Laughlin, Nevada is a green, well-watered oasis in North America’s driest desert. It is hemmed in by rock surrounding the valley like oven walls. To the west, the corrugated Newberry Mountains stand sere and remote. The Mohave people, whose Fort Mohave reservation is three miles south of Laughlin, revere a petroglyph-filled canyon on the tallest peak of the Newberrys, from which the original single human tribe was divided by the Creator, Mutavela. A host of neighboring tribes share this origin myth. Mutavela sent the new groups in all four directions. The Mohave, the west people, settled along the Colorado River. Other groups went east, north, and south. Those who lied were turned white.
If some hold Grapevine Canyon in the Newberrys to be sacred, few would describe Laughlin as anything but profane. Laughlin offers a typically American respite to the visitor: prime rib, lounge acts, and – of course – gambling. Just north of where Nevada, Arizona, and California meet, Laughlin has grown dramatically in the last few decades. In 1964 it boasted four guest rooms and 12 slots. Now five million people visit this swelling city each year.
But when Laughlin made the news in December 2005, it wasn’t because of a grandmother’s big win or one gaming corporation buying out another one. It was due to a forbidding industrial facility just south of town. The Mohave Generating Station, a 1.58-gigawatt coal-fired power plant operated by Southern California Edison (SCE), shut down. SCE – a majority owner of the plant with LA Water and Power, the Salt River Project, and Nevada Power Company – was ordered to reduce the pollution coming from the stack before the end of 2005.
Instead, SCE shut the plant down on December 1.
The closing marked a turning point in a controversy that had spanned decades and involved the genocidal forced relocation of indigenous people, the desertification of an irreplaceable landscape, poisoning people with cancer-causing radioactive waste, pollution of once preternaturally clear desert skies over six Western states, and conspiracy to manipulate and defraud the people of the Hopi and Navajo nations.
Determining the beginning of the controversy is an arbitrary exercise. Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States, is as good a person to start with as any.
On December 16, 1882, troubled by increasing Mormon settlement in the Four Corners region, President Arthur issued an executive order removing about 4,000 acres of land in northern Arizona from the public domain, and making it a reservation for the Moqui [Hopi] Indians and other Indians that the President should decide to settle thereon. The US government suspected there were large coal deposits on Hopi land – which turned out, when surveyed in 1909, to be the largest in the US – and that other valuable minerals might be found there as well. Though the US was in the business of giving mineral rights away to those who might develop them, the Mormons’ loyalty was suspect in those days, due to conflict between their church and the United States.
So Arthur removed the lands of the Hopi from the public domain and granted them to a people with little interest in industrial development or large-scale mineral resource extraction. There the coal would sit until the United States deemed it necessary to mine it. When the time came, the Indians could easily be moved aside.
There is a hole in the floor of a typical kiva, the ceremonial room of the Hopi. The sipapu symbolizes the entrance to a different world, the Third World, in the Earth. The Hopi say the first people emerged from the original Sipapu, in the Grand Canyon at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, and that they have lived on the Colorado Plateau ever since. Anthropologists conjecture that the ancestors of the Hopi migrated from Asia over the Bering Land bridge, perhaps 12,000 years ago. Science and the Hopi origin myth agree, however, that the Hopi have lived in what is now northern Arizona for a very long time. Most anthropologists now agree with the contention of the traditional Hopi that the Hopi are descended from the Ancestral Puebloan people. The Ancestral Puebloans, often called Anasazi, lived in the area as early as 2,000 years ago, and held ceremonies in kivas with sipapus in their floors. Hopi farmers have bred distinctive, drought-resistant crops over the millennia. The roots of Hopi corn delve deep into the earth, subsisting only on the scant precipitation and what groundwater they can find.
The Diné, also called Navajo, are relative latecomers, migrants from the Canadian taiga where the closely related Dene still live. Many historians date their arrival in the area at around 1500 AD.
The Diné population grew throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and more and more of them moved onto those lands set aside by the Arthur administration. Many Hopi found themselves living happily with their relatively new neighbors. Trade blossomed, as did friendships and marriages.
But conflict grew as well. There were Hopi who looked askance at the increasing numbers of Diné living on their traditional lands. Hopi are among the least warlike people on the planet, so the time-honored human solution of armed conflict was unlikely. Those Hopi who were willing to use American law to defend what they saw as encroachment were out of luck. According to US law, the Hopi did not have exclusive legal title to their own land. The Arthur administration’s proclamation stated that the reservation was for the use of the Moqui Indians and other Indians that the President should decide to settle thereon.
