Voices From the Land

Navajos living in a disputed area tell their own stories in 'Bitter Water'

"You see, the Navajo-Hopi land dispute began with a lawyer who was desperately hungry. A lawyer caused all this. It's not even a good story."

So says Navajo matriarch Mae Tso of Mosquito Springs, near Black Mesa, on Hopi Partitioned Land, a disputed stretch of northeastern Arizona's high-desert grassland that has been the subject of countless lawsuits, protests, books, films and articles over the last 40 years or more.

Mae Tso, who herds sheep, weaves blankets and cares for the land where her ancestors are buried, lives in fear of being kicked out of the only home she has known.

In 1974, Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, commonly referred to as the resettlement law, ordering thousands of Navajos who had lived around Black Mesa for generations to leave. Many of them refused to move, and eventually, in 1996, Congress offered them an accommodation agreement in the form of a 75-year lease. Still, some refused to sign. They filed an unsuccessful religious-rights lawsuit that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court. They were offered relocation benefits—but still they refused to leave, and to this day, they live under the threat of removal.

The Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, which has cost taxpayers more than $350 million and caused bad will between the Hopis and the Navajos, began way back in 1882, when a federal agent drew up the borders of the Hopi reservation for his own ends, not caring that there were many Navajos living there. In doing so, he started a long fight between the tribal members in the Black Mesa area, where before, there had been a good deal of cooperation and intermarriage. However, as Navajo historian Jennifer Nez Denetdale points out in her foreword to this powerful new book, the real fighting didn't begin in earnest until "coal, gas and water were discovered, and it became necessary to determine rightful ownership of the land."

It was then that the hungry lawyers got involved. Peabody Coal Company eventually strip-mined a huge swath of the disputed land.

One of the final hold-out communities in the region is Big Mountain, where Pauline Whitesinger lives the disappearing traditional Navajo lifestyle and worries about her future.

"It is because of natural resources underground, the coal strip mine," she says in one of four monologues included in Bitter Water. "The land is troubled. I saw a lot of people live here once. Now it's called Peabody Western Coal Company."

Another Big Mountain resident, Ruth Benally, explains in her monologue why she won't leave. Her explanation is simple, as the truth often is.

"There is a political controversy that makes life very hard for people here," she says. "'Relocate outside the (Hopi Partitioned Land),' I'm told. But my late grandfather and my Elders lived here. Elder men and women have passed on before me. The relocation law has been here to create hardships since that time. So that is why I am a resister. I will not relocate."

While reading these monologues, which editor Malcolm D. Benally translated from Navajo, one gets a sense of the anxiety that these women feel everyday, waiting for their traditions and their land to be taken away.

"They shave their hair. The police shave their heads," Whitesinger says. "There's no place you can grab them. You can grab him by his belt. I will do this when they knock my door down. Or, I will grab for his suspenders. I don't know how long I can fight like this. This is what one has to think. They took our men to war, then they forgot us. How can they do this?"

The public-information officer for the Kayenta Township, Malcolm Benally began his project in the late-1990s as a documentary film about those who refused to be relocated. The monologues, which read like prose-poems, are presented in English and in Navajo. They are based on some 25 hours of video interviews Benally did for his still-in-progress film. The book also includes Denetdale's excellent foreword, which traces Navajo history from the tribe's rise into this "Glittering World" to the present, and includes a brief history of the land dispute that provides all of the context the monologues need.

The slim volume also includes a clear-eyed and sympathetic explanation of the Navajo religion and way of life. This brief essay, like this brief book, reveals why the traditional Navajo life is inextricable from the vast, deceptively empty lands of northeastern Arizona.