Guest Opinion

More and more Native Americans are fighting tribal governments on behalf of the environment

In late September, Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, sent out a provocative press release charging that "environmental activists and organizations are among the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty." Shirley made his attack while joining Northern Arizona's Hopi tribal council in "unwelcoming" conservation groups from those tribes' lands, which sprawl across portions of three Southwestern states.

The national press played the story this way: Job-starved Indians were fed up with white urbanites who put flowers and bugs above economic development. It's the same old story that has reverberated across the West, the one that concludes that environmentalists and rural residents can never work together. And once again, it's wrong.

Many of those leading the green charge on the Navajo and Hopi reservations are themselves tribal members, looking out not only for the environment, but also themselves. They belong to grassroots groups such as Diné CARE, Black Mesa Trust and To' Nizhoni Ani. Some of the groups are new, and others are well-established, but all demand a shift in the way tribal governments care for their lands. Now, those governments are lashing back.

"We felt attacked," says Enei Begaye, with the Black Mesa Trust. "We have been in the leadership of our campaigns since the beginning. This was belittling of all of our efforts."

Meanwhile, the tribal governments have let outside corporations—most notably Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton—gouge their land in exchange for jobs and royalties since the 1960s. The tribes got the short end of the stick (the Hopi's counsel in coal negotiations was secretly on Peabody's payroll). The mines pushed families off their lands, and the slurry line that moved coal from the Black Mesa mine to the Mohave power plant in Laughlin, Nev., dried up wells.

That sour relationship has erupted into an out-and-out fight in recent years. In 2005, environmental and tribal groups helped the government shutter highly polluting Mohave, and, as a result, the Black Mesa mine. Though it cost the tribes hundreds of jobs and millions in revenue, Hopi and Navajo activists fought against Peabody's proposal to re-open the mine in 2006. When Peabody got its permit in the waning days of the Bush administration, nine environmental groups—six based on either the Hopi or Navajo nation—filed an appeal, which is still pending.

Contrary to another of Shirley's charges—that environmental activists are good at identifying problems but poor at finding solutions—the groups have created a Just Transition Coalition. It hopes to persuade Mohave to sell pollution credits that have accumulated since the plant's closure, then channel some of the revenue back to the tribes for economic development. This effort is still mired in the courts.

In the meantime, a political drama related to the coal fight unfolded within the Hopi Nation. In 2007, the Hopis elected the green-leaning, anti-Peabody candidate Ben Nuvamsa to be chairman. For the next year and a half, the tribal council tried repeatedly to force him from office, finally succeeding in late 2008. Now, a new Hopi grassroots group is holding the council's feet to the flames for failing to hold an election to replace Nuvamsa. Vernon Masayesva, executive director of the Black Mesa Trust and a former Hopi chairman, says what's going on is unconstitutional and a coup by "Peabody puppets."

A similar fight has raged over the 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock power plant proposed by and on the Navajo Nation. Most of the tribal council favors it for the jobs and money it would bring, but many Navajo citizens, led by 20-year-old Diné CARE, oppose it on environmental grounds. Opponents scored a huge victory this fall when, just two days before Shirley "unwelcomed" greens from the reservation, the Environmental Protection Agency sent Desert Rock's air permit back to the drawing board.

Dailan Long, who lives near the proposed plant site and works with Diné CARE, sees the Hopi resolution and Navajo President Shirley's response as disingenuous, at best. Shirley is trying to get an outside corporation to build a power plant without having any guarantee of tribal ownership, he says. "Shirley's regime is selling off sovereignty."

In any case, neither Long nor Masayesva seems too worried about the tribal leaderships' attacks on environmentalists.

"When we first heard about it, we weren't necessarily bothered by it," Long says, "because we don't see ourselves as environmentalists. We just see ourselves as citizens, working out of necessity."

This originally appeared in High Country News (, which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.

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