Wisdom of the Ancestors

A Hopi leader fought a lonely battle to stop a mining company from stealing water that helped build Phoenix. He succeeded. Finally

I first met former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva in December 1992, when my then-wife and I were publishing a weekly newspaper in Flagstaff.

Masayesva called one afternoon and said he wanted to tell me a story of great importance to his tribe. A few days later, we met at a restaurant in old downtown Flagstaff.

Over the next few hours, Masayesva spun an amazing tale of the Hopis' battle with the world's largest coal mining company over the tribe's most important natural resource: water.

It's tempting to dismiss tales of corporate rape in Indian country as another sappy song pandering to our guilt over America's treatment of the Indian nations that once occupied this land. But Masayesva never played that card.

Instead, he dispassionately laid out the facts of his case while making it clear he was committed to protecting the oldest continuous culture in North America. Hopi fortunes have ebbed and flowed on the arid mesas northeast of Flagstaff for thousands of years.

The Hopi society, Masayesva said, is based on its intimate relationship with water. The tribe's songs, dances, art, secret ceremonies, language, economy and religion all revolve around water.

But in modern times, Masayesva explained at the restaurant, water on Hopi land was seriously threatened. And if the water that for ages has flowed from washes, springs and seeps (which nurtures corn, beans, squash and souls) disappears, so, too, would the Hopi.

It was that simple to him.

You may be thinking this is an old story, but it is far from it. It is an ongoing tale that affects Arizona and Phoenix, and there are striking new developments. But first a little history on the Hopi vs. Peabody Coal Company (now Peabody Energy):

The threat to Hopi water began when Peabody obtained leases to mine coal on Hopi and Navajo land in the 1960s, Masayesva said. There were 100 square miles of low-sulfur coal reserves on the reservations, perfect for fueling power plants needed to feed the growth frenzy and economic bonanza sweeping the Southwest.

Coal from Peabody's Black Mesa Mine was sold to the Mohave Generating Station operated by Southern California Edison near what was then the remote outpost of Laughlin, Nevada. Rather than trucking or shipping the coal by rail, Peabody decided to build the world's longest water-slurry pipeline to move five million tons a year of pulverized coal 273 miles from the Black Mesa Mine to the 1,580-megawatt power plant.

Peabody began pumping 4,000 acre-feet [an acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons] of pristine drinking water a year from beneath Black Mesa. The water was mixed with the crushed coal and injected into the slurry pipeline. The water taken from beneath Hopi land was initially sold to Peabody for the astonishingly low price of $1.67 per acre-foot.

Peabody essentially stole the Hopis' water. And the company did so with the approval of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. This theft of the tribe's water, Masayesva said, was just the beginning of a massive rip-off of the Hopis' natural resources.

The heist went unnoticed by the outside world. In fact, the coal and water spirited off the Hopi reservation over the next 40 years helped fuel the spectacular economic growth of Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The wealth and riches of the cities came at a huge cost to the Hopi. Within two decades, Masayesva said, Hopi farmers and spiritual leaders noticed a precipitous decline in the amount of water flowing from Hopi springs, washes and seeps. Peabody denied that its groundwater pumping had any effect on the surface flow, claiming that it was taking water from the deep Navajo Aquifer that was not connected to the surface.

But Masayesva told me that he and other Hopi leaders were convinced there was a connection between groundwater pumping and reduced surface flows. Masayesva said the risk to Hopi culture was too great to ignore.

"I really want us to go back to honor, respect and trust [in] the ancient wisdom, go back to our relationship with water," Masayesva said. "Water is sacred."

Our dinner concluded and we went our separate ways. Masayesva's term as Hopi tribal chairman ended in 1994, but he continued his lonely fight to force Peabody to stop mining groundwater.

In early 1997, Masayesva called me again with startling information that had been recently discovered by a law professor researching the history of the Peabody coal mining operations on Hopi land. By this time I was working at New Times.

Professor Charles Wilkinson of the University of Colorado had discovered documents that revealed the Hopi were betrayed by the tribe's most trusted attorney who had negotiated the original Peabody coal and water contracts on the tribe's behalf.

"[John] Boyden violated his high duty to the Hopi by working concurrently for Peabody Coal during the decisive years of the mid-1960s," Wilkinson wrote in a lengthy paper published in the Brigham Young University Law Review in 1996.

Boyden was double-dealing. He was working for Peabody at the same time he was representing the Hopi in negotiations to sell coal and water to Peabody. The deal Boyden struck enriched Peabody while forcing the Hopi to be dependent on paltry coal royalties.

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