Divided People: connecting Black Mesa with the Central American Refugee Exodus

Coal transportation pipeline for Peabody’s Black Mesa Coal Mine

Editor’s note: we intentionally chose to capitalize all uses of Indigenous, Native, Latinx/Hispanic, Dine, Hopi when referring to people(s) for consistency. Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the subjects.

Sitting on a bench outside of a stone house, Zee smokes a cigarette taking a break from walking around in a small Hopi Village high up in the mountains. As they look over the sandy landscape, an elderly Hopi man sees them, runs inside and retrieves a black and white photo of his grandfather smoking on that same bench. The man rejoices sharing that a piece of the Hopi origin story includes part of their clan migrating far south, losing connection with the people of their traditional home territory. Zee’s family is native to Peru; looking at this picture of a man smoking a cigarette from decades ago, they can’t help but see and feel the resemblance to the man pictured.

Coal transportation pipeline to Peabody’s Black Mesa Coal Mine & the US-Mexico border wall, newly lined with barbed wire in Nogales, AZ

This article seeks to connect the dots between the Central American refugees in crisis along the US/Mexico border to the everyday struggles for survival of Diné people, specifically the Indigenous communities in Big Mountain or Black Mesa in so-called Arizona. Through the words of Diné matriarchal elders, aunts, youth, trans/queer folks, long term organizers, past and present, a deeper analysis of the root causes of Indigenous displacement is possible. Identifying US imperialism as the source allows for a new framework to better understand the crisis of Latinx/Hispanic and Indigenous refugees across Turtle Island. Key features of US imperialism often include genocide and forced removal of Indigenous peoples. In this article, US imperialism means the ways in which US government policies, both legally and illegally, have directly contributed to the immense daily suffering, poverty, murder, and ultimately dispossession of ancestral homelands.

Ongoing U.S. imperialism and settler colonialism have dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land in order to usher in extractive industries, combining the power of government and private corporations. Through illustrating continuities between Diné and Central American refugees with an anti-imperialist framework, while centering the experiences of trans, queer people and womxn, the parallels in experiences and strategies for resistance are clarified.

While the recent surge in media attention surrounding the militarization of the southern borderland has created an important political moment for Central American refugees, Indigenous migration as a force of naturehas always occurred and will not be stopped by walls, fences or tear gas. Native people have fought and will continue to fight for ancestral rights to their homelands. State actors, supported by white vigilantes, are violently enforcing borders to serve extraction industries and white supremacy. Conversely the people of the Big Mountain have been resisting forced removal from their ancestral lands for generations, all under the same domination tactics of U.S.imperialism.

i. Migration + Relocation

“The people here (Diné and Hopi) were colonized 3 times. The Spanish, English and Mexicans. We down south (Peruvian Jungle) were only colonized once. Do you know how strong you have to be to be colonized three times?” Zee
“The creator is the only one who can relocate me.” Roberta Blackgoat

Within days of children and families being tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets in Tijuana, Bessie, a Diné elder, describes how she wishes her children could come home to their ancestral land but due to Relocation policies, they risk eviction. “As a result of basically a “foreign imposed conflict”– fueled by a 22 billion ton deposit of low sulphur coal (known as Black Mesa Coal Field), a so called “Hopi-Navajo Dispute” has resulted in some destructive policies. Namely in 1974 the US government passedPL-93-0531. Under this law the land was divided by an enormous barbed wire fence…”. These policies seek to remove Diné and Hopi people from their lands, in part because of the rich coal reserves at the heart of the Navajo and Hopi reservations, what’s now known as the Joint Use Area. In an interview on December 8th, 2017 Salina Begay, a Dine elder, shares, “we live here, within the Four Sacred Mountains, on the land of the Tachii’nii, Red Running into the Water Clan… our umbilical cords are planted right here, in the sheep corrals, so we are connected to our earth as her children… We didn’t agree with anything, we never signed anything. They’re still harassing us, though. They tell us we are trespassing on our own lands.” 3

The federal government sends eviction notices to Native people of the land, followed by harassment, including but not limited to livestock reductions, establishment of fences around reservation borders between the Hopi and the Diné tribes. These practices have had a devastating effect on the Diné and Hopi people as well as the wildlife. In her interview with Roberta, Winona Laduke says in 1887, over 75% of the Navajo people had sheep and livestock, and there were over a million animals on the reservation. The so-called dispute between Hopi and Navajo was created by the government, directed by extractive industries’ priorities, removing Native people from the land to access the coal. 4

