Big Mountain Corn Planting

viewLouise left a message on my answering machine. "The corn is coming up." She said "It looks really good." Not many words, but I noticed a hopeful note of optimism in her voice. It was an important message to me, small as things go in this world, but significant due to where it was coming from.

Louise Benally is a life long resistor to the forced relocation of her people from their ancestral homelands in Northeastern Arizona. A mother, activist, teacher, sun dancer, and proud voice of the traditional, indigenous, people of the Sovereign Dineh Nation, her ancestors have lived in the Black Mesa/Big Mountain area of the Navajo Reservation for uncounted generations. They have been planting corn in these parts for as long as anyone can remember.

But it’s getting harder and harder every year to stay on the land. The story is long and complicated (check the web sites at the end of this story for details) but right now it boils down to this; Louise and her family are trespassing in the eyes of the federal government on the very land she was born to and raised on. The Dineh are being told to move from a small section of land in the middle of the reservation because the worlds’ largest coal strip mine needs to expand.

You might imagine it’s hard to stand in resistance to the will of multi-national corporations seeking billions in profits, backed by the US government. But it is harder for most of us to imagine what it would feel like to face the end of your culture and way of life as well. To watch the plants, animals, water and land itself disappear as the traditional Dineh dwindle in numbers has taken a toll on Louise and many others like her. It has gotten to the point where the simple act of planting corn has become a major act of resistance against great odds.

The corn Louise was speaking of when she left her message was some Black Aztec flour corn I had planted with the help of my good friend Catherine Lambie in early June near her hogan (the traditional eight sided dwelling of the Dineh). We made the trip to plant corn-which was grown by my brother, Bear- with the blessings and support of extended family and friends. We have all been part of a loose network of people making trips to Big Mountain since 1991 to offer support and assistance. We have made many trips to the area in all seasons for many reasons, but this time we wanted to plant some food in hopes of harvesting it when we return in the fall for the annual Thanksgiving Food and Supply Run.

We arrived at Anna Mae Camp in the lingering heat of an early June evening. Anna Mae Camp is located on part of the Benally family’s’ homestead. It is situated in the high desert, surrounded by rising mountains and colored sandstone among the sage, pinion, juniper and chaparral. The camp has a history of gatherings and organizing events during the thirty plus years of resistance. It was also home to the sacred Sundance ceremony for the past ten years.

In August of 2001 agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Hopi Tribal Police bulldozed the sacred Tree of Life and the circular cedar arbor of the Sundance. Louise’s son, Eric was arrested for taking pictures of the desecration. The BIA and Hopi Tribe say this was done to prevent illegal gatherings, it is being investigated as a crime of religious intolerance. Can you imagine bulldozing an active church or synagogue anywhere in this country without a major uprising? Last week a fence was erected around the area by armed Hopi Rangers in an attempt to prevent access to the site.

gardenThe lingering reverberations from that traumatic event combine with the lack of rain and oppressive heat to lend an aura of harshness to this already difficult situation. The coal mine has been taking one billion gallons of water a year out of the aquifer beneath this land. Wells and springs have been slowly drying up and the BIA has been capping other working wells in an effort to force people to move. There has been almost no rain for a year and the hot westerly wind is blowing constantly, taking the precious little topsoil with it. People in this area had been getting water from the well at the Rocky Ridge School, hauling it as far as ten miles but the flow has been shut off due to "vandalism". It’s hard enough to get by when you have to travel 20 miles over rough desert sand roads in an old vehicle to haul water for a household. Nearly impossible if you are trying to grow food or raise livestock. Now people are traveling to the coal mine for water, over a fifty-mile trip for some.

Louise wasn’t home when we arrived at the hogan, but her two youngest children; Waleesa and George kept us company. They are bright, intense kids who love to joke and laugh. Grade school kids who live in a gap between two cultures. The traditional land based one their mother is fighting so hard to hang on to and the encroaching contemporary one that wants them to move.

When Louise arrives from Flagstaff we have a happy reunion. It’s good to see her and catch up on the news of the area, even if a lot of it is disappointing. We make plans to visit the home of recently deceased elder, Roberta Blackgoat. Her son, Danny may be staying there taking care of the buildings and animals. Roberta was one of the pillars of resistance, refusing to move despite many threats and attempted bribes. She traveled the world, telling the stories of the Big Mountain struggle and opening people’s eyes to the beauty of this area through her incredible weavings. Her rugs and blankets are prized around the globe. Well into her eighties she kept a flock of sheep, continued weaving and being a passionate spokesperson for the rights of native people everywhere. We will head out in the morning.

mark1It’s a long, dusty, hot trip across the high desert to get to the Blackgoat compound. We bounce through washes and canyons that seem better suited to horseback than Forerunner. The sky is massive and brilliant blue, the sun steady and bright, the land full of color, and the wind constant. It takes over an hour to get there and when we arrive the place seems deserted. Roberta lived in a neat, clean stone house. The home and surrounding area are rather barren but well kept. A few small juniper trees sway in the ever-resent wind, dark green branches against the subtle desert orange, yellow and red. A sign still hangs along side the front door, big, black letters on a white piece of plywood, it reads "IF YOU WANT ME TO MOVE, SUE THE CREATOR".

