Listening at the Feet of Navajo Elders

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In March, fourteen high schoolers from Manzanita School in Topanga Canyon, embarked on an epic journey where we spent a week helping struggling Navajo elders in the Big Mountain area of Arizona by chopping wood, repairing roads, herding sheep, cooking, cleaning, butchering and more. Fueled with knowledge, questions, and strength, we set out to do our very best. Our teachers, Ira Christian and Jessica London, have helped us, as a class, to become invested with their culture and their struggles. I feel for those people, and I know the rest of my class does, too.


In preparation for our journey to Big Mountain, we studied the complex history of the Navajo people that live there . Upon arrival at the homesite of Louise Goh and family, we got to work herding sheep and goats, chopping wood, and repairing structures. We ate with the Navajo elders and listened to their stories. We integrated into their life and their daily survival. These people have been struggling to maintain their traditional lifeways for the last 45 years, when their traditional lands were partitioned in order to clear legal title for coal mining to occur. Since 1974, Big Mountain Navajo have lived as legal trespassers in their own homes. We went to support their daily well-being as they continue to struggle against forced relocation and fossil fuel extraction.  

Sheep herding: Every morning, I was trusted with the feeding of the baby lambs. Dark wood planks tangled together to form a corral and a gate separated the adult animals from the newborn lambs and kids. Surrounding the livestock was the landscape: sloping desert, with snow and juniper trees painting the land.

With a few of my classmates, we entered a corral full of bleating sheep and goats. AJ Goh, our Navajo host, would scan the crowd of animals for a split second, then call to us which baby belonged to each mother. To feed the orphans, she showed us how to grab the unwilling mother’s back legs and sandwich her between your legs, so the babies could feast. After we fed the orphans, we would bottle feed the other baby lambs to make sure they were well fed whil their mothers grazed the rangelands all day. I scooped up dozens of small wool beings, held them close to my heart, and felt overwhelming joy. When the charm wore off, I began to notice the soreness and mental exhaustion of tracking those that had already been fed. For the remainder of the day, my classmates and I would herd the adult sheep and goats, walking for six to eight hours per day while they grazed in the high desert.  

Elder stories: The elders showed us their pain with stories of their experience. Peabody Coal divided the land and took what they wanted, resulting in broken trust and compromised survival for the natives. Even to this day, livestock are snatched by Hopi police for simple violations such as grazing too far over the dividing fence. The elders shared with us the conflicting perspectives of those dependent on the mine and those fighting against it. But the fact remains, the people were forced off their land and those who remained became sick and now live without close access to water.  

Coal mining: After spending a magical time with the Navajo, we boarded our luxurious Ford Explorers and traveled on. We pulled up to the bold letters, “Peabody Western Coal Company,” and entered the powerful building where my peers and I sat in a conference room waiting for instruction. The General Manager of the plant gave a detailed tour and shared about the Reclamation Team at Peabody that is responsible for returning the land to a green state. The company takes great pride in this program, which shapes the huge leftover piles of rock and dirt to look like rolling hills. Supposedly developed alongside a medicine man, this process shows the mechanistic thinking of the company, in which the destruction of thousands of acres of wild lands is considered an “improvement” because the grazing productivity of the replanted land is slightly higher than in its wild state. As the manager shared his pride, I saw the desire for acceptance he sought from us.


The work Manzanita High School students did at Big Mountain was meaningful. We worked with our hands, felt the sweat on our backs, and forgot to complain. In the modern world, machines split wood in milliseconds, but we no longer run our fingers over the coarse bark. When we chopped wood for hours, splinters pierced our thumbs and our muscles grew. We gained confidence and gratitude, depending on our bodies rather than machines.

We cannot reverse time and undo the strip mining. A solution to this conflict is not evident and some may even say it is too late. All we can do is listen and help—help the people who have suffered at the hands of greed and called it “progress.”

Fourteen teenagers now hold the story, learned from the source, and return to Topanga humbled.


Following passage of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, the “Trail of Tears” was a series of forced relocations, between 1830 and 1850, of Native American nations from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to areas to the west (usually west of the Mississippi River) that had been designated as Indian Territory. The phrase, “Trail of Tears,” originates from a description of the removal of many Native American tribes, including the infamous Cherokee Nation relocation in 1838. [Wikipedia]

1830. President Jackson recognized that the land, which the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Seminole currently inhabited, was perfect for cotton farming, and considered these original inhabitants to be an obstacle standing in the way of westward expansion for white settlers and economic growth for the nation.

1864. The Long Walk of the Navajo refers to the forced deportation by the U.S. Army of 10,000 Navajos and Mescalero Apaches from their land in Arizona and marched them to a desolate reservation in New Mexico, some 300 miles away. Upwards of 200 Natives died along the way to Fort Sumner, due to brutal cold, no food, and unforgiving soldiers.  Many more died in the 4 years at Fort Sumner.

1868. Due to terrible conditions at Fort Sumner and the high cost of holding Navajos there, a treaty was signed that allowed these Navajo people to return home, but only to to small increments of their original land. One condition of the treaty is that Navajo children were forced to go to Christian boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their language in order to break the continuity of traditional Navajo culture.

In the 1930s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a livestock reduction program in which they entered Navajo land and slaughtered 1.5 million sheep and goats, the core of Navajo culture and livelihood. The reduction program devastated the hearts and pockets of Navajo people and built a distrust of government policies.  

Since the mid-20th century, resource extraction has been a big issue on the Navajo Reservation. In addition to large reserves of uranium, it is estimated that there are 20 billion tons of coal under the Navajo land.

In the 1950s, Peabody Coal Company entered the picture with a lawyer, John Sterling Boyden, who claimed to represent the Hopi Tribe while also on the payroll of Peabody Coal. Boyden focused on a piece of coal-rich land, legally considered a Joint Use Area between the indigenous Navajo and Hopi tribes. He lobbied and convinced congressmen and their constituents that this was traditionally contested land, and that intertribal war was imminent without outside intervention. The U.S. government partitioned the area, clearing the way for incontestable coal mining leases to be signed by both tribes on land now unequivocally their own.  Hundreds of Hopi people and more than 14,000 Navajo found themselves living on land that was no longer their own, legally obligated to relocate.

1964. Peabody signed a contract with the Navajo Tribe and two years later with the Hopi Tribe. Peabody developed two coal strip mines on the Black Mesa reservation: the Black Mesa Mine and the Kayenta Mine. Coal from these mines provided energy that fueled the growth of the Southwest, and until 2017 provided a significant percentage of Los Angeles’ electricity supply. Until 2005, Peabody pumped an average of 3 million gallons of water from the Navajo Aquifer every day, causing water tables to plummet. This ecological devastation was made possible by the legal land partition that forced about 14,000 traditional Navajo from their native land on the Black Mesa plateau.

Present day.  While the Black Mesa mine closed in 2005, coal continues to be strip mined at Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine. The future of the mine is uncertain as their only customer, the nearby Navajo Generating Station, is scheduled to close in 2019. Whether the coal is being mined or not, the remaining elders of Big Mountain will continue to live under relocation laws, bereft of the vibrant traditional community that previously thrived on Black Mesa. They will keep tending their sheep and planting corn as droughts and other impacts of global climate change increase, consequences of the mining of coal and other fossil fuels.  


Manzanita High School is incredibly grateful to Danny Blackgoat for the gracious invitation to come visit his ancestral home, and to the Goh family, the Begay family, and to Louise Sheppard for their hospitality.


By Rubey Grace Carey, Max Tardio, Jessica Jacobs, and Ira Christian


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