An empty sheep corral while sheep were out for their daily graze in Big Mountain

When asked, Bessie describes whole clans of Diné people who once lived in these communities on Big Mountain who are now gone, as the livestock reductions has significantly impacted both materials needs and income for many families. Moreover many traditional homes like Bessie’s do not have running water or electricity in their homes. Salina Begay connects this displacement in her statement where she says, “to me, what the harassment is really about is getting rid of us. They try by intimidating us, tearing down our old houses, the summer camp, the sheep corral…So now it’s the animals they’re after..They’re just trying to use every tool that they can to clean us out. It’s all for the resources. That’s why this is going on. The coal, gas. Our water, too.”

The water in the Diné aquifers are used to transport coal for the Peabody Coal Company, drying up the groundwater wells and poisoning the waters deeper beneath the surface. When Diné people were approached, and often forced, into signing Accommodation Agreements they were offered homes elsewhere with electricity and water in exchange for selling their land. In the 1987 Blackgoat interview, Winona Laduke describes how once Navajo people were forced off their land, by the 1960s “less than 10% of the Navajo people earned most of their income from livestock.” While the U.S. government has used its own power to control the Diné and Hopi people, tribal governments have played their own role in reinforcing these divisions, such as bolstering bureaucratic processes through regulation.

For even small plants for medicines and ceremony Diné people are forced to get permits. In resistance to this, Salina Begay insists, “we don’t need to get a permission from anyone to do a ceremony…The only way the harassment will stop if they stop the funding for it. As long as there is money, they’ll be marching around like soldiers.” Tribal governments providing resources to remove Diné and Hopi people alike, in accordance with PL-93-0531,continue U.S. colonial and imperialist projects by reinforcing false divisions. The U.S. exploits the impoverished conditions it has created in this region in order to leverage power and garner compliance from the tribal governments.

ii. The U.S.’s role abroad

The refugee crisis at the US/Mexico border is a man-made disaster.Decades of US imperialist policies have created unlivable conditions in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and many Latin American,Caribbean countries. On the other side of the border, the people of Black Mesa in so-called Arizona, as well as many other Indigenous communities, are being pushed off their ancestral lands by complementary US settler colonialist policies. Obviously people who would otherwise prefer to remain with their families and communities in their homes are fleeing for their lives out of necessity, not by choice. It’s important to clearly identify US imperialism as the root cause directly leading to forced migration across the Western Hemisphere; not to blame the individual refugees or the “caravans”for their own displacement.

The US government created the border crisis and Central American mass exodus through its imperialist foreign policy. For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the US has backed right-wing coups to overthrow democratically elected governments, installed dictatorships, supported economic blockades and so-called“free-trade” agreements, empowered drug cartels through the “War on Drugs,” and outright stolen indigenous lands for economic and political gain. Despite all this, Indigenous people have resisted for over 500 years (and counting). The fight for Indigenous power continues today on both sides of the US militarized border.

Moreover, the refugee crisis and displacement of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island is accelerated by climate change. Historically, extractive industries and the US government have usurped the natural resources of Indigenous people on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Furthermore, more frequent, extreme weather caused by the consequences of global warming lead to more native peoples being pushed off their lands. Increasing devastating droughts, wild fires, intensified storms, flooding, earthquakes, etc. lead to crop failures in regions traditionally sustained by farming and livestock. When people are no longer able to feed and support their families, especially small subsistence farmers, have no choice but to flee becoming refugees. A recent drought in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala affected thousands of people, many of which had to sell their livestock and leave. 

Rock formations in Dinétah near Tuba City, AZ during sunset

iii. “what happens to the land, happens to the people.”

Through the canyon stretches the Peabody Coal mine pipeline, using groundwater to transport the resource from beneath the surface back to the processing plant. The company uses dynamite to extract the coal, the explosions can be heard from over an hour and half away. Describing the effects on the livestock, Salina Begay shares, “when you butcher a sheep, they have black lungs, too… Over here at Black Mesa Mine they used to have the pipeline that goes over there to Laughlin. Our good water was just being wasted over there with the slurry.”

