Warehouse E

Tribal Politics
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Trouble Brewing Among American Tribes

By James Donahue

While it is difficult for Americans on the outside of the Native American tribes to fully understand the political goings on within tribal politics, we notice a troubling similarity occurring among the Tribal Councils on the Hopi reservation in Arizona and the Lac Vieux Desert Tribal Council in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Both tribes have elected new people to represent them on these councils, and in both cases, the old councils are refusing to give up their seats of power.

This has led to a lot of internal strife among the tribal members. There has been efforts by the tribal courts to intervene but without much success. The trouble has gained the attention of news reporters from the surrounding media, but the stories are garbled. Because the tribes traditionally keep internal affairs to themselves, the rest of the world is not grasping the importance of what is happening among these and possibly other tribal groups in North America.

My wife and I feel close to the natives of Arizona because we lived for a while with a Navajo medicine man and his wife on the Navajo Reservation, and befriended a two-horned priest on the Hopi Reservation who taught us much about the ways of the Hopi. I also worked during that period for the White Mountain Independent, in Show Low, Arizona, and was assigned to cover news events on the Apache Reservation headquartered in nearby Whitewater.

While I can’t prove my suspicions, I think I have an understanding of what is happening to these two important tribal groups and it involves internal fights against attempted take-over by big business interests.

Near Marquette, Michigan, not far from where we currently live, the Native American tribes and local environmental activists have joined forces in what appears to be a losing battle against plans by Kennecott Minerals Corporation, a Canadian-based operation, to open a sulfide mine at Eagle Rock, a sacred place among the natives. The project was approved by the state after a judge ruled that a rock cannot be identified as a place of religious worship.

Since then, several tribal members and supporting activists have been arrested and jailed on trespassing charges after staging demonstrations on the construction site. Most recently, members of the old tribal council have been jailed for refusing to give up their seats on the council, and at least one female elder has been threatened with removal from the tribe and removed from her home after protesting the action of the tribal council. We strongly suspect that the issue involves the Kennecott mine.

The company wants to blast an entrance to the mine right through Eagle Rock and then tunnel west under the Salmon Trout River into acid-generating sulfide ore to extract nickel and copper. The complaint not only involves the destruction of the sacred rock, but the run-off of pollutions that will get into the river, kill the fish and work their way into Lake Superior. It is a hot-button issue that concerns more than just the Native American community in Northern Michigan. But these are hard economic times, the unemployment rate in the area is high, and Kennecott offers jobs so you can understand the politics behind the Michigan conflict.

When we were among the Hopi and Navajo from 1995 to 1999, the tribes were struggling over an invasion by the Peabody Western Coal Company that was operating open strip mines all over the two vast reservation lands. The company also was drawing vast amounts of water from the natural fresh water reservoir under the high desert area to move the coal along slush lines for miles to APS-owned coal fired power plants located near Holbrook, Farmington and possibly the one at Page. Because so much water was being used to move the coal, the people were complaining, even when we were there, that their wells were going dry.

The Peabody operation was troublesome for the two tribes. The elders opposed the mining and wanted to stop it, but the younger tribal members welcomes the jobs and money the company provided. They drove around in shiny new pickup trucks and bought modern appliances for the homes furnished by the government.

The Hopi tribe battled Peabody Coal and the Tufflite Corporation, another mining operation, for years and in 2000 began winning what some natives called the David verses Goliath fight. There was an agreement to close the White Vulcan mine in the San Francisco mountains north of Flagstaff. Tufflite also agreed to give up all of its 49 mining claims in the area and to restore the mine site.

Since then, the tribe also won a fight to block Peabody Coal from a planned expansion of its mining operation when an Administrative Law Judge for the U. S. Department of the Interior vacated a permit that would have allowed Peabody to proceed with a massive expansion of the Black Mesa and Kayenta Mines.

Before having time to celebrate, however, the Hopi Tribal Council earlier this year voted 8 to 4 to approve plans by four western energy companies to study the Black Mesa Basin for possible commercial storage of carbon dioxide by carbon capture sequestration. The project also would impact nearby Navajo lands.

Also the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the use of affluent water from the reservoir to make artificial snow at the Snow Bowl Ski Resort on the San Francisco Peaks. This would be one more invasion of an already endangered fresh water supply in a desert area where fresh water is a serious commodity.

We believe these issues may be directly linked to the political turmoil boiling among the tribal members attending the tribal council meetings.

When the reservations were established in 1786 for the various Native American tribes, the tribes were given their own autonomy, making the reservations become almost a separate country operating within the boundaries of the United States. But all of the tribes fell under the control of the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Notice, also, that most of the reservations were established on land considered “undesirable” to the European settlers at that time in American history. No one thought that vast resources of copper, silver, coal and uranium were to be found in those barren regions.

Now that big corporations want access to reservation lands, the fight is on to once again strip control of these territories from the aboriginal people. The political manipulating occurring among the tribal councils might be seen as a macrocosm of what is going in these days in the halls of Washington D. C.