The Longest Occupation

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500-Year Siege
by David Rovics
Recent emails I've received indicate that life goes on as usual in Indian Country.  Peabody Western, the world's largest energy company, is once again trying to expand what is already North America's biggest coal mine, which has brought death, disease and drought to Black Mesa and the world at large.  Below is something I wrote a couple months ago, ruminations on some of my experiences with Native America. 
I was in San Francisco, California a couple months ago, and I saw Klee Benally there.  It had been a long time since I’d seen him.  I tend to go where the gigs take me, which often means going in and out of certain orbits in unpredictable ways.  There at the American Indian Center of San Francisco, Klee was the master of ceremonies for an event that was attended by 200 or so people, mostly indigenous.
The cross on top stayed standing long after most of the walls surrounding it had collapsed.  Eventually, though, the flames that had engulfed it brought it crashing to the ground, too, and all that was left was a smoldering pile of rubble.  It was a brief moment of hope in the midst of the death and destruction that characterizes the ongoing conquest of Native America.  A brief respite in the 500-year siege.
The event was one of many of it’s kind to draw attention to plans by the Arizona Snowbowl Corporation to build a 14-mile pipeline from the city of Flagstaff to the nearby San Francisco Peaks.  They want to expand a ski resort there, and make snow out of the wastewater.

These mountains are sacred to 13 different local tribes, but as usual, this is not a problem for the corporation.  The message here is not lost on anyone.  Once again, it is a case of the USA saying to Native America:  we shit on you.  Your land, your religion, your people.  The 500-year siege continues.

Klee is a member of a 3-piece band called Blackfire, along with his sister and his brother.  Their music is hard, dark, loud, punk-metal kind of stuff, with lots of growling and power chords.  Together with their father, a Navajo medicine man named Jones, the four of them also perform traditional song, dance and drumming together.  Sometimes the Benally Family opens for Blackfire, which is always a fascinating exercise in contrasts.  But usually Jones is in Flagstaff, employed as a medicine man at a local hospital.

I was on one of Blackfire’s European tours, opening for them at a bunch of shows in Germany and Prague.  We were a day late getting into Prague.  We were traveling in an old but functional VW van.  We had a gig in a squat in Prague during the week of the World Bank/IMF meetings there.

The Czech border police didn’t know what to make of us.  They were on the lookout for black-clad anarchist youth from Spain and Italy.  We definitely didn’t fit that description, but they knew there was something about us.  I’m sure they had never seen a Navajo family before, and they must have realized that Jones was far too old to be throwing rocks at anybody.

After a while they decided we had to stay in Germany because there was a small but fairly jagged dent near the back of the van.  The said they thought this could be dangerous, someone could cut themselves on it.  We spent the night at a friend’s place in Nuremberg and succeeded in getting into Prague the next day by train.

Around that time, in 1999-2000 and thereabouts, I was spending a lot of time in Germany, in a relationship with a woman from Hamburg, hanging out with the radical farmers in the Wendlandt region, singing at anti-nuclear protests and such.

Germany has a very active leftwing, especially when it comes to US imperialism and nuclear power.  For many German leftists, though, as with their counterparts in the rest of Europe and the US, Native America is a non-issue.  When approached about getting involved with Native struggles for self-determination in the US, some will tell you that the issue is “esoteric.”  In other words, basically, Native Americans are a thing of history, irrelevant except for certain hippies who like to make sweat lodges, live in tipis, and imagine what it might have been like way back when.

Others in Germany know better, and there are probably more functional groups working in solidarity with indigenous struggles there than anywhere else in the industrialized world.  They know that Native America exists and it is under a constant state of siege.  And they know that resistance is widespread, and needs to be supported.

I spent Y2K in a trailer on a farm in the Wendlandt, figuring it might be good to be near a source of food for when industrial society collapsed.  After the world failed to end I went back to Hamburg, and along with a dozen other people from around Germany, I made my way to Arizona.  February 1st, 2000, was to be an important marker in the struggle for Big Mountain, and this date would see the largest number of outsiders coming to show solidarity with the people there for quite some years.