Peabody’s Black Mesa Coal Mine in Kayenta, AZ

In Bessie’s warm kitchen, her daughter translates between Diné and English, asking how to resist the extractive industries that poison the water. Bessie responds with sharing how she raised her children on this land and has tried to provide them with love throughout their upbringing. In answering, her daughter describes her own thoughts. She says she doesn’t wish to resist the coal extraction because ultimately it provides jobs for many Native people in the area, supplementing their incomes after it has become nearly impossible to support one’s living on livestock alone.

Describing the levels of these internalized conflicts, she shares she has been diagnosed with lung cancer and believes it’s related to the industrial coal mining. She says her people have never experienced these kinds of diseases and do not have the medicine to address it. She shares the difficulties of receiving healthcare, as the closest place she can receive any kind of treatment is in Flagstaff, over two hours away. The clinics only make same day appointments requiring her to leave her many responsibilities at home, herding the sheep, collecting firewood,water, unattended for the day on top of not having health insurance. In the 1987 interview Roberta shares, “The liver of the earth is coal, the lung is uranium. In this way the Earth has parts of its body. Just like us. We can’t leave; we can’t let them take our bodies… Earthquakes and tornadoes are her breath. She’s breathing heavy, she’s in pain; we need to protect our mother. Fight for her to be free.”
The many levels of division cut through the earth with the barbed wire fencing, cutting through the people of Black Mesa with conflicting positions surrounding the Peabody coal mine, while perpetuating false sense of separation between Diné and Hopi people. The pipelines tearing the coal and the uranium from the earth, are surgically dismembering mother earth from being whole.

The divide and conquer strategy used against the Diné and Hopi people is a common tactic of US imperialism. The US government created racial categories like Latinx/Hispanic in order to divide Native peoples across artificially created, colonial borders.Border walls, like racial categories, are used to separate refugees, migrants and Native peoples from their loved ones, their land and their roots. “We can’t exchange the land. We’d be giving up our ancestors. When a person dies, we shed our tears and bury the body in the land; it’s like leaving our dead, our bodies,” Roberta Blackgoat explains.

Native peoples separated by colonial borders are forced to divide themselves, seeking to be a “good immigrant” for personal security, in exchange for participating in a capitalist system that is created to divide entire native populations through forced displacement, prisons, detention centers, border walls. White supremacy through colonialism and imperialism creates alienation,disconnecting the past from the land, from the land and ancestors,to facilitate capitalist exploitation of natural resources. The only way this kind of death culture can sustain itself is through breaking these sacred connections.

“Part of the problem I have with a lot of immigrants rights narratives is the fact that as a people who are struggling to survive we are coerced into the narrative that we must show loyalty to this country. The result of that is we don’t realize the nature of the system, the colonial and anti-Indigenous aspects of immigration reform, the imperialist policies of this country and of course the socioeconomic factors that brought us here and we hence become the “model immigrants”looking down on anyone who adamantly chooses not to wave an American flag or the ones who for several reasons and choices in life (like me) don’t fit in the narrative of the “good immigrant.”   to be a beggar asking folks within this empire to recognize my humanity without fully holding them accountable for the fact that the reason we are here is because they were there.” Zee

The theft of land, history and freedoms are inextricably connected as U.S. domination, domestically and abroad, can only expand when communities are systemically deprived from their practices of self-reliance. Echoing many of the desires of the Central American Exodus, Roberta Blackgoat extols her desire to be self sufficient. “We want to grow our own (food). We have eyes, ears and hands to support ourselves and grow food… If this happens we have no place; east, west, to make our medicine. This mark place is our altar. We have no complaints; all we need is to protect.” As people of Dinétah fight for their cultural and physical survival, for their lands, for each other, the Central American migrant exodus strives for their own survival as they move north. The extractive destruction facing mother earth drives the refugee exodus as it’s estimated nearly a third of migration related to the exodus is due to disrupted traditional agricultural practices, fueled climate change.4

 When asked about what Bessie’s vision of the future as a Diné person says she sees a dark,unidentifiable future, “with no kinships, no clans and no love.”

iv. “change comes when we face our fears…”

Roberta Blackgoat cutting a wire fence separating the NPL/HPL, 1986.

