Dark Days on Black Mesa

The Hopi want one of the largest coal mines in North America to stop using their groundwater. If springs and wells continue to dry up, they say, their ancient culture may disappear, too.

First of Two Parts

Eighty-two-year-old Valjean Joshvema leans forward in his chair and sings a Hopi prophecy that has come to pass.

The ageless Hopi lyrics foretell of an era when the Hopi will wander the high desert mesas they and their ancestors have occupied for 12 millenniums. According to the prophecy, the Hopi are searching for the sacred substance that has sustained their lives, their culture, their religion.

"The song refers to animals. That is us," says Joshvema, whose home is located in the 950-year-old village of Old Oraibi on the Hopi reservation, which lies 100 miles northeast of Flagstaff. "They will drink all the water and will look around for water with a dipper, and it's not there."

The song Joshvema learned during his childhood warns the Hopi never to misuse water. The wages of such sin are ruination of North America's oldest society--a society which subsists in an environment that gets less than 12 inches of rainfall a year.

"The prophecies are supposed to teach us not to do these things, but we are not listening," says Joshvema.

Joshvema is a member of Wuwtsim, one of several Hopi religious orders. He says the religious society that once tightly bound the Hopi is rapidly fading. Joshvema has been many things: a U.S. marine, heavy machinery operator, farmer, rancher, spiritual adviser.

But like many others in the 10,000-member tribe, Joshvema is convinced that the Hopi are on a path that could wreck their homeland.

Thirty-one years ago, the Hopi Tribal Council struck an agreement to sell groundwater to Peabody Western Coal Company. That water is mixed with coal strip-mined by Peabody from nearby Hopi and Navajo lands to make a slurry. The mixture is then injected into America's only coal-slurry pipeline, which leads to a massive electricity plant at Laughlin, Nevada, where the coal is burned to produce power for Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Although the tribe has received more than $100 million in coal royalties from Peabody in the past decade, many Hopi now contend that Peabody's groundwater pumping is drying up springs and washes--destroying the tribe's link to its past and its hope for the future.

"The song ends," Joshvema says, "with, 'No one will help us.'"
Fortunately, the final verse of the prophecy may not yet have been written.
A new generation of Hopi leaders is emerging. These leaders have been trained in American universities, the armed forces and in federal courtrooms, but they also revere traditional Hopi teachings. They are fighting to protect Hopi water.

In the course of their work, they have discovered that their Hopi predecessors are not solely to blame for unfavorable terms of the tribe's 1966 lease with Peabody.

The Hopi have learned they were deceived by their lawyer whom they trusted, and whom many loved. The late Salt Lake City attorney, John Boyden, negotiated a mining and groundwater agreement on behalf of the Hopi with Peabody. For his work, the Hopi paid him more than $1 million.

But Boyden, records now reveal, was literally double-dealing. The costs of his deception are only now becoming clear.

The agreement Boyden forged with Peabody is threatening to rip the heart out of what's left of traditional Hopi culture. If the groundwater dries up, Joshvema and other Hopi would have to abandon their homeland.

"That would be the ultimate disaster," Joshvema says.

It's fitting that Black Mesa is so named, considering the coal found there.
The formation towers 8,000 feet above sea level at its northern boundary near the Navajo town of Kayenta. The 3,300-square-mile plateau gradually slopes southwestward to an altitude of 2,000 feet, where it splits into fingerlike promontories. It is on these narrower mesas that the Hopi and their ancestors have survived for more than 12,000 years.

Black Mesa is bordered on the northwest by a vast outcropping of Navajo sandstone. The sandstone plunges beneath the 1,500-foot-high face of Black Mesa--only to reappear in scattered locations 50 or more miles to the southwest, near the Hopi villages.

The sandstone beneath Black Mesa contains huge quantities of water, as much as 300 million acre-feet. But only a fraction of this amount can be withdrawn by wells or will ever flow naturally through springs and washes.

The Hopi first settled near springs and washes fed by the Navajo sandstone and other, shallower aquifers. Their society developed an intimate relationship with water and its sources--rain, snow, springs and washes.

Until recently, the Navajo sandstone and other aquifers beneath Black Mesa were in equilibrium: The discharges into springs and washes were equal to the amount of water being recharged into the aquifers from precipitation.

The Hopi culture thrived with the natural ebb and flow of the water below.
Black Mesa itself has long been an important area to both the Hopi and Navajo. It contains numerous sacred shrines and burial grounds--many of which have been destroyed by Peabody's mining operations, according to a 1996 ruling by a Department of the Interior administrative law judge.

In the early 1960s, Peabody signed leases with the Hopi and Navajo tribes that allowed the company to prospect and mine coal on more than 100 square miles of Black Mesa.

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