Return to site

The Searchers

Mike Medberry

Jessica Keetso grew up in the shadow of Black Mesa, a high plateau on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. She is thirty-two, too young to remember when her parents and grandparents fetched their water from nearby springs. After the coal mine opened in 1970, the springs have dried up. Several times each week, her family drives their pickup to collect a few days' worth of water from the Navajo Nation chapter house.

“There’s a couple of springs near where I live that my grandma would point out to me," Keetso said. "She’d tell me that there was a spring there and it doesn’t produce water anymore. But now we don’t have running water. It’s been like that my whole life.”

Keetso's story isn’t unusual in the Four Corners region, the breathtakingly beautiful desert country where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. Memorialized in classic Westerns and far too many SUV commercials to count, this landscape is one of the enduring symbols of America. It's also an internal colony of the United States where energy companies practiced a form of neocolonial exploitation more commonly associated with what we're now back to calling the Third World, places like Peru, Ecuador, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Niger Delta.

The Four Corners resource boom started with uranium mines jammed through during the Cold War. Then, in the 1960s, a politically connected Mormon lawyer engineered a backroom deal that changed this remote region - a place with the cleanest air in the country - into a furnace supplying electricity to the entire Southwest and the state of California. Peter Matthiessen called the coal industry's work here “the ugliest ecological disaster of our time."

Today, the roughly 250,000 people living on the Navajo and Hopi reservations have lung cancer and kidney failure rates far above national averages. Coal mines have drained scarce water supplies. And the promised prosperity from mines and power plants never arrived.

When Covid hit, 30 percent of Navajo people and 40 percent of the Hopi still lived without running water. Without water or power, simple health measures like washing your hands regularly became extraordinarily difficult. At one point, the Navajo Nation had a higher per capita rate of COVID-19 infections than any state. As food supplies dwindled in the crisis, the situation became even more dire.

The Empire Strikes

Leroy Keams in front of Peabody dragline in 1971 Save Black Mesa poster. Marc Gaede photograph.

The story starts more than half a century ago, when the much-photographed red rock country where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet became a vivid and tragic illustration of historian Bernard DeVoto's maxim that "The achieved West had given the United States something that no people had ever had before, an internal domestic empire."

At 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the country's largest reservation. Driving through the landscape, it's strikingly beautiful and, at the same time, hard country: high mesas and sweeping red valleys that receive only about 10 inches of rain a year. Water means everything.

Two tribes share the reservation. The Hopi people have 2,531 square miles that lie within the boundaries of the more populous Navajo Nation. The U.S. government drew these lines in the 1800s, yet despite this recipe for strife, the tribes peacefully co-existed for a century, sharing land and often intermarrying.

In the 1950s, Utah attorney John Boyden, ostensibly representing the Hopi but in reality pursuing the interests of the Peabody Coal Company, brought suit against the Navajo on land rights, and the cases went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1963, the Court decided the lands issues, but more importantly, ruled on subsurface mineral rights. In 1964 with encouragement from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, both the Hopi and Navajo tribal councils granted mining permits to the Peabody Coal Company. Even in the 1960s, the payment to the tribes was far below market rates.

It's worth noting that while the “official” tribal government of the Hopi approved the coal leases, the traditional councils did not. Most of the Hopi people followed traditional ways and did not participate in the councils established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Instead, they were part of village-based councils in which questions were determined by local leaders called Kikmongwi (pronounced Kee-mung-wee). But in those days, in the halls of power, these nuances were lost. What's even more striking is that Boyden's conflict of interest was not widely known until University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson published his research in the 1990s.

The region’s fate was well and truly sealed in 1968. Two large dams were slated to be built that would have flooded the Grand Canyon to power the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a multibillion-dollar water-diversion scheme that included pumping Colorado River water over a 1,200-foot mountain pass to Arizona.

Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, a strong environmentalist, was also a Utah Mormon. He knew that water was the key to the region's economic growth - its survival, really - and a stable and abundant water supply could only be secured by big dams and water diversions.

But the Sierra Club, led by the legendary environmentalist David Brower, fiercely opposed the dams. Brower commissioned full-page ads that ran in the New York Times, asking "Should We Also Flood The Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer The Ceiling?” What one notices most about the ad today is its wall of words. People actually read back in those days.

Forced to come up with an alternative, Udall's advisers agreed to help fund construction of the Navajo Generating Station, one of four enormous coal plants planned for the Four Corners region. In return, a portion of the plant’s generating capacity would be used for hauling the Central Arizona Project’s water over the mountains. Brower agreed to the deal.

The tradeoff received little attention until people like Jack Loeffler, a beatnik and musician who had a Native girlfriend at the time - and a close friend of iconic Southwest novelist Ed Abbey - found out about it. In Santa Fe, a loose alliance of white artists, beatniks, writers, photographers, and American Indian Movement activists threw themselves into an all-out effort to stop the desecration.

