Republican U.S. Senator John McCain did not exactly receive a warm welcome when he visited the Navajo Nation this weekend to commemorate the Navajo Code Talkers. Throughout the day, he was confronted by activists chanting: “Water is life!” in the Navajo language and waving banners painted with messages stating: “McCain = Indian Killer” and “McCain’s not welcome here.”
Though McCain’s visit to the capital city of Window Rock ostensibly had nothing to do with environmental politics, he was met repeatedly by young activists concerned about their future supply of water and other hot topics like copper mining in Oak Flat.
According to Deidra Peaches, a Navajo woman who filmed some of the more tense interactions, “The activists were from all over [the West] and came to show inter-tribal solidarity.” And though they didn’t necessarily interrupt any of the senator's plans, she says, “McCain and his entourage were definitely thrown off.”
"The primary reason why there was such a strong resistance to McCain's presence was because of the issues we’re facing around water rights," explains Kim Smith, one of the protesters. "As young people, we're realizing that if we do not stand up for our water, we will be left with none."
Many of the activists brought up the recent Animas River spill, which unleashed 3 million gallons of sludge and caused a water ban in downstream areas of the Navajo Nation, while others were concerned with McCain’s recent comment that he was interested in renewing discussions about the controversial Navajo and Hopi Water Rights Settlement. (The Water Rights Settlement was part of legislation introduced in 2012 by McCain and former Senator Jon Kyl that would have required the Navajo and Hopi tribes to waive their water rights to the Navajo aquifer for “time immemorial” in exchange for infrastructure that would pipe clean water into three remote areas of the reservation. Many in the Navajo and Hopi communities disapproved of the proposal.)
The Code Talkers celebration began early Friday morning, and so too did the protests.
After a parade and gathering of tribal and state government officials (Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was there, too), high school senior Adriano Tsinigine noticed that people were swarming around various politicians trying to shake their hands and get photographs, and he saw an opportunity to make a statement about copper mining at Oak Flat.
He tells New Times that he pushed his way to the front of the group surrounding McCain, and posed for a grip-and-grin photo.
“I pulled out my [Protect] Oak Flat card,” he says. When McCain noticed it, “He took it, looked at it, and threw it back at me.”
(McCain, a vocal supporter of mining in the area, pushed through the land-exchange deal that gave international mining company Rio Tinto the ability to mine copper under Oak Flat, which native groups say is a sacred Apache site.)
“When Mr. John McCain looked at me, his eyes got big,” Tsinigine says. “You can’t really tell in the video, but when he looked at me, he had that look in his eyes, that look like 'Get out of here; get away from me.’”
Though Tsinigine just “chuckled and left,” he says he's still furious about McCain’s response.
“How disrespectful to me and to the Apache people,” he says. “I fully respect McCain as a veteran . . . and as a POW and for sacrificing [what could have been] his life, but I do not respect him as a U.S. senator. As an elected official, he should listen to all of the voices of people, [even] the people who are protesting against him.”
After the run-in with Tsinigine, McCain and his convoy headed to the Window Rock Museum, where he was scheduled to meet with local government representatives. A group of more than a dozen young protesters were waiting to greet him, yelling “Water is life!” as he made his way into the building.
"The museum was chaotic for him,” Peaches says.
The activists staged a sit-in by linking arms and sitting in a circle while continuing to chant in the Navajo language. They stood up only after realizing that McCain had exited through the back door and was getting into an SUV out front. They ran toward the front entrance, but the doors had been blocked by state and local law enforcement.
They stood banging on the door until finally someone let them out, at which point they ran after the convoy as it was pulling away. The cars were headed toward the nearby airport, and several activists followed — some on foot, others in cars and trucks.
Highway patrol cars also followed. According to witnesses, the patrol cars drove erratically and dangerously as they attempted to block the path of protesters. The blockade was successful, and activists were prevented from entering the airport road. So, they got out of their vehicles and resumed protesting — most traffic was blocked, too, and a number of people in vehicles honked in support.
"We will rise up as the new leaders of our Nations in solidarity with our indigenous brothers and sisters, and we start by saying NO MORE ALLOWING state or federal politicians and the corporations they represent entrance into our homelands," the protesters said in a statement released later that day.
Osh Johnson, who stood with her 10-year-old daughter across the street to watch and show solidarity, says the officers were rude and “trying to agitate everyone.” She assumes they were hoping things would get out of hand so that they could make arrests.
"It’s like they wanted things to escalate,” she says.
One of the officers crossed the street and started yelling at her and the handful of other observers, and according to multiple witnesses, he directed a lot of his yelling at her daughter.
"'Get off the highway!' he yelled right at my daughter’s face. I intervened and said he didn’t need to yell at her like that,” Johnson says. To which he rudely responded, “‘Well, I can arrest all of you.’” Johnson backed down, figuring the fight wasn't worth it, but she calls his behavior an example of what those on the reservation face all the time from non-native law enforcement officials.
Johnson says the crowd remained by the airport road until they saw McCain's plane fly away, and highway patrol dismantled the blockade.
“When you look at the history of what McCain has done, he doesn’t want good things for us,” Johnson says. “As long as he’s around, he’s going to continue taking from us.”
"When you think about all that he’s done," she continues, “it becomes very grim. I don’t want to use the word ‘sad,’ but it’s hard to know that there are people in office who have no shame, no humanity . . . Of all days, why did McCain show up on Code Talkers Day? Though he’s invited, he should know better.”
“At least we know what humanity is,” she adds. “That’s the reason the young people stepped up. I praise them; they’re protecting the sacred.”
**Update 8/17/15. A spokesman for McCain issued the following statement about the Senator's visit to the Navajo Nation:
"Senator McCain was honored to be invited by the Navajo Nation to meet with tribal and community leaders and to speak at the celebration of the Navajo Code Talkers on Friday. It was a great visit and he received a very warm reception from the Navajo community in Window Rock. He certainly wasn't "chased off" the reservation - this small group of young protesters had no practical impact on his productive meetings with top tribal leaders on a range of key issues, including the EPA's recent Gold King Mine spill which threatens to contaminate the Navajo Nation's water supply. Senator McCain was also extremely proud to help honor the Navajo Code Talkers on behalf of all Arizonans - their heroic service saved countless American and allied lives during World War II."
Protesters voice their opposition to Az Sen John McCain's visit to the Navajo Nation on Friday. They did a peaceful sit-in at the Navajo Museum where McCain was to meet with Navajo Council members.Posted by Marley Shebala on Friday, August 14, 2015
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Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect new information.