Since long before Europeans began their savage conquest of the Americas, Navajo and Hopi people have lived side by side in what we now call the Southwest.  Traditionally, Hopis are farmers and Navajos herders, so there have at times been tensions between the two peoples, as is the case anywhere in the world where these two ways of living intersect.  By most accounts, though, the Navajo-Hopi “land dispute” is basically a creation of the US government, the state of Arizona, and Peabody Western, a giant multinational energy corporation.

The Navajo and Hopi people, like most indigenous peoples in North America, suffer from the very same affliction that keeps most people in countries like Nigeria or Angola in grinding poverty – that is, great wealth, in the form of tremendous deposits of coal and uranium.

There was a brief “renaissance” for many indigenous peoples in the west.  This was in the early part of the twentieth century – in the brief span of time in between.  In between the time when native people were slaughtered en masse, forced onto reservations, and starved, and the time when coal, uranium and oil were discovered on their lands.  Since then, things have continued to go from bad to worse.

Those of us coming from Germany to Arizona to support the struggle on Big Mountain arrived by mid-January.  Driving onto the Navajo reservation, it became quickly apparent why some rental car companies in the Southwest make you sign a contract saying you will not take their cars to Mexico or to any Indian reservations.  The area of Black Mesa/Big Mountain is just the sort of place Hertz is afraid of.

The roads, if such a term can be used to describe what we were driving on, were beyond anything I’d seen anywhere in the world.  It was beyond the general neglect of the federal government and the corrupt tribal councils.

The area around Black Mesa was subject to a US government-imposed freeze on all construction, including road maintenance, which had been going on for several decades.  The roads, such as they were, consisted of two humps, like little mountain ridges, with valleys in between them that were often several feet deep.  If you fell off the humps at the wrong spot, whether you were in a pickup truck or an SUV, you could seriously damage your vehicle.  We managed to stay on the humps in my old pickup truck.

We had long since passed the nearest town.  After many more miles of driving down a dirt road that had been maintained, we passed a little school and a water tower.  Soon after that, the road turned to humps and we drove many more miles, slowly, constantly vigilant to avoid falling into the ditches on either side of us.

We passed many ancient driveways that led to hogans that were no longer there.  Finally, we came upon one of the very few driveways left that led to a hogan that was inhabited, by Louise Benally and her family.

We had brought a couple of big Army tents with us that we bought in Flagstaff, and there on Louise’s land we set them up.  Her homestead there would come to be known as Camp Anna Mae, named after Anna Mae Aquash, the Micmac woman who came from Canada to Pine Ridge, South Dakota to support the struggle of the Lakota people there against the mining of uranium on their land.  Her death was one of several dozen unsolved murders in South Dakota in the mid-70’s.  The FBI is widely suspected.

I quickly realized one of the many things that made Louise Benally special.  Along with the tenacity of her spirit, her willingness to stay on the land so long after the vast majority had been driven off, was something else – she spoke English.  There we were, sitting around a fire outside Louise’s hogan, with several elderly women in colorful skirts, slowly cooking a hunk of a lamb they had recently slaughtered, which was wrapped in foil and lay beneath hot coals.  Louise was several decades younger than the rest of the women, and the only one who spoke a language in addition to Navajo.

These elderly women were the backbone of the struggle.  Collectively they were known by all as the grandmothers.  Their bravery, their dark, weathered faces, their short stature and their colorful skirts all reminded me of the Mothers of the Disappeared I had seen standing between us and the riot police in Buenos Aires.  But they were several thousand miles north of those Madres, and speaking Navajo instead of Spanish.

At it’s peak, during a pipe ceremony on February 1st, there were 250 people who had come from outside to show their support.  There were people from all over Indian Country, including from as far away as the Dakotas.  There were the Germans.  There was a French chef.  There was a sizeable delegation Japanese, many of them Buddhist monks.  And most of the rest were young white people from across the US and Canada.