This is the cultural context that allowed the Mohave Generating Station to be built. But this is not a story of a long-simmering resentment, a centuries-old dispute among Indians, as too many newspaper stories have characterized it. The conflict was there, and it was real. But it was the energy industry that went into Hopiland, deliberately exacerbated the tensions, and committed fraud against the Hopi and genocide against the Diné.
That energy industry influence was long personified by a Mormon lawyer named John Boyden.
By the 1950s, conflict between the Mormons and the federal government was long over, and the local Mormon power structure meshed nearly seamlessly with that of the feds. In 1951 the Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed Boyden, who was then a bishop in the Mormon church, as land claims attorney for the Hopi. Boyden, who had made a fair amount of money representing Native groups as they leased land to mining companies, quickly set about remaking the Hopi political world. In 1951 the Hopi had no tribal council, and no central leadership with the legal authority to lease land to the coal companies. Boyden persuaded a group of Hopi Mormon converts that the income from coal leases would be of immense benefit to the tribe. In 1955, that group was recognized by the BLM as the official government of the Hopi, after an election with a turnout of about 10 percent.
Norman Littell was Boyden’s counterpart with the Diné. The Navajo Tribal Council‘s BLM-designated land claims attorney, Littell had talked the Council into signing a contract awarding him a tenth of all coal revenues earned by the tribe.
But an obstacle remained to exploitation of the coal deposits: Arthur’s proclamation granted clear legal title to the land to no particular tribe. The Hopi had priority in the proclamation, and Executive Branch actions in 1891 and 1943 had affirmed exclusive Hopi control of 630,000 acres of the land specified in Arthur’s proclamation. The land in question, however, where the coveted coal lay buried, was not part of those 630,000 acres, and was mainly occupied by Diné families. In order to mine the coal legally – and to properly disburse royalties – land ownership had to be adjudicated. In 1958, Boyden and Littell filed a lawsuit between the tribes after a special act of Congress, Public Law 85-547, allowed them to do so. The case was decided in 1962 and upheld by the Supreme Court. The decision gave the Hopi exclusive control over 630,000 acres and recognized Diné squatters’ rights on the remainder of the 1882 Moqui Reservation, granting 50 percent of the potential coal royalties to the Diné. Under the terms of the suit, the land outside the 630,000 acres was referred to as the Joint Use Area.
Some years after Boyden died, Peabody Coal Company documents confirmed something people in Indian Country had long known. While Boyden was representing the Hopi in negotiations with the Navajo Tribal Council, the US Government, and the coal industry, he was also in the employ of Peabody Coal – a serious conflict of interest that went unquestioned by the powers that be.
In 1966, Peabody Coal signed leases with both tribal Councils to mine coal on 64,000 acres of land in the Black Mesa area, near Kayenta. Unsurprisingly, Boyden negotiated leases that awarded the Hopi far less in royalties than the market would have suggested. Forty thousand acres of the leased land was within Joint Use Area boundaries, and the rest on the Navajo Reservation. Traditional Hopi sued to block mining of these largest coal deposits in the US under Black Mesa on the grounds that strip mining violated both Hopi and Diné traditional religious beliefs. The US courts discarded the suit. Mining began in 1970 at the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines.
In 1971, the Mohave generating station began burning coal from the Black Mesa mine. The Black Mesa area was inaccessible by rail. The coal was shipped to Laughlin by way of a novel delivery system: a slurry line. Groundwater was pumped from the Navajo Aquifer – or N-Aquifer – at the rate of 3.3 million gallons a day. The coal, ground into small chunks, was mixed with water and pumped through an 18-inch pipe, 273 miles to Laughlin. There the coal was extracted from the slurry and burned at a rate of about 16,000 tons per day. Coal from the Kayenta mine was moved by conveyor belt and train to the Navajo Generating Station above Glen Canyon dam.
The N-Aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for the Hopi, and for Diné in the west half of their Reservation. With Peabody Coal pumping a billion gallons a year for their slurry line, traditional Hopi springs began to shrink, and one by one wells dried up. Deprived of groundwater, wild vegetation began to wither.
Peabody’s allies decided to ramp up their coal mining.
In the early 1970s, stories began to trickle into the major US papers about a range war that loomed between the Diné and the Hopi. Diné encroaching on Hopi land, the stories said, were becoming increasingly brazen. There were even reports of threats of violence. Most locals, however, said there had been no real change in the mood between Hopi and those Diné living in the Joint Use Area. Occasional confrontations took place, but there had been no more tension than usual. Evans and Associates – a PR firm hired by Boyden – had been staging a Potemkin range war, setting up deliberate confiscations of Diné livestock on Hopi land for the news cameras. Among Evans and Associates’ other clients was West Associates, a trade association of strip mining and power plant building concerns. The PR firm that represented the Hopi also represented corporations buying coal from the Hopi.
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