investment bank didn’t stop strip mining Black Mesa and went ahead with its planned public offering for Peabody Energy, then and now the largest coal producer in the world. The next day, April 3, 2001, the delegation appeared on the TV and radio program “Democracy Now!” to describe their ‘friendly takeover’ of the shareholders meeting and the reasons it was necessary. A year later Arlene Hamilton was killed in a car crash in San Francisco, and Roberta died of unknown causes while she was attending her memorial service.
In the winter of 1999, when the relocation of all the Navajo was supposed to be final, activists from the Green Party demonstrated in front of American embassies in cities across Europe, objecting to the mass relocation of what by then amounted to 15,000 people. In February 2000, the European Parliament passed a resolution citing the United States for ‘Human Right Violations in Regard to Native Americans in the U.S. – Diné.’ The resolution, sent to the American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, requested a congressional investigation into the relationship between the strip mining and the Navajo removal. It also called for an investigation of the mining’s environmental effects: the air and water hazards, the draining of the aquifer to run the coal-slurry pipeline, the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites, and – still unmentioned in the American press – the nuclear contamination of the places to which the government was sending many of the relocatees. The secretary of state did not respond.
Roberta understood the power of persistence. By the time of her death, the United Nations had formed a Commission on Indigenous People and she had traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before it. Big Mountain Support Groups had also formed in cities across the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Thirty million people are dependent on the waters of the Colorado River. And if it keeps shrinking, there will soon be need for a lot of federal money. This is how its backers want to finance the Great Basin Pumping Scheme – the network of wells, pumps, and pipelines that will run for 250 miles or more from northern Nevada’s mountain valleys into Las Vegas. One of the benefits of hiring a company like Bechtel is that not only does it have experience in building pipeline projects all over the globe, it also has an unparalleled political and government relations department that knows how to work congressional committees and federal agencies. At the same time, other states might raise objections because Nevada has two large industries – mining and gambling – that could pay significantly more in taxes. The mining industry has a tax rate (5% of net) that’s been unchanged since 1863 and is incorporated into the Nevada state constitution. The mining industry likes to present mining as a thing of the past – there are a lot of photo exhibits of mining ghost towns, but mining is still a thriving industry. Twenty-five percent of the world’s gold supply, for example, comes out of Nevada mines. The gambling industry in Nevada has the lowest tax rate in the country, a maximum of 6.75%. In the rest of the country, the average gambling tax rate is 16%. Still, during the recent economic downturn, Nevada’s governor called for a 14% reduction in the state education budget. From kindergarten to university, teachers were laid off, budgets slashed, and state workers furloughed. Las Vegas has also been exporting its homeless population, buying homeless people bus tickets to other Western cities.
The entire urban Southwest has been living off federal money for subsidized water for decades. As Wallace Stegner observed, ‘The West has become an empire and gotten the East to pay most of the bills.’ On Black Mesa we, as a society, are engaged in destroying some of our oldest sustainable Native American cultures so that people in Phoenix and Las Vegas can water their hundreds of golf courses, swim in swimming pools, and pretend they live in a desert miracle.
Mob boss Meyer Lansky used to say there was no such thing as a lucky gambler – the only winner was the house. In this case, the house is nature, and we’re in the climate casino. Who will win? Who will pay?”