But for some while before and after that date, at any given time there were several dozen people, mostly young people from across the US, living with the grandmothers, working with them, herding their sheep, cutting firewood, and otherwise just being a presence, organized then as now with the name Black Mesa Indigenous Support.

In contrast to the clean, colorful elders they were living with, these youth were often dressed in anarchist chic – dirty rags they had gotten from dumpsters and stitched together themselves, covered in patches, facial piercings, and dreadlocks.  The grandmothers called them “goat heads” because of their dreads.

Peabody Western runs North America’s biggest coal mine there in Navajo country.  For decades they had been using millions of gallons of water from the aquifer below to slurry their coal 270 miles from there to Las Vegas, where Las Vegas and other cities got most of their power.  The Mohave Generating Station is temporarily shut down and the coal slurry is not running.  Water is returning to the once-empty wells, and some of the streams are slowly coming back to life.

But poke around briefly on the web and you can see that this is a very temporary situation.  Other energy corporations are making plans to open new mines and new power plants, tacitly promising to maintain a local cancer rate that is many times the national average.

In fact, as I write this, Alice Gilmore and a number of other elderly Navajo women are blockading a road near their homes on the New Mexico side of the reservation, where the Desert Rock Energy Company is attempting to expand their mining operations.

Peabody has also been trying for decades to expand their massive mine.  The problem is, there are people living on top of the coal, and they refuse to leave.

The government is just barely too tactful to forcibly remove thousands of Indians from their land in the modern era, so they have employed various other methods.  Very much along the lines of the sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990’s.  Starve them into submission.  Make their lives unliveable.  Take away their water.  Make sure they have to drive dozens of miles down unmaintained roads in order to get water for their sheep.  Impound their sheep and make them pay to get them back.  Fine them for making repairs on the roofs of their hogans.  Fine them for collecting firewood.

Until 1974, the Black Mesa area was the home of one of the last remaining intact communities of 20,000 or so people living traditionally, speaking mainly Navajo, living as sheep herders, in community, as they had for centuries.  But then Peabody decided they wanted to expand their mine and people like Senator John McCain wanted to do their best to make sure this could happen.  This meant moving 20,000 people off their land, some at a time, by making their lives impossible if they tried to stay.


Most ultimately moved.  Many were sent to live on land that was made radioactive by the Church Rock uranium spill.  Their sheep died from drinking the water, and many of the people died soon thereafter.

After losing their community, living increasingly isolated lives made miserable by constant harassment by the authorities, some 17 families still refuse to leave their dusty land.

Rena Babbit Lane is one of them.  Last month her supporter left the land, and then the Hopi Rangers, working for those who seek to expand coal mining operations, took the occasion to visit Rena, who is approximately 80 years old, and push her around, yell at her, threaten her, and cause her to have a heart attack.  And now she’s back from the hospital, back in her hogan, once again refusing to leave the land.

As in Palestine or Colombia, the mostly white supporters are able to be useful largely just because they’re white.  The corrupt tribal authorities know who butters their bread, just as Israel or the government of Colombia do.

Just being there and being white doesn’t stop the general trends, but it can effectively prevent the authorities from harassing the grandmothers for another day.  Also, the fundamental racism of the reservation system is such that the tribal authorities are not allowed to arrest non-native people – the most they can do is escort them off of the reservation.

When I first got to Black Mesa I didn’t know if I’d know anybody who was there.  That was a silly thought.  I remember when I was a young man living in Berkeley I kept running into people I knew at various leftwing events.  I said to my friend David Said, “it’s a small world.”  “No,” he said to me, chuckling haplessly, “it’s a small left.”

Sure enough, there were all my friends from the IMF/World Bank protests.  There were folks from the struggles to save the old-growth forests on the west coast.  Julia Butterfly was one of them, visiting Big Mountain scant weeks after she came down from the old redwood she had been living in for two years.

My friend Wes from Philadelphia was telling me how illuminating it was for the grandmothers when the Seattle WTO protests happened.  The grandmothers had noticed that there was a week or two when most of their supporters had left the reservation.

