Sheep Impounded and Diné Sheepherder Arrested in Escalation of Conflict on Disputed Navajo-Hopi Land

By DAVID CORREIA

The 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act forced a division of nearly two million acres of land between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. At the time, Senator Daniel Inouye, who was the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, called the Act a “measure to settle a century-old land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi Tribes in Northwest Arizona.”

Hopi Rangers are impounding sheep from Dine families throughout the disputed Big Mountain region. Map Source: Paula Giese
Hopi Rangers are impounding sheep from Dine families throughout the disputed Big Mountain region. Map Source: Paula Giese

Critics, however, including the 14,000 Diné people who were forced from ancestral homeland, understand the Hopi Land Dispute, as it is often called, in different terms: a way for energy companies to gain access to the substantial mineral resources in the area, particularly around Big Mountain and Black Mesa. The U.S. government, however, continues to enforce an Act that Cultural Survival, a group that advocates for indigenous people, calls “a diversion created by business interests in order to gain access to the land and its energy sources.”

For a comprehensive analysis of the Hopi Land Dispute, see Diné scholar and activist John Redhouse’s “Geopolitics of the Navajo-Hopi ‘Land Dispute.'” Redhouse notes that “After the Navajo Hopi Land Settlement Act, Harrison Loesch, former assistant Interior Secretary and then minority counsel for the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, accepted an offer to become Vice President of Governmental Relations with Peabody Coal Company. Later in an Associated Press news story, a spokesman for Peabody Coal would neither confirm nor deny ‘that Peabody had lobbied for the partition or that the company has plans to develop Big Mountain.'”

Since the 1960s Peabody has strip mined Big Mountain for coal. When Big Mountain Diné charged Peabody and the United States with human rights violations in the early 1980s, the U.S. responded with another round of forced relocations of Diné people on Big Mountain.   

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission released a 2012 report, in which it called the Hopi Land Dispute “a source of profound dislocation, alienation, and trauma for Dine citizens who have been forced to relocate from their homeland.”

Observers watch as Hopi Rangers impound Diné Sheep. Photo courtesy of Black Mesa Indigenous Support
Observers watch as Hopi Rangers impound Diné Sheep. Photo courtesy of Black Mesa Indigenous Support

Despite the efforts of energy companies to force these expulsions, many refuse to relocate and continue to use traditional homelands. On Tuesday of this week, the Black Mesa Indigenous Support (BMIS), a non-Native, volunteer network of activists who actively support “Dineh resistance to cultural genocide, forced relocation, and large-scale coal mining,” put out an emergency call for aid, including human rights observers, on Black Mesa. On Tuesday Hopi Rangers (U.S. federal government) impounded the sheep of two Diné sheepherders, Shirley Tohannie and elder Caroline Tohannie. The 65 sheep impounded, which amounts to their entire herd, will go to auction unless the family pays nearly $1000 for their return. In addition, they are now banned from their family’s traditional rangeland.

In addition to the impoundment, Jerry Babbit Lane, a neighbor of the Tohannie’s, was arrested by Hopi rangers and charged with disorderly conduct when he tried to check on the welfare of his neighbors. According to Shirley Tohannie, Rangers plan to begin a wave of impoundments across the Hopi Land Dispute. Observers reported that, indeed, Hopi Rangers impounded the entire herd of another Diné family on Big Mountain. If this marks the beginning of a general impoundment, the result could be catastrophic for Diné families who depend on livestock for their livelihood.

On Thursday, Black Mesa Indigenous Support, which is asking for donations to help pay impoundment fees for Diné shepherders, released the following message:

Residents are requesting human rights observers and sheepherders during this time of escalated harassment.  If you or anyone you know can come be a human rights observer to support the Dineh resistance on Black Mesa, now is the time. Doing human rights observation work can help stop or slow down the impoundment process. Families who will be potentially impacted by impoundments are requesting solidarity. Email blackmesais@gmail.com if you can come out.

“Call the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Hopi Rangers, and the Department of Interior. Ask they stop impounding sheep on the HPL. This is current day colonialism, our food sovereignty is being attacked. Call the BIA superintendent Wendel Honanie (at 928-738-2228), the Hopi Rangers Clayton Honyumptewa at (928-734-3601), and the Department of Interior at  (202 208-3100) and ask that they stop the unjust impoundments.”–Louise Benally

Although these orders are coming from current Hopi policy, ultimately the relocation laws and livestock impoundments result from the federal government and Peabody Energy’s divide and conquer strategy used to open up the land for massive coal mining. “In the 1970s, Hopi elders encouraged the Diné elders to remain on their homelands, saying if they did relocate, the coal mine would expand. The Hopi elders said it wasn’t them who wanted the land.”–NaBahii Keediniihii

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