Calling themselves the Black Mesa Defense Fund, they brought six lawsuits, got stories in national magazines, made a film that was shown to the New Mexico state legislature, and lobbied every governmental body from Congress to the United Nations. When all else failed, Black Mesa Defense and AIM activists tried—and in true anarchist fashion, failed—to blow up a coal slurry line.

None of it worked.

The Four Corners was sacrificed to the nation's appetite for cheap electricity. To make room for the strip mine on Black Mesa, between 12,000 and 16,000 Navajos were forcefully relocated, the largest Indigenous relocation in the United States since the Trail of Tears. Once one of the country’s most pristine regions, the Four Corners became one of the most polluted. The nexus of environmental justice and social justice could not have been clearer.

Later the Sierra Club worked to shut down the Four Corners power plant. But, according to Andy Bessler, who worked on the issue while representing the club in Arizona, the job was made more difficult because many of the people there had not forgiven Brower, who died more than 20 years ago, or the Sierra Club itself.

"What I heard is 'David Brower is the whole reason we have this problem,'" Bessler said. "For white people this is history this is years ago. But for the Navajo, this is what you did to my people."

Hopi elder Ralph Selena at a coal slurry spill on Black Mesa. Photo by Terrence Moore.

A Panopticon of Life and Death

A few months ago, I made what had become an annual pilgrimage to the Four Corners. Something made me notice how exalted the place names were: the Altar of Sacrifice, the Court of Patriarchs, the Great White Throne. The Temple of Sinewava was named after the coyote spirit and had been worshiped by Paiute Indians. As I traveled deeper into the country, pink sand dunes and cinnamon-colored cliffs became endemic. I was thinking about Big Coal, and I remembered being on the Kaiparowits plateau, north of the reservoir, more than thirty years ago. The fight to save Kairparowitz from Big Coal was one of the iconic battles of the U.S. environmental movement.

I was the Utah Representative of the Wilderness Society. My hiking partner was Scott Groene, a lawyer who was on the board of the ass-kicking Southern Utah Wilderness Association in those days and later became the group's executive director, having devoted his life to saving the canyon country. We were young and our bravado was matched by our ignorance. I had only a vaguest idea of the political tradeoffs that had changed this remote region.

But we could feel the power of that place. On that day, the red rocks were as gorgeous as ever I’ve seen them. I remember the desert, a panopticon of life and death, appearing to us in the burnished ivory of a bighorn sheep skull. The plateau's sandstone was a veritable Noah’s Ark for paleontologists, showing an unbroken sequence of the period between 70 and 82 million years ago. The skull of a horned dinosaur previously unknown to science had been found there, along with other previously unknown species: a toothless dinosaur, an unusual species of duck-billed dinosaur, giant crocodilian fossils.

Dead dinosaurs meant coal. In 1965, Southern California Edison had floated the idea of a 3,000-megawatt coal plant on the plateau. That proposal had been shot down, but in the late 1960s, Big Coal was back. For an earlier generation of environmentalists, the ensuing fight to save the Four Corners was a life-changing experience. Earth First! Founder Dave Foreman jumped in, as did Brant Calkin, the legendary environmentalist who turned the Southern Utah Wilderness Association into a national powerhouse, along with a motley band of artists, photographers, and radical American Indian Movement activists. They remember the time as life changing. Perhaps most affected was Phil Williams, a young British engineer working for Bechtel. After Black Mesa, Williams founded International Rivers Network, the first organization to make a concerted effort to defend the rights of indigenous people by opposing industrial dam projects bankrolled by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Like a lot of young people, we weren't paying enough attention to our elders, but we understood the power of the place, and the sharp divide between a wild sandstone plateau and a landscape defaced by thoughtless development.

After a bone-crunching hike, we headed to Lake Powell, a tourist playground created by the dam that had drowned Glen Canyon, immortalized by our saint, the writer Edward Abbey. “There was a time when, in my search for essences, I concluded that the canyonland country has no heart. I was wrong. The canyonlands did have a heart, a living heart, and that heart was Glen Canyon and the golden, flowing Colorado River,” Abbey had written.

It felt like sacrilege, but the lake was within two miles of where we were hiking, we were hot and sweaty, and it was too tempting not to drive those couple of miles and jump in. As if to punish us for our infidelity, when we got there, the shore of the reservoir was muck and mud. One step in was one step more than plenty.

We got the hell out of there. It wasn’t just the mud. The Kaiparowits Plateau was due north of the Navajo Generating Station, the largest of the four coal plants in the Four Corners. The red rock cliffs might have looked like a dreamy calendar picture but smoke from that dirty coal plant scraped our lungs like steel wool. The basin was stuffed with it.

In 1987, when Scott and I hiked the canyonlands, the Navajo Generating Station wasn’t the only coal plant operating in a spare region that had once been home to the Navajo and Hopi people, their sheep, and a handful of whites who ran trading posts. Three other coal-fired power plants were busily burning coal on and around native land: the San Juan and Four Corners Generating Stations and just over the line in Nevada, the Mohave Generating Station.

