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Scrapbook: 100-Mile Horseback Ride to Protect Tribal Homelands

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April 23, 2010

100-Mile Horseback Ride to Protect Tribal Homelands


On April 18, Navajo grassroots leaders from Black Mesa saddled up for a 4-day horseback ride from Piñon, Arizona, to the Navajo Nation capital in Window Rock to protest coal mining on Black Mesa.


The purpose of the ride was to send a message to the Navajo Nation Council that the voice of all tribal members and the future of Black Mesa should be considered in the royalty negotiations now underway with Peabody Coal.


Community members worked with the Black Mesa Water Coalition, To' Nizhoni Ani (Navajo for "Beautiful Water Speaks"), and Dine Care to organize the 100-mile ride and deliver the message to save Black Mesa.


"The horse riding tradition is a time-honored way to advocate among the Navajo," says Sierra Club Community Partnerships organizer Andy Bessler, who helped with logistics for the ride. "Tribal leaders respect it as a traditional way to carry a message from home to the tribal council."


At the end of the ride, nearly 100 tribal activists and supporters marched on the tribal headquarters to call for an end to Peabody coal mining on Black Mesa.


"Peabody is feeling the heat," says Bessler. "Their new mining permits were denied by the Department of the Interior and the EPA at the same time as the Navajo Nation is holding off on approving Peabody's contract renewals to mine coal on Black Mesa beyond 2010."


Many Navajo and Hopi residents are concerned over the lack of community input into the coal royalty negotiations between the Navajo Nation and Peabody. Black Mesa residents have hosted a series of meetings over the last month to discuss the health of Black Mesa, culminating in the horseback ride.


"If the leaders who are negotiating on behalf of our water and homelands cannot come to our communities to explain to us what they are deciding, then we will come to them," says Marshall Johnson of To' Nizhoni Ani, who helped organize the ride.


Bessler, who has been working for several years to bring about a just transition from fossil fuel extraction to a clean energy economy coal on Navajo and Hopi lands, delivered hay for the horses and food for the riders, and helped hoist a tent that served as a base camp outside tribal headquarters.


"I brought my 6-year-old son, Noah, who helped set up the tent and then got to ride for a spell with Marshall Johnson," he says. "It made his day! Then after a successful march and rally in front of the Navajo Nation Council chambers everyone feasted and celebrated a great action."


In 1993 the Navajo Nation initiated a lawsuit against the federal government seeking $600 million in damages from decades of below-market royalty payments. In April 2009, following years of appeals and conflicting decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Navajos.


"For 14 years, the official position of the Navajo Nation was that it deserved at least a 20.5 percent royalty rate," To' Nizhoni Ani activist Nicole Horseherder told the Navajo-Hopi Observer. "Now, Navajo Nation leaders are trying to ram through another 10-year agreement with Peabody at the 12.5 percent rates. If the Navajo Nation is really concerned about economic prosperity, why are they negotiating at rock-bottom rates?"


Above, Navajo activist and Black Mesa Water Coalition Co-Director Wahleah Johns talks to members of the Navajo Nation Council outside their chambers. Below, young ralliers make their feelings known outside tribal headquarters. Their t-shirts (translated to English) read, "Protect Our Mother Black Mesa."


Learn more about Black MesaJust Transition, the Sierra Club's work with tribal partners, and moving America beyond coal.

Photos by Nikke Alex, Billy Parish, and Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, except photo of Noah Bessler and Marshall Johnson by Andy Bessler.


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