It is somewhat comforting to know she stayed strong to the very end. It is sad to see her place looking so empty. No people, no animals, no wool, no weaving, just an empty house, empty corrals and the howl of the wind pushing sand through all the cracks. When people like Roberta leave this earth some of the indigenous ways go with them. No one knows the things and life she knew. Each of these elders has a special story, one their own children can’t even tell. I feel I’m standing in a time flux, wondering if anyone can ever live here again. We didn’t stay long, but the visit stayed with me for the rest of the day.

kidsThe next morning Louise had to go to work and tie up some loose ends before leaving on a trip to Oregon. She and her companion, Ethan were planning to leave the next day. They would also be taking the kids to see their father. While she was gone Catherine and I did some hiking and corn field exploring with Waleesa and George. They fully understand the circumstance they live in. Their grasp of politics and the oppression they live with is at a high level. I think of how comfortable my family has always been in comparison to the uncertainty and difficulty these young people live with and I’m amazed at how well they handle it all, even thrive.

Louise had suggested we plant in one of the old corn fields about a mile down the Dinnebito wash from her house. These fields have been planted many times, then left to rest for awhile. The sandy soil makes it easy for the corn roots to travel deep underground, where water from springs and early summer rains would be stored. This method of dry farming has been practiced out here for a long time. Now with the water being sucked out of the ground for the mine and very little falling from the sky, many fields in the area are turning to brittle orange dust. So it is with the three fields we visit. Fences broken down, ground hard and dry with lots of large tumbleweeds and other dried up desert plants covering the surface.

We decide to plant in a small garden area close to the hogan. It will mean hauling water to keep the corn alive. Fortunately Louise has a sister who teaches and lives at the Rocky Ridge School. Her little house on the school grounds has running water and a hose we can fill containers with. It’s about eight miles south on the main dirt road, an easy trip compared to most of the travel on this part of the reservation. We load the back of Catherine’s Forerunner with about 100 gallons worth of empty water containers and make the trip as the sun begins its final decent.

By the time we return Louise, Ethan and the kids are loaded up and ready to go. Hugs and farewells are followed by tail lights through the dust as darkness takes the camp. Catherine and I are left with the chickens, rooster and dogs. After a simple a meal we are ready to rest. The night is so black the milky way drifts overhead like a white cloud. The sky seems to bleed bright light through large, precise holes. The wind finally dies down to a soft, gentle breeze. I watch the stars move across the sky until sleep takes hold.

The rooster starts crowing after what seems like a few minutes of dreaming. He is a very early morning bird. I look to the east and there is only the faintest hint of light behind the distant hills. I know we have to get started early and work long if we are going to finish this project in the two days we have, but I lay on the ground and wait for the red streaks of dawn to appear before leaving the sleeping bag.

Catherine gets up and starts water boiling on the out door stove for tea. The young chicks are scratching, the rooster continues crowing and the wind begins its song as the sun starts to peek over the hills. We tune the Forerunner radio to the local Hopi Community Radio station, KHYI and catch some early morning prayer songs.

The station will be a great companion for the next couple days as we inhabit Anna Mae Camp. Locally owned, programmed and staffed, KHYI broadcasts from a trailer outside of Keams Canyon. With a repeater tower on top of one of the mesas the signal reaches all over this part of Indian Country. They feed us a great diversity of native music-both traditional and contemporary, stories, information and news from a native perspective and plenty of rock and roll. A lot of time is given to youth programming and the kids do a great job on the air. Songs from many nations and languages can be heard at any time of the day.

There is a strange relationship between the Hopi and Dineh/Navajo people. As individuals, especially among traditional people of both tribes, there is mutual respect, understanding and solidarity as indigenous neighbors. I have met many several Hopi here at Anna Mae Camp, including respected elder Thomas Banyaca. They speak of cooperation and a need to stand together against the forces that created the supposed land dispute between the two nations. Many friendships and marriages cross tribal lines. I have seen and heard Hopi people speak out against the forced relocation of Dineh who live on redivided land that now supposedly belongs to the Hopi Tribe. Many were appalled at the destruction of the Sundance grounds.

Yet the Hopi tribal government, backed by the BIA is openly hostile to the Dineh, especially those who have not signed the "accommodation agreement", which gives them permission to remain on the land in exchange for a number of concessions that make it difficult to stay. They are confiscating live stock, threatening elders and spying on residents in the area. You can see the Hopi Rangers cruise the dirt roads in unmarked pick up trucks with antennae sticking out, wearing dark blue ball caps and sunglasses. They are always heavily armed, supported with weapons and other gear from the BIA.

Hopi Radio doesn’t receive or want any support from the tribe. In this way they remain independent. Navajo, Hopi and many other tribes are represented in the music and stories we hear on the radio over the next couple days. I was really touched by the vice-chairman of the Hopi tribe telling the story of the traditional way to care for a newborn baby. With great detail and tenderness he explained the roll of extended family, the reasons for keeping the child indoors for the first month and how to mark the child and the walls of the room they are in with special corn pollen paint. It was hard to believe he could be part of the same political body that is making life so hard for the children who live next to this corn patch.

