Native Americans resist forced relocation

May 7, 1997

By Cam Walker

The US government has stepped up its 20-year campaign against the Navajo (or Dineh) people. The government has announced a "90-day eviction" process that will forcibly remove the Navajo from their lands.

The Dineh live in a remote area within the boundaries of the Navajo nation known as Big Mountain. The Navajo are the most populous of the Native American peoples and have land delineated as a reserve across the north-eastern end of Arizona and adjacent areas of New Mexico.

At Big Mountain, the Dineh are unfortunate to be living on top of large coal and uranium deposits. Peabody Coal, an English-based consortium which already operates enormous open cut mines to the north of Big Mountain, is set to exploit these further deposits. Removing the Navajo will allow the southward expansion of the open-cuts.

The Navajo have lived in this area for many thousands of years. Big Mountain itself was a refuge during the wars waged on the Navajo by the US cavalry during the second part of last century. Since that time, they have survived through a combination of traditional agriculture (based on small herds of sheep and goats), sale of rugs and other woven materials and waged work.

The area around Big Mountain is a high altitude semi-arid forest. More than 10,000 people once lived here; now fewer than 3000 remain on their ancestral lands.

In 1974, Public Law 93-531, the Relocation Act, was passed. This followed the now well-documented creation of a "range war" between Navajo people and the neighbouring Hopis.

A PR firm created the sense that there was deep-seated conflict between the two groups over grazing and other matters of land management. This created the pretext for government intervention and the Relocation Act, under which the US army forcibly removed people living on "Hopi Partition Lands" (HPL), supposedly to overcome the conflict. The real reason was to depopulate the area around Big Mountain, opening the door for new mines.

Throughout the 1970s, the US government kept the pressure on the Navajo to move, physically kidnapping those who refused to leave, destroying their houses and impounding their livestock.

Many of those who were resettled ended up on what was called the "New Lands", an area south of Sanders, Arizona, which was purchased by the US government in 1980. However, in 1979, these lands had been contaminated by the country's largest ever radioactive spill, the second worst civilian nuclear disaster after Chernobyl.

In January 1982, Leon Berger, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Relocation Commission (the body responsible for undertaking the evictions) resigned, saying, "The forced relocation of over 10,000 Navajo people is a tragedy of genocide and injustice that will be a blot on the conscience of this country for many generations".

In May of that year, Roger Lewis, one of the three federally appointed relocation commissioners, resigned as well, stating, "In relocating these elderly people, we are as bad as the people who ran the concentration camps in World War II".

Since the Relocation Act was passed, the Navajo who stayed on their lands have done so "illegally". It is illegal for Navajo living on the HPL to repair their houses or to gather wood from their traditional lands for heating their homes, and there are regular round-ups of their herds. They have been denied access to basic services (some people need to haul water more than 50 km to their homes).

There is constant harassment — sometimes in the form of mining company thugs, sometimes through government units which move in and destroy people's houses if they are away even for the afternoon. It is not uncommon for people to have their drinking water poisoned.

With the announcement of the 90-day eviction, there is a real risk that the US government will again use the armed forces, as it did in the '70s, to remove people from their homes. Since many of the resisters are elderly and will refuse to leave, there is the probability that people will die.

To protest, write to the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, The White House, Washington, DC, 20500, USA; email:

Also, write letters of support to the Sovereign Dineh Nation, PO Box 30453, Flagstaff, AZ, 86003, USA. If you can send a donation it will be used for things such as food, petrol, court hearings, phone calls and postage costs. Friends of the Earth in Melbourne have background resources; phone (03) 9419 8700 or visit 312 Smith St, Collingwood.

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