Opinion: Tribal sovereignty ignored when it becomes unprofitable

This 1972 photo shows a Navajo worker at a Peabody Coal mine in Arizona. Photo from National Archives and Records Administration

Writer accuses the federal government of supporting tribal sovereignty only when politically convenient:
On December 20, President Obama signed the Defense Authorization Act, which contained a provision giving 2,400 acres of Apache ancestral land in Arizona to the multinational mining company Rio Tinto, which would construct a copper mine in the area. The provision was attached to the bill through the efforts of Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who argue that the mine will create 3,700 jobs. Rio Tinto is set to take control of the area in December 2015, one year after the bill was signed.

The disappointing decisions of the federal government in the face of lucrative energy prospects are nothing new for Native Americans. In October, Navajo residents of Black Mesa, Arizona were shocked to see federal SWAT teams, wearing military-style uniforms and holding assault rifles, detaining elderly Navajo sheep ranchers. Apparently, the offense was that the ranchers owned too many sheep.

This dispute dates back to the 1974 Navajo and Hopi Settlement Act, which gave the Hopi Tribe exclusive control of over one million acres of formerly shared territory. The plan relocated over 14,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi. The act, while publicized as the resolution of an ongoing dispute between the two tribes, was actually the result of efforts to gain control of the area’s vast mineral reserves. The discovery of coal in the area years before had created political division, exacerbated by the influx of corporate interests in backing the tribal governments.

The relocation allowed for the creation of two massive coal strip mines: the 103 square-mile Black Mesa mine, which shut down in 2005, and the Kayenta mine, which continues to produce nearly eight million tons of coal annually. Both are owned by the Peabody Western Coal Company, a subsidiary of the world’s largest private coal company, Peabody Energy. After many Navajo resisted the forced relocation, the government began a livestock reduction program that limited the number of sheep a rancher could own to 28, a number lower than what is necessary to support a family, according to Navajo ranchers displaced by the policy. To many residents, the current intimidation by federal SWAT teams is eerily similar to government actions in the ‘70s, which displaced Navajo ranchers and paved the way for mining to begin in Black Mesa.

Get the Story:
Mitchell Johnson: Circumventing Native American Sovereignty (Brown Political Review 1/17)

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