This will be a small corn field. A dilapidated fence of juniper posts and torn up chicken wire, topped with rusty barbed wire make a 100 foot wide circle around a bunch of dried weeds on parched, cracked soil. The wind begins to pick up as we search the grounds for fencing material to keep the hungry critters out. It continues to blow with increasing strength and warmth as we remove the barbed wire, drive in a dozen steel posts and stretch a new fence. Hopi radio gives us Keith Secola and His Wild Band of Indians singing about his Indian Car as we repair the gate and start pulling weeds.

When the ground is cleared of weeds we double dig four large beds in the sandy soil and work in a few loads of sheep manure from a near by abandon pen. Then 120 individual holes are dug about six inches across and 10 inches deep into the beds and filled with a mixture of soil and manure. The holes are soaked in water and by the time the sun is ready to hide behind the hills in the west we are ready for planting. It was a long, hot day, but the area has been transformed and is ready to receive the seeds. We decide to make another water run before turning in for the night. With another truck full we will be able to wet the seeds as we plant in the morning and leave some water for Louise when she returns.

We start at first light with a cup of tea and the Sunday morning Indigenous Hour on Hopi Radio. Johnny Bob is a great local programmer, who again plays a wide variety of native songs that enhance the beauty of this planting morning. Each prepared hole receives about 10 kernels of sprouted Black Aztec corn and a little song or blessing as they go into the ground. They are buried in the earth, watered, covered with a mulch of old alfalfa hay and watered again. I feel how the sun and wind have dried me out in just a few days and wonder how a seed that can’t move to moister could survive in this environment.

Then I realize just like the people who call this place home, the growth of these seeds depends on the roots. If the roots are firmly established the plant can hold on and even flourish. The root will find the water and nourishment the plant needs. Like the people, the plants have an even harder life due to the coal mine and the interference of a material driven culture. The seeds and the people are fighting against overwhelming odds just to survive, yet both can bring great gifts if they are allowed to grow. The meals made with corn grown like this will feed the whole being and a people fed in this way can teach the world about a life in balance. The people have the roots, but the land and water they need are being taken from them.

I want to live in a world with real corn, not a Monsanto genetically modified organism or terminator gene, hy-bred super plant. I would rather go to a Sundance than the grand opening of another Wal-Mart. Given the right circumstance and care, this corn can fulfill its mission even in the toughest of times, so can these people. They need the land as we all do. This is a critical time, the actions taken by the US Government, the BIA and the Hopi tribe have been increasingly hostile and aggressive. If we want to continue to plant on this earth now is the time to take a stand. Consider the following open letter from Huck Greyeyes a respected elder and healer from the Black Mesa area.

We wish to submit this open letter to the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and
the US government to demand corporate accountability in light of the
Bush administration’s decision last week to relax air-quality rules
governing older coal-fired power plants, the Enron scandal in Black Mesa
and the current drought disaster.

Can’t you see we are suffering from the effects of corporate greed in
collusion with the US and tribal governments? "Grandfathered" coal-fired
power plants in our region constitute the largest source of greenhouse
gases in North America. Fossil fuel emissions impact global climate

We are directly affected because our ancestral homeland contains major
deposits of coal which are being extracted by Peabody Coal Company owned
by Lehman Brothers. The coal from Peabody’s Black Mesa mine is
transported to the Mojave Power plant through a slurry pipeline owned by
Enron Corporation that pumps 3.3 million gallons of pristine water from
our sole source aquifer each day. Stop the corporate waste! In a region
where water is extremely scare, our only source of drinking water is
being depleted and contaminated to transport coal without any permit
from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And all this is
happening during a drought emergency.

We pray you will act now to fulfill your trust responsibility to us and
demand corporate accountability by Peabody, Enron and Lehman Brothers
who are operating in collusion with the US government. We pray you will
stop looking at the $45 million in revenue you receive each year from
them, long enough to see that water is more precious than gold and not a
drop should be wasted.

Our distinct identity as a people is crucially linked to the lands we
have occupied since time immemorial. Displacement from our territories
means death and the destruction of our identity, culture and way of
life. Without water we cannot survive.

We believe our human rights should not be denied and should take
precedence over national sovereignty-whether it be the sovereignty of
independent nations or the dependent sovereign status accorded to tribal

Catherine and I pulled out of Anna Mae Camp late on that Sunday morning. Tired and a little frayed by the circumstances, yet energized by the possibility of new life in the garden. Leaving a stumpy scarecrow to stand guard over the sprouting corn, we run the risk of complete failure, the odds are certainly against those plants surviving. But I’ve been thinking about that corn and that place every day since and I’m glad we did it. I’m happy to hear Louise on my answering machine. I’m looking forward to the harvest.

Who will you stand with? Where will you plant? Please visit for information on the situation at Big Mountain/Black Mesa.