The dark map of coal was an overlay on the tribal lands. The Four Corners Generating Station was the country’s largest single source of nitrogen oxide emissions, while the Navajo Generating Station was spewing massive amounts of carbon dioxide.

I can attest to that. Everywhere we turned, the air was dense as cowboy coffee. The plateau was stunningly beautiful, but what I remember most of all are the smokestacks and the black smoke. If I’d had a hatchet to throw, it would have stuck in that air.

Four Corners power plant. Photograph by Terrence Moore.

Garage Sale Wisdom

This spring, thirty-five years after Scott and I visited the Kaiparowits Plateau, I had a specific agenda: to find out if the Native people would be able to break free from the neocolonialist yoke placed on their necks half a century ago. But I tend to mosey, and that's how it went.

You know you've arrived when you see the hogans, the traditional homes of the Navajo people. Older hogans were built with forked poles to hold the rest of the dwelling in a conical formation. Those traditional homes mostly have been replaced by larger octangular hogans, which have more living room inside.

I stopped at one trading post where I saw T-shirts with pictures of the Grand Canyon. There was a book by Sherman Alexie. And there were many, many sand paintings and turquoise necklaces. I left with a sand painting.

After passing through the Canyons of the Ancients in southern Colorado (highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States!) I stopped at garage sale. The Navajo woman holding the sale told me that she didn’t like the closeness of people to one another when they lived in trailer homes so she opted to live out in the backcountry. The living was hard because she didn’t have regular power to her place, she said.

Looking up, I could see huge power towers holding hundreds of thousands of volts running from the Navajo power plant and the Kayenta mine to the broader world. I didn’t mention this. What could I tell her that she didn’t already know?

The woman’s son was working on a racing car beside their house. I bought a cup for five dollars. She insisted that I take two. I said thank you and took two. She had a small corral of half a dozen sheep that she pointed out proudly. I smiled and nodded.

The woman running the garage sale made a choice. Others have no choice. The Navajo Nation estimates that 18,000 out of 48,000 homes on their reservation are without electricity. A greater percentage of the Navajo population lacks electricity than the population of Kenya, still considered a Third World country, where the World Bank estimates that 70 percent of the population has electric power.

Nationwide, the statistics are equally disturbing. Roughly 14 percent of Native American households have no access to electricity, as compared to only 1.4 percent of all U.S. households. The great irony, of course, is that the region supplying power to millions of people in southern California is the epicenter of want: The Navajo Nation accounts for 75 percent of the households in the U.S. without electricity.

Everything Has to Change

Nicole Horseherder, co-founder of Tó Nizhóní Ání.

A lot has changed since the days of the Black Mesa Defense Fund. Native activists are taking the lead on working for a transition to renewable energy, backed up by establishment groups whose staff members are repositories of institutional memory.

Nicole Horseherder, who founded Tó Nizhóní Ání in 2001, is one of the most visible leaders here. After earning a master’s in linguistics at the University of British Columbia, she returned to the Southwest in 1998 and became involved in energy issues almost immediately. Her daughter Jessica, the first person we'd contacted at Tó Nizhóní Ání, and her son are both working for the group. But Horseherder is the high-profile leader. Some say she'll be the next president of the Navajo nation. Stranger things have happened.

When I visited Horseherder in Flagstaff, she got straight to the bottom line. "What people need to know out there is that the Navajo have subsidized this entire energy operation, especially the people of Black Mesa, where I live. We could have been the richest indigenous nation in the United States. But something like this is never meant to bring prosperity to the community, especially if you’re using resources that people need to survive: water and land and air.”

In 2015, Horseherder, along with the respected Hopi leader Vernon Masayesva, was instrumental in closing the Navajo Generating Station. Now Tó Nizhóní Ání is working to force Peabody to fully reclaim the strip-mined land on Black Mesa by fighting company efforts to be released from its obligations under federal law. Working with other groups, including Diné C.A.R.E., and the solar company Avengrid, Horseherder's organization is trying to secure funding for rural electrification, ratepayer benefits, and stricter climate goals. Perhaps most importantly, she is fighting for economic development that does not include fossil fuels.

Horseherder acknowledges that the region's people are hurting during this transitional period. Jobs created by the mines have been lost, and the solar industry hasn't ramped up enough to buffer the hardships. But, with climate, she suggests, the issue is, to paraphrase the first-century sage Rabbi Hillel: If not now, when?

“These people who work at the mine are relatives of mine," she said. "But I have to do what I have to do, too. This is a long-term proposition. Climate change has to be in the forefront of everything you do. Every business has to be more sustainable and we have to start making better decisions on our water. I have sheep. I haul 500 gallons a week for them. I don’t have that many. I have 50. They’re so pitiful. there’s no water in any of the springs. I feel so sorry for them.”

“Everything has to change and if you understand that, you know what to do.”

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss