The Roots of Navajo Nation

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 2000A 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.

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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.

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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.

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Lou Reed: Obituary

This article was first published online by Prospect Magazine on 29 Oct 2013

Brian Eno’s famous statement about the poor sales of the first Velvet Underground record, “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band,” is so often repeated it has almost become an adage. I probably said it after starting my first band. Such is the fate of music that seems somehow ahead of its time, and especially when it was unpopular in its own time. Was the band’s singer, the brilliant Lou Reed who died on Sunday, pleased with this image? Even for the most subversive artist, to be recognised as influential is a great accolade.

It’s less clear, though, how the prickly Reed would have felt about his band’s complete assimilation by popular culture, signified by a rash of t-shirts, posters and reissued LPs. There is a sense of inevitability about this, too. As others such as The Ramones could attest, the clumsy wheel of popular culture seeks out that which is daring, obscure, and already finished, for promotion. Someone like Lou Reed was perfect fodder for this recycling process. He leaves behind a trail of black-and-white images from New York rooftops, a face obscured by decades’ worth of sunglasses and make-up, and a solo career that fluctuated between the accessible and the bizarre.

Most importantly, The Velvet Underground’s music invites listeners to think that they have made a unique discovery. Who are the true believers? Does it matter? These questions only prove that we like the idea of something undiscovered, even when it is everywhere. It would be unfair, though, to imply that our connection to a band is undermined because it has been through the pop-culture mill. This doesn’t do justice to the music or to the fans, whether they really “get it” or not. The Velvet Underground made a lasting impact which most bands with a similar cult following never achieve.

MC Kostek's iconic band shot of the Velvet Underground with Nico in the late 60s
MC Kostek’s iconic band shot of the Velvet Underground with Nico in the late 60s

This legacy is, of course, down to more than just Lou Reed. Moe Tucker’s primitive, convulsing drumbeats opened the door to rhythms that didn’t swing like rock ‘n’ roll, or even bother to vary themselves–they were too busy anchoring John Cale’s revolutionary textures on the electric viola, which he described as the “Wagnerian side of rock and roll.” Screeching, rumbling, and growling combined in the first two albums with monotonous song structures and a readiness to embrace imperfection: at one stage during the crescendo of Heroin, you hear Reed laugh as Tucker drops her drum sticks.

If this was the shuddering body of The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was the cruel speaking mask. His lyrics, described by Richard Goldstein as “a secret marriage between Bob Dylan and the Marquis de Sade,” were composed of the noxious by-products of the New York dream factory: drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and transvestites. He was fixated with “everyday reality as we knew it then… not just a disposable subject,” in stark contrast to the cosmetic veneer of rock and roll in the mid-sixties. A tendency that would stay with him throughout his solo career was to document the details of this underworld reality, its distinct language and routines. This was present in the earliest Velvet Underground songs: “He’s never early, he’s always late/ First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait.”

Reed was not the first to sing from the margins of society. Whereas folk and blues presented an emotive response to such subject matter–horny, funny or elegiac–Reed defined his songs as having “no moral stance.” Unflinchingly deadpan and objective even in satire, they are as uncaring as the city itself towards those who inhabit its gutters. This sardonic approach to New York lowlife would become a well-beaten path for baritones from Iggy Pop to Nick Cave, but the only comparable source from the sixties is Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Unlike the dandyish Dylan, though, Reed sings like someone who has surrendered himself to the street (“Hey white boy, what you doing up town?”).

Artwork from The Velvet Underground's self-titled first album, credited to "Hugo" and Paul Morrissey
Artwork from The Velvet Underground’s self-titled first album, credited to “Hugo” and Paul Morrissey

It was not always this way. Reed had a middle-class, conservative upbringing in Long Island, and as a teenager joined the mainstream of rock and roll. The dive into squalor and ignominy that accompanied his maturing as a songwriter was itself an important precedent for his own and later generations. It’s no coincidence that the song that grabbed John Cale’s attention—leading to the formation of the band—was Heroin, which contains the lines, “I have made a big decision… to nullify my life.” This has been dismissed as self-absorbed negativity, but it seems to me to be about the wish to find a new space away from the conventional American story, whose distrust of deviants had already seen Reed undergo electric shock therapy at the behest of his parents.

All this is very easily romanticised, and it’s important to remember the beginnings of The Velvet Underground, and therefore of Reed, in an early version of the hype band. Far from being stoically unpopular, the band got its first major stage from the master of pop, Andy Warhol, who paired them with German supermodel Nico and put them in front of hipsters, socialites and art collectors. The Velvet Underground, whom we cherish for being unpopular, only became so when Warhol moved on and the spotlight turned away. Musicians can take heart: this is a story that could be repeated, many times.