Mendo’s Black Mesa Caravan

by Will Parrish, January 1, 2014

In late November and early December, I was among five people from inland Mendocino County who stayed with elder Dine' (Navajo) families at Black Mesa, an uplands mountain plateau on Navajo/Hopi reservation land in the high, frigid (especially at this time of year) northeastern Arizona desert. This expansive area, roughly sixty miles in diameter, has sustained continuous human occupation for thousands of years. Historically, reliable springs seep up from the ground, then flow over rocks and through crevices in jagged sandstone and shale mountains, readily offering up water to the people of what is otherwise an arid region of the country.

Another striking feature of the land makes for a marked contrast with the pristine desert aquifer beneath the surface of the earth here: extensive seams of low-sulfur coal. Black Mesa is named for this “black gold,” which rests so near the surface that erosion has exposed it to the sun's rays. The area is a veritable strip miner's delight.

In the last 40 years, the US federal government and the world's largest coal company, Peabody Coal, have been engaging in industrial capitalism's most definitive and time-honored pursuit — extracting profits from the land, no matter the price – by steadily converting Black Mesa into a “national sacrifice area” (to borrow a term from the US Energy Department, circa the 1970s). Since the late-1960s, Peabody has blown up, mined out, and resculpted the area with bucket loaders, extracting roughly 12 million tons of coal from its two mines in an average year.

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The coal is delivered via the nation's only long-distance (275-mile) slurry pipeline, in which the coal is transported via massive quantities of water, which are injected into the pipeline under high pressures. From there, they are pumped to the Mohave Generating Station in southeastern Nevada, owned by Southern California Edison. The electricity is then sold to the grids powering Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and other unsustainable metropolises in the desert lands of the American southwest (ironically, all of which exist to begin with based on the importation of prodigious amounts of water).

So it is that the Black Mesa and Kayenta Mines, as they are known, have drained 70% of the once-pristine desert aquifer that has sustained people here from time immemorial. The mines have also damaged countless graves, sacred sites, and home, fouled the air, further corrupted the Hopi and Navajo tribal governments.

But the environmental toll is one part of this gut-wrenching story.

Since 1974, US federal government relocation policy — known as Public Law 93-531 — has forced tens of thousands of the Dine' people from their ancestral homeland on Black Mesa, which are now known as the Hopi Partitioned Lands. This constitutes the largest forced relocation of Indigenous peoples in the US since the 1830s Trail of Tears. Those who have remained, in defiance of this genocidal law, have been subject to varying degrees of harassment: surveillance, livestock impoundments, and disruption of gatherings and ceremonies, and the like.

Several communities of traditional Dine' peoples remain steadfast in holding onto their lands and lifeways, remaining in their homes in spite of the harassment. Under these conditions, relatively few able-bodied young people choose to remain and live a life that is, in many ways, characterized by deprivation and struggle. Thus, the Black Mesa families have come to rely increasingly on a nationwide network of people who visit from far-flung places, helping with the day-to-day practicalities of living in a remote area and being subject to a war of attrition by the US federal government.

In this case, our Mendocino County crew joined roughly 35 other people from across the country during what has become an annual support caravan during the week of Thanksgiving. The support tasks included gathering wood, herding sheep, hauling water, and generally preparing for the harsh winter ahead.

The spirit draws culturally and phenotypically white people like me to come support the resistance at Black Mesa was captured some years back by one of the long-time Big Mountain Dine' resisters, Bahe Katena. “Communities of Black Mesa have always maintained that their struggle for life, land, and future generations Is for our collective survival,” he said. These words are prominently featured on the web site of the group Black Mesa Indigenous Support, based roughly 70 miles outside of Black Mesa, in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Here is some of the substance behind Katena's statement: the Peabody mines have been the source of an estimated 325 million tons of atmospheric CO2 emissions. This is the equivalent, based on current US gas mileage standards, of belching over 100 milllion cars' worth of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere. As California wraps up its driest year on record, with global climate change having no small part to play in the of our landscape, Katena's words ring increasingly true.

* * *

Last year at this time, Aboriginal people in Canada initiated a movement called “Idle No More,” which drew together people in struggles to protect water, air, land, and their traditional cultures. Initially focused on the conservative Harper government's easing of restrictions on industrial development in rivers, lakes, and streams, “Idle No More” grew out of seething anti-colonial sentiments, going far beyond what the initial organizers, most of whom are fairly politically moderate, had in mind.

There were rallies and marches, road and railline blockades. “Idle No More” came to serve as a rallying cry throughout the world.

Of course, the name “Idle No More” is misleading and, to be blunt, hopelessly ahistorical. Indigenous people have been far from idle for a very long time. Throughout Canada, from east to west, from the Mohawk in Oka, Quebec to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation near Williams Lake, British Columbia, Native people have engaged in hard-fought struggles to assert their sovereignty and defend their lands in the face of logging, dams, mines, road constrution, and pipeline construction, and viz-a-viz the right to practice traditional fishing.

As our caravan arrived in Black Mesa, I was aware of several dramatic stand-offs between Indigenous people and Canadian authorities that were playing out right at that time. For example, the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq First Nation of the far eastern province of New Brunswick had maintained a blockade since the summer to prevent oil shale exploration by Houston, Texas-based SWN Energy.

