This article was first published online by Vice with Camille Summers-Valli’s photographs on 9 Sep 2015
Big Mountain is a time-soaked corner of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, a high-desert plateau where the Hopi and Navajo tribes have lived for centuries—but the natives are being forced out by the US government in an eviction process which began 50 years ago and continues to this day. Also called Black Mesa, the plateau follows the outline of a prehistoric lake, and over the long millennia the life supported by the water decayed to form the largest coal deposit in the US.
The extraction of this coal began in the late 1960s after extensive legal wrangling by utilities such as Peabody Coal and WEST (Western Energy Supply and Transmission) to bypass the resistance of the Navajo and Hopi indigenous peoples, a process brilliantly detailed by writer Judith Nies in 2000. A key figure in negotiations was lawyer John Boyden, who organized a Hopi tribal council that then hired him—he went on to simultaneously work as counsel for the Hopi and Peabody Coal. The councils of the two tribes—which did not necessary represent the majority of the natives—signed the first strip-mining leases in 1966, agreeing to royalties of 30 cents per ton of coal, a grotesquely substandard rate. Soon, a coal slurry pipeline and two generating stations were built by Bechtel, the engineering giant famous for projects such as the Hoover Dam.
Before large-scale mining could begin though, vast areas of designated reservation land—shared between the Navajo and Hopi—had to be cleared. Boyden achieved this by claiming loudly in the press that the tribes were engaged in a war over grazing rights, leading eventually to the partition of the shared land in the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974. The result of this bill was the state-enforced eviction of thousands of indigenous people from the area, mostly Navajo caught on the wrong side of the new division.
Today only a small group of mostly older Navajo continue to live permanently or semipermanently on Big Mountain, herding sheep and maintaining what elements they can of their traditional existence. Despite small victories, such as a 1996 federal court ruling against Peabody for violating the tribe’s human and environmental rights, the Navajo have been forced to spend the last four decades living as resistors against regular eviction attempts. This year has seen another escalation in livestock impoundments and confiscations, a tactic employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Hopi authorities to enforce the eviction order by making life unsustainable for the Navajo.
The mining activity has done serious damage to the Navajo and their culture, from the poisoning of the tribe’s groundwater to the bulldozing of its ancient burial grounds. Peabody Energy, now the world’s biggest private-sector coal company, continues to extract resources from the Big Mountain area. Water is pumped by Big Mountain coal via the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, into cities, orchards, and cotton fields across the Southwest. The ground, a life force at the center of the Navajo spiritual universe, is now the energy source for the desert oases of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
Last September, the Obama administration agreed to a $554 million settlement with the Navajo to end a lawsuit alleging that the federal government mismanaged the tribe’s resources, but the people of Big Mountain are still going through hard times. In the last year, four of the remaining elders have died.
And yet, in her photographs from Big Mountain, Camille Summers-Valli captures something affirming, something enduring and vital, that still exists in this community. She documents the younger generations who were born in or relocated to the sprawling settlements of Navajo Nation—such as New Lands in eastern-central Arizona—as they return to Big Mountain to reconnect with their spiritual inheritance. They go, whenever they have the time and the means, to ride horses, help their grandparents raise livestock, and participate in the daily ceremonies and prayers that tie the culture to the land.