Only 18% of the Navajo reservation has electricity, and virtually no one in the Black Mesa area have it.  But those who had televisions quickly spread the word – young people with dreadlocks looking suspiciously like our supporters had shut down the city of Seattle.  The protests were over, then the supporters returned.

Many of the supporters had come from Minnesota, I think about thirty of them at the high point.  They were veterans of a struggle there known as the Minnehaha Free State.

In Minnesota a lot of place names begin with “minne” because that means “water” in the Mendota language.  “Haha” means, you guessed it, “laughing.”  Minnehaha park was nearby part of the Free State’s encampment, and also part of it.  By the end, all of the Free State would be in the park.

One of the things that always disturbed me about the heroic struggle of the people of Big Mountain was how ignored it was by most of the non-Native community in the region, including most of the activist community.

The sinister brilliance of the reservation system is how the people are out of sight and out of mind to other people in the region.  There were and are people doing important work trying to raise awareness of and struggle for all kinds of good things in places like Flagstaff, Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott.  But for most people there, the Navajo reservation is about as nearby as Iraq, and Iraq is much more in the news.  This was not the case with Minnehaha, which was right there in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

I first read about the Minnehaha Free State in the Earth First! Journal, and visited it many times during the course of it’s tumultuous 16 months in the late 90’s.  It was a case of mutual interests coming together in often beautiful ways.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation had plans to build a highway through a residential neighborhood in Minneapolis and through the park next to the Mississippi River, in order to better facilitate a speedy drive from downtown Minneapolis to the massive Mall of America outside of town.  The completing of the highway would shave a good three minutes off of the trip.

Local residents wanted to keep their neighborhood intact.  Local environmentalists wanted to prevent the building of yet another highway.  The Mendota people wanted to save land that was sacred to them.  Residents of the neighborhood and environmental activists all lived together in the Twin Cities, as did many Mendota people, who had never been given a reservation by the federal government.

It was a powerful collaboration that captured the imagination of many people in the region and beyond.  Though the encampment was ultimately destroyed by MDOT and other government agencies, it spawned a new generation of activists, friends, community.  In the beginning, the Free Staters were occupying several houses that were slated for demolition, with the blessings of the former residents forced out by the state of Minnesota.

When 800 police were sent to evict everybody and burn down the houses, the Free State moved downhill, into what was then still part of the park.  Someone made a brilliant, conical-shaped structure that could sleep 18, in cubby holes on two floors made of pallettes and other found materials, with a firepit in the middle, to keep everybody warm through the long, cold Minnesota winter.

I used to tour mostly by van.  Once or twice a year I’d make a big loop around the US, dipping into Canada here and there if they let me across the border.  Either before or after visiting Minnesota, I’d pass through one of the Dakotas.

Several years ago I was driving from Missoula, in western Montana, to Rapid City, South Dakota.  I had left myself two days to do the drive, preferring to amble along at a more leisurely pace when possible.  I was making better time than I thought, though, and was coming into Rapid City the night before my gig there.

Charles Ray was organizing my show there.  He’s a local activist and punk rock musician, files stories for both Free Speech Radio News and South Dakota Public Radio.  I called him to ask if I could stay at his place an extra night, and he said great, glad you’ll be here, you can come in the morning with me to Pine Ridge for a church-burning.  Like in Mississippi…?  No, an entirely different king of thing.  A healing ceremony.

Fifty miles from Rapid City is the Pine Ridge reservation, where there are intensely beautiful, huge, colorful, crumbling rock formations, and lots of uranium mines and Lakota people.  There’s only one FM radio station that comes in around there, and much of the time it’s in the Lakota language.  It was here that Anna Mae Aquash and so many others were killed by the FBI’s death squads in the 1970’s.

We pulled in to a tiny little town just outside of Pine Ridge.  It had 17 residents, nine white and eight Lakota.  A few decades earlier, though, it had been somewhat bigger, a white town with a racist history.  The bar was covered in buffalo skulls and had a big sign that said “no Indians allowed.”  The “no” had been crossed out, so now the sign read ominously, “Indians allowed.”  One might draw the conclusion from this sight that they were not necessarily welcome, but were at least allowed.

