Albion Monitor /News

Coal Mining, Justice Dept. Behind Dispute

by Farhan Haq

By refusing the settlement, they could be subject to expulsion by the Hopi this week
(IPS) NEW YORK -- "We want to be on our land in a peaceful way, as we have been here for centuries," says Roberta Blackgoat, chairperson of the Sovereign Dineh Nation. "The March 31 deadline -- we don't want it. We want the deadline to be dead forever."

Members of the Dineh -- a fraction of the larger Navajo nation -- claim that more than 570 Dineh families stand to lose their traditional homes by midnight on March 31, thanks to a U.S. ruling that the land belongs to the Hopi tribe.

"We are being told that we must either sign the proposed 75-year lease agreement, with a loss of our civil, constitutional and religious rights, or face forced eviction by Hopi Rangers and U.S. Marshals," says Blackgoat.

Rather than live under Hopi jurisdiction, the Dineh say they will refuse a U.S. legal settlement that would allow the families to sign leases to stay on the land for another 75 years or accept a buyout. But by refusing the settlement, Dineh leaders say, they could be subject to expulsion by the Hopi this week.

"Much of the problem is because the Tribal Councils (set up by the U.S. government to mediate Indian disputes) are created by coal revenue"
If the Hopi decide to expel the Dineh, as many as 3,000 people in 45 communities that have rebuffed the legal settlement could be affected, warns Marsha Monestersky, a consultant to the Dineh Nation. "Dineh society is traditionally a matriarchal society, so it's mostly elderly women who will be affected," she adds.

The settlement is the end result of years of dispute since the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 1974 dividing some 2.5 million acres of land in Arizona between Hopi and Navajo Indians. Monestersky says it is just the latest blow to the Dineh's rights.

(The name "Navajo" is derived from an ethnic slur by the first Spanish colonists to meet the Dineh, and is accepted by some but rejected by others as a name for the group.)

Since 1974, Monestersky says, some 12,000 Dineh have been relocated on lands deemed by Congress to belong to the Hopi. Now, she contends, more Dineh may be evicted on land being eyed by several U.S. coal mining companies, including Peabody Coal Co., for its rich coal deposits.

Already, she notes, the Dineh lands are home to a more than 120 square mile coal mine which is the largest strip mine in the country. To provide energy to transport the coal, she adds, mining companies have been depleting aquifers, lowering the Dinehs' underground water resources.

Some Dineh residents claim the mining activity is also harming traditional plants and medicines used by their elders. "The mine blasting affects the plants," says Mae Pullinos, a member of the Dineh Nation. "Some plants are not edible anymore. We cannot use the cedar even for cooking."

"The Hopi leaders were easier to negotiate with for getting mineral leases," Monestersky says, claiming that the Hopis' posture steered the U.S. government to rule in their favor on the land dispute. "Much of the problem is because the Tribal Councils (set up by the U.S. government to mediate Indian disputes) are created by coal revenue."

"I have always had Hopi friends among the traditional people, and they never mentioned to us that we should leave our homes," Blackgoat complains. "Only when the U.S. government created Tribal Councils in order to exploit the minerals under our lands did the current dispute arise."

But Hopi leaders counter that there are no immediate plans for evictions, and that the dispute is about land rights, not mining concessions.

"This has nothing to do with mining," says Kim Secakuku, a spokeswoman for the Hopi Tribal Council. "It has to do with a settlement in 1974 that the land belongs to the Hopi."

"Our biggest enemy has been the Justice Department"
Under the terms of the Navajo and Hopi Settlement Act of 1974, Congress decreed that some members of both Dineh and Hopi Indians would have to relocate to lands deemed to belong to each side's nation (which, in turn, operates autonomously within the territory of the United States). The Hopi have completed their relocation, Secakuku says, but some Dineh sued in U.S. courts in an attempt to fight relocation.

Their concerns, she says, were met last year by a proposal that the Dineh could sign an Accommodation Agreement which would allow them to stay on their land under a 75-year lease that could be renewed afterward. But if they choose not to accept that agreement by the March 31 deadline, she says, they could apply for relocation benefits, or else be made to leave.

However, she adds, there are no plans for any immediate evictions of Dineh: "Families won't be evicted, and they have been told that," she says. "But they will be considered trespassers," she adds, noting that the Hopi may soon begin eviction proceedings, which are likely to take several years to accomplish.

Secakuku blames the dispute on the more radical Sovereign Dineh Nation, saying that many Dineh families have accepted much of the settlement. Some three-fifths of the Dineh families affected have agreed to sign the leases, Secakuku says, while only "about 17 families" have rejected it outright.

"Part of the problem is that families who do want to sign the lease are being hassled and intimidated by Navajos who don't support the settlement," she argues.

If there is any intimidation, Dineh supporters counter, it is from the U.S. government, notably its Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Department of Justice. "Our biggest enemy has been the Justice Department," Monestersky says.

Dineh leaders say that before Congress decided on the terms of the current settlement last year, Justice officials "completely and deliberately misrepresented the situation," overstating support for the relocation plan while failing to disclose information showing that the primary area for relocation was contaminated by uranium.

An official from the Justice Department's Indian Resources Division declined comment, other than noting that "there's a Hopi-Navajo dispute that has gone on for a few years, and there has now been a settlement."

Meanwhile, the Dineh are trying to attract international support for their cause, and have received the attention of the European Union, whose human rights chairwoman, Marlene Lenz, has warned against any "forcible resettlement of indigenous peoples."

Dineh officials will also meet with U.S. State Department officials in Washington this week in an effort to head off the dispute before any Indians are deemed trespassers in their own homes -- a fate many American Indians already know.

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Albion Monitor March 28, 1997 (

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