I love my undocumented community, but I have to say, fear isn’t going to change anything, change comes when we face our fears.” Zee

I get letters all the time. I put them in the fire.. Some people told me I should keep these letters and show them to a lawyer. I think maybe a lawyer would tell me I have to relocate or something.” Roberta Blackgoat

Across the border, Peabody’s Black Mesa Coal Mine is similarly displacing the Dine from their ancestral lands. Peabody is pillaging the natural resources of the Dine people because they are able to earn multi-million dollar profits. Climate change caused by coal mining has a huge impact on indigenous communities surrounding the extraction sites. Peabody is poisoning the Dine aquifers, polluting their clean air and destroying their lands in their efforts to extract one of the direst types of fossil fuels. Burning coal causes massive releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere further fueling global warming. A warming planet means conditions worsen not just for the land and the sheep the Dine rely on, but the people’s physical health. The coal extraction process is detrimental for people living off the land, causing cancer and other illnesses which were previously unknown in the region. Many Dine have been forced to leave because of the contamination to their lands, their sheep herds and their families. 
While it would be a mistake to homogenize the particular struggles and experiences of the Central American exodus and the fight for survival in Black Mesa, U.S. imperialism and domination play a central role in both peoples’ forced migration and fight to remain on their ancestral lands. Zee, an undocumented migrant from Peru, explains how they identify as an indigenous settler.Their family was granted political asylum when they were a child, which has since expired. They identify this way to explain why supporting Black Mesa in the spirit of solidarity and mutual aid is part of his own duty in building Indigenous power on Turtle Island. They extol how DACA immigration policies sever them from their own migrant community, explaining why being Peruvian is no different from being American in the sense they are both identities based in trauma, colonization and borders. They know which clan they come from, who their ancestors are and the internal division they feel being unable to return to those lands, to their people due to the physical border but also the internalized border they feel and experience.
When asked how to resist these forces and to fight colonization Zee shares, “I don’t think it takes a lot of courage, I think it takes a better understanding of who you are, how to take precautions. Somebody in my lineage died so that I could be alive and I don’t want to be a coward now. I don’t know if I will ever be at the level of my ancestors but I have to try, have to fight. We have to be stewards of the land.” In Crimethic’s article, Borders: the global caste system, the author writes,“the border is not just a wall. It’s not just a line on a map. It’s not any particular location. It is a power structure, a system of control. The border is everywhere that people live in fear of deportation, everywhere migrants are being denied the rights accorded citizens, everywhere humans are segregated into included and excluded… there is only one world and the border is tearing it apart.” 5

The border is not just a wall. It’s not just a line on a map. It’s not any particular location. It is a power structure, a system of control. The border is everywhere that people live in fear of deportation, everywhere migrants are being denied the rights accorded citizens, everywhere humans are segregated into included and excluded… there is only one world and the border is tearing it apart.

Borders leave us all a divided people. Divided from ourselves, from the land,from our ancestors, from Spirit. Fighting to be whole in the face these historical atrocities is an everyday practice and struggle of decolonization, facing these fears head on is not only what we were told is the way forward, but is also demonstrated by brave freedom fighters. In a vigil outside of the Eloy Detention Center, one of the deadliest and largest I.C.E. detention centers in U.S., an organizer describes how she re-entered that detention center as a detainee twice, both times seeking to organize her fellow migrant community.She describes that pain and suffering of those people hundreds of yards from us, how close they are to us yet separated by cement,barbed wire and US citizen status on stolen land. Her bravery and the conviction dripping from her words shake and ground the crowd of hundreds of people before her. She does not shy from expressing her fear but instead describes how this drives her forward, how her love for her people drive her forward toward freedom for all of her people.

Part of a mural painted on an abandoned building next to the road near Peabody’s Black Mesa Coal Mine

1Sullivan, Jonathan. “What Would Trump’s Wall Mean for Wildlife?”BBC News, BBC, 1 Sept. 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37200583.

2Laduke, Winona. “1986 Interview with Roberta Blackgoat, A Dine Elder.”Women of Power, no. 4, 1986.

3Begay, Salina. “Statement from Salina Begay.” Narrow Strait Fo Juniper Groves, 8 Dec. 2017, Black Mesa, Independent Dine Nation.

4 Milman,Oliver, et al. “The Unseen Driver behind the Migrant Caravan:Climate Change.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30Oct.2018,www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america?fbclid=IwAR2q3l7Zn0PibxVAnXrAO2nta0RWv5rzvHUQEeXIM6_x6jFveA6ovFPQWp8

5 Collective,CrimethInc. Ex-Workers. “Borders: The Global Caste System.”CrimethInc., 7 Aug. 2018,crimethinc.com/2017/08/07/new-poster-borders-the-global-caste-system.

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