Resistance at Big Mountain


The Navajo (or Dine’h) are the largest of the Native American Nations and are one of the best known Native Peoples of North America. Most people, however, will be unaware that some of their community are engaged in what is perhaps the final stage of a 30 year war of attrition against people living around Black Mesa – Big Mountain, in the north eastern corner of the Navajo reservation in Arizona. (2000).


“This is our altar, we can’t step off and be away from it.
I want to have this understood: what our religious act is,… to take care of this land,…. and all these things, that’s what has been given us by the Holy People and the Great Spirit….we are strong enough to hold this room which he has surveyed for us, … and our Home Song, and this Mountain Song,… and now this is not being respected at all. I need to have this be known”
– Roberta Blackgoat, 82 year old Navajo Elder

Most people will have heard about the Navajo people who live in what is now the south west of the USA. The Navajo (or Dine’h) are the largest of the Native American Nations and are one of the best known Native Peoples of North America. Most people, however, will be unaware that some of their community are engaged in what is perhaps the final stage of a 30 year war of attrition against people living around Black Mesa – Big Mountain, in the north eastern corner of the Navajo reservation in Arizona. The final outcome to this struggle could occur as early as February 1, 2000 and your support is desperately needed now.

The Dine’h have defended their lands from encroachment by white settlers for hundreds of years. They have a large land base (largely because it is mostly arid and semi-arid country previously not considered of great worth to the invader culture) but in recent years there has been steady encroachment by a range of mining and other resource companies. In the Black Mesa region, a declaration was made by the US government in 1966 which allowed an English company, Peabody Coal, to begin strip mining operations. This resulted in the first forced removal of Dine’h in recent times.

This mining area is now almost exhausted, and the company is looking south towards Big Mountain for the next stage of its operations. There are several decades of history which are worth outlining in order to understand both what is at stake and what the impacts of further mining will be.

In 1974 the US Congress passed the ‘Relocation Act’, legislation which allowed the forced relocation of Navajo people from their land. The contrived excuse for the legislation was that the Hopi and Navajo people had been feuding over access to rangelands. The US has tried to relocate traditional Navajo from lands around the mine ever since. The Hopis live in villages on mesas while the Navajo tend gardens and run herds of sheep and goats in the surrounding valleys and plains. While publicly the Hopi – Navajo ‘dispute’ is the reason the US government became involved, the reality is that the traditional owners of the land needed to be cleared from the area in order to make it available for open cut mining operations. Since then there have been a series of campaigns to forcibly remove people living in the Black Mesa – Big Mountain and surrounding areas. Previous deadlines for relocation have been issued in 1986, 1997 and now 2000, and in a number of instances the US Army has been used to physically remove people from their homes. Decades of pressure, coupled with austerity measures like impounding livestock (the basis of the cash economy of the Dine’h), capping wells and bulldozing springs, seizing wood and wood cutting tools, and forbidding home construction and repairs, have resulted in most of the 12,000 or so Dine’h that originally lived in the region being forced to move. Now only between 1000 and 1,500 remain. According to the Action Resource Centre, almost 25% of the people who have been relocated have since died (this was in a six year period). People who agree to move end up either in cheap housing in towns off the Navajo Reservation or on the ‘New Lands’, an area set aside for them which is partly contaminated by radioactive waste.

The Dine’h brought a  religious freedom lawsuit, “Manybeads v. United States et al”, against the United States, which has gone from US District Court in Phoenix to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco twice since 1988. Mediations settled Hopi claims for lands the United States took from them, but has failed to address Dine’h concerns of how they will be able to practice their daily ceremonies far away from their shrines, or where they will be able to bury their dead.

“They made it illegal to be alive” said Louise Benally as the March 31, 1997 “deadline” approached. Fearing eviction by armed federal marshalls, most of the “heads of households” reluctantly signed so-called “Accommodation Agreement” leases that gave up their ancestral rights to lands they’ve been on since before the arrival of the Spanish. They now live as temporary “tenants” restricted to 3 acres, with terms that make it nearly impossible for them to continue their traditions. These “accommodation agreements” were approved by Bill Clinton and are intended to achieve relocation of all remaining Dine’h by February 2000. Any Dine’h remaining on their lands at that time face the prospect of forced removal from their homes.

What is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this struggle is how an economically impoverished community has been able to stand up to the most powerful government in the world (including an array of bureaucracies and an enormous mining company). Harassment is ongoing and relentless, ranging from low level military flights to impoundment of livestock and destruction of houses.

There are tragic connections to be made with the previous resistance of the Dine’h: Roberta Blackgoat, an Elder living at Big Mountain, draws the connection with what happened last century:
“My own Grandparents used to tell me about the Long Walk. The Long Walk was made in 1864 and all those people had been gathered and herded over to New Mexico ….. Among the walk I had only one of my Great Great Grandmothers, and she had seen what went on, and this is what I have been told. Along the walk a lot of these people,… a lot of the ladies were pregnant, and some were disabled, and still they had to walk, and some got tired and they just fell to their knees on the ground, and then they were beaten or bayoneted to death,… a lot of these people were beaten to death along the walk to Fort Sumner. And when they were in Fort Sumner, the concentration camp, a lot of them have also died there, with the Flu and other kinds of sickness, and some of them died of hunger, and some tried to escape and then were shot to death, so a lot of people were killed in different ways.

The relatives of the prisoners in Fort Sumner, the people who hid out (many around Big Mountain) and didn’t get taken, conducted many ceremonies, and the people in the concentration camp too, they conducted ceremonies also, and eventually the hearts of the people in Washington were touched, and they said they could return to their homes, So after four years the people left Fort Sumner, but much fewer than went there, and yet my Great Great Grandmother returned with a lot of scars on her face from the measles or something that caused all those scars, and she returned to this place where I live,… the prayers were still there when she returned. And this is what her story is.

And now for over twenty years we’ve been struggling with this Relocation Act that has been forcing my people to leave,…. and along these years since the Long Walk was made, it seems like we’re walking in the same way. A lot of people,… Elders,… even the young ones, a lot of them have been relocated and moved out to a place they are calling New Lands, but this is a place I call a concentration camp,… that’s where they are now, and a lot of them lose their lives there,… under alcoholism,… and a lot of them have worries,… loneliness,… this causes them to lose their lives, because they are not used to that land. And this is why I compare the Long Walk to the struggle we are having now.”

In recent years Indigenous people have become increasingly popular in mainstream western culture. Indigenous people are held up as ‘the original environmentalists’ and as models for spiritual practise. Their culture and religion have been co-opted and they have been romanticized to conform with western notions of who and what they are. The community at Big Mountain are traditional people who are simply trying to retain their lands, their culture and their lifestyle. In doing so they are also actively opposing massive environmental destruction. They face almost insurmountable odds, yet remain determined. It is imperative that we support them now. Next month could be too late. Activists from around the world are converging on Big Mountain to stand with the community. Letters are effective and will make a difference. An excellent ‘action pack’ can be downloaded from

The Friends of the Earth office in Melbourne also has extensive material on the campaign. Email: Phone (03) 9419 8700.

With the support of enough people, this is a campaign which can be won. Other deadlines for final removal have been defeated through international campaigns. Please get active now and ensure the Dine’h know you support them.

The Mesa is bursting with life,…. flowers are appearing, …. theres lots of birds around.
The sheep are being sheared.
The cornfields are being prepared.
Rugs are being woven.
Ceremonies are being held.
The largest Coal strip mine in the U.S. continues to expand.
The coal slurry line continues to suck 3 million gallons of pristine, ancient aquifer water per day.
“Those who resist find peace”
– Dine’h resister



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