A hundred feet from the bar stood a dilapidated Catholic church that was no longer used, but had once been the center of the white community there, along with the bar.  It was also a place with connections to the boarding schools where the white settlers, their churches and their government, tried to “Christianize” the natives with the sorts of barbaric practices typical of European civilization.

I remember a couple different folks talking about their experiences with these brutal schools.  Of the school Jones Benally was forcibly sent to when he was already in his twenties, many years ago, he would only say, “I learned to say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

My friend Chris Interpreter talked to me a bit more about the Baptist school he was sent to.  Chris got his last name because his grandfather’s grandfather was interned in the starvation camp that the Army drove the Navajos to, and he was one of the few who was able to speak English, and so was used as an interpreter between his people and the occupying army.

When Chris was a young teenager on the Navajo reservation in the 1980’s, a Baptist revival came through and set up camp.  His grandmother was a woman who actively practiced her traditional religion and lived with her sheep on what was left of her land with what was left of her people.  Perhaps feeling that the old ways weren’t working out and she should try something new, she converted to Christianity.  When given the opportunity, she and Chris’s parents sent him to a school for Indians that the Baptists ran.  The government-run Indian boarding schools had finally been stopped a decade earlier, but there were still private ones.

Chris didn’t want to go.  Though he felt betrayed when she converted to Christianity, Chris loved his grandmother and wanted to stay.  At the school he was beaten and humiliated for doing the daily rituals his grandmother had taught him, and for the crime of speaking his language.

After a few months he ran away from the school, and made his way a hundred miles or so back to his grandmother’s hogan.  When she and his parents heard about how he had been treated they told him he didn’t have to go back.  When the representatives of the school came to bring him back, his mother told them to go away.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize the destructive impact these schools had on communities, and on the minds and spirits of the people sent to them.  I remember once being in a little Hopi town nearby Black Mesa.  There was one general store in the town.  An elderly Navajo man was looking at the shelf full of aspirin, cough syrup and such.

He was elegantly dressed in classic Western garb, like he had just gotten off his horse.  He spoke no English, but wanted to know from me, the only white person in the store, what pills he could take that would help is ailing heart.  I don’t know much about pharmaceutical drugs, and also had no idea whether he was suffering from heartburn, irregular heartbeats or something else, so I apologized and said I didn’t know.

Anyway, there by Pine Ridge, South Dakota in front of the old church stood Big Jim.  An aptly-named, tall, buff Lakota man in his 30’s or 40’s, Big Jim had bought the property the church was on and planned to build something new there.  He had decided that rather than bulldozing the old building, he would publically, ritually burn it in a healing ceremony, for all his people, all the commuities ruined by the Christian invaders with their murderous armies, and their armies of miners, thieves, schools and churches.

A small group of Lakota men and women had gathered for the occasion.  The event had been announced on public radio in Rapid City, thanks to Charles, and also gathered was one elderly white Catholic couple who had been married in the church.

One local, older white man in a pickup truck pulled up momentarily and said, good-naturedly, “the Indians are burning the church down!”  Big Jim smiled.

For the old Catholic couple it was a solemn occasion.  For the Lakotas present it was a bit of a celebration, and out of respect for the elderly couple, they quietly walked around the corner of the church, to watch from a different vantage point and give the old couple some space.  When the fire was lit the dry old wood caught quickly, and soon it was a massive conflagration.

After interviewing Big Jim about the occasion, Charles had set up a video camera fifty feet from the church.  That was the closest I could stand to be, the fire was so hot, the hottest fire I had ever experienced.

Around the corner from the old Catholic couple, Lakota men could be heard uttering phrases such as, “man, that altar’s really cooking!”

The cross on top stayed standing long after most of the walls surrounding it had collapsed.  Eventually, though, the flames that had engulfed it brought it crashing to the ground, too, and all that was left was a smouldering pile of rubble.  It was a brief moment of hope in the midst of the death and destruction that characterizes the ongoing conquest of Native America.  A brief respite in the 500-year siege.

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