The practice of hydraulic fracturing involves mixing sand and chemicals, then injecting them deep in the ground to dissolve difficult-to-reach deposits of shale oil and natural gas. Much of that returns to the surface, however, along with naturally occurring radium and bromides. Concerns are growing about those effects on the environment, as well as on the amount of water the practice uses, the amount of carbon dioxide it releases, and its long-term effects on ground water quality. For example, US fracking operations generated 280 billion gallons of toxic water in 2012, according to an October 2013 report published by the group Environment America.

Again, this issue touches home in California, quite dramatically so, given that this state is home to an estimated two-thirds of the US' total shale oil reserves. We are in the early stages of what may be an unprecedented fracking boom, with oil companies readying themselves for a mad scramble to tap into the Monterey Shale formation.

In October, hundreds of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers attempted to evict the Mi'kmaq blockade. The officers wielded long shotguns, shields, and batons against the roughly 80 people who were then maintaining the encampment. Elders, women, and children were pepper sprayed; some were maced directly in the face.

The Mi'kmaq and their supporters remained mostly undeterred. They maintained the blockade, as solidarity actions sprang up throughout the country. Two weeks ago, SWN Resources agreed to withdraw from the area until next year. The Mi'kmaq resistance has helped spawn a fracking ban by the neighboring province of Newfoundland and has helped galvanize resistance to fracking throughout the country.

Just as in Black Mesa, the stakes in such struggles are phenomenally high. In recent years, the Canadian state has become locked in a fateful embrace with some of the most destructive corporate entities the world has ever known, including the multi-national oil firms (Exxon-Mobil, the Koch Brothers, etc.) behind the infamous “Carbon Bomb” that is the Alberta Tar Sands, as well as exploitation of massive amounts of fresh water, new mines, new pipelines, and more. Indigenous people are on the front lines of efforts to prevent all of these destructive projects from going forward.

According to research I conducted for this piece, there are at least ten other blockades that Indigenous people in Canada are maintaining to prevent projects that would harm their ancestral territories. One of these, in Grassy Narrows (a 2,500 square-miles area of forests, lakes and rivers north of Kenora, Ontario, which has been proposed to be logged), has persisted for more than 11 years. Another involves a blockade of a proposed low-sulfur coal mine (of all things) near the headwaters of the Nass, Skeena and Stikine rivers of British Columbia — traditional lands of the Tahltan Nation.

Still another blockade is being maintained by the Unist'ot'en First Nation in the northern interior of B.C., which is aimed at preventing the Northern Gateway's Pacific Trail Pipeline that would carry natural gas Alberta Tar Sands oil to the coast for shipment to China and India.

“I want you to realize who's fighting on the frontlines here,” says Savannah Simon, one of the Elsipogtog blockaders, in a video located at http://t.co/c59XU9gIWs. “This isn't just a Native issue. It's an environmental issue. We're fighting for everyone's lands, everyone's water.” Her words echo those of Bahe Katena.

* * *

I had the privilege of sharing my entire trip to Black Mesa with Corine Pearce, a 37-year-old Redwood Valley Pomo traditionalist who, among other things, is known as one of the most accomplished basket weavers in the Pomo tradition. A highlight of the trip for me was witnessing a beautiful cultural exchange between Corine and the matriarch of our host family, a traditional Dine' rug weaver named Mae Tso. I'll describe these experiences more in part two of this two-part feature, next week.

Being of Pomo heritage from Lake County, Corine and her family are no stranger to the environmental and cultural impacts of mining. Her uncle, Jim Browneagle, and some other family members have been at the forefront of fighting the impacts of one of the most destructive mines ever to exist in this region: the Bradley mercury mine along the eastern arm of Clearlake, adjacent to the Elem Pomo people's rancheria, which is outside of the sleepy Highway 20 town of Clearlake Oaks.

The Bradley site initially was mined for sulfur from 1865 to 1871. Mercury ore was mined intermittently by underground methods from 1873 to 1905. Open-pit mining began in 1915, with Bradley Mining Company taking over the operation in 1927. The mine reached its production peak during World War II, feeding the demand for quicksilver detonators in munitions and becoming one of the largest mercury producers in the world.

During this time, much of the waste rock was pushed into the lake, filling in surrounding natural hot springs and mineral baths that the native people had enjoyed for 10,000 years.

In the process, the Elem’s land and waters were poisoned with prodigious amounts of methyl mercury tailings for several decades, thereby causing premature deaths, birth defects, cancer, and bodily deformities among tribal members, while in the process destroying the tribe’s ability to grow food or harvest fish safely (as they have for more than 10,000 years).

Next week, I'll publish the rest of this two-part series, recounting our experiences in Black Mesa, and making connections between Indigenous people's struggles against resource colonialism in Black Mesa, in Mendocino County, and in various other areas of the world (including Canada). Soon after, I'll publish a fresh expose on the impacts of mercury mining on the Clearlake Basin and the Elem Pomo, where the existence of an uncapped mine continues to go unrecognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency, with unknown consequences for local people and ecology.

(Contact Will Parrish at wparrish@riseup.net.)

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