The Return of the Earth Keepers

Video and photographs by: Susannah

The Caravan to Support the Struggle for Survival on the Front Lines of Resistance at Big Mountain, Black Mesa, Arizona [November 2008].

*Individuals names have been changed.

The Invitation

“Yah’at’eh” means “hello” in Diné, the language of the Navajo. Hello can also be confused with “welcome” – in any culture –or “you’re invited”.  But this is not what the people of the Diné (Navajo) and Hopi tribes meant when they first greeted the white man, who happened to come across their land almost a century ago.  Behind the white man’s steely smile lay a salacious intent to pitch tribe against tribe and rape their land for Mother Earth’s natural resources – black gold, otherwise known as coal.

I was first introduced to the story of Black Mesa from my new-found friend Sabin (a.k.a Santos Sabin) while catching a ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  During the seven-hour trip, he spoke passionately about the history of the Dine and Hopi tribes and their struggle to fight for their right to live on their land.

Every year around Thanksgiving volunteers from all over the country converges at Big Mountain, Arizona bringing food and supplies and offering their services to help the few residents who have stayed behind living on their land and keeping their traditions. These volunteers helped by chopping and hauling wood, carrying water, herding sheep, and performing general chores deemed necessary by the aging Grandmothers. Sabin encouraged me to join this year’s Caravan to Black Mesa, Black Mesa, Arizona in two weeks.

I Accept

Happily, I accepted his invitation. What else would I be doing on Thanksgiving Day? I am Canadian and we’ve already celebrated Thanksgiving mid-October. It’s my favorite holiday; I love the crisp smell of fall, the warm golden rays of the autumn sun, and the medley of colors of the leaves as they sail lightly in the wind. My favorite autumn activity is raking the fallen leaves in a big pile. When they’re neatly stacked I take a running jump and dive into the pile pretty much messing up a day’s work of raking. But nothing beats rolling around in a pile of leaves and then making a bonfire to burn them – if you’re in the country; you can’t do that in the city.  Yet for the second year in a row I have missed my Thanksgiving celebration and as hard as I try I just can’t get into the Thanksgiving mood in November – it’s just dark, gray, damp, cold and wet!

This was no ordinary invitation. In exchange for a lot of hard work, I get to experience a different way of living, a chance to meet new people and walk away with a feeling that I’ve – in some small way – made a difference. There’s a lot of preparation and I’m way behind the rest of the Caravan of volunteers as they’ve been preparing for this trip weeks in advance. I familiarized myself with the history of the Black Mesa struggles; I had to plow through a 13-page cultural sensitivity document of the do’s and don’ts when working with the Navajo people. Although most of it was common sense, other portions were an educational experience in themselves.

I have to come prepared. There’s no running water or electricity. I have to bring my own food, utensils, even toilet paper. “Be self-sufficient and self-motivated”, is the basic message. Although it is expected that we eat our meals together, sharing each others’ foods, many families are struggling to survive so we are encouraged to bring our own food and a little extra for the families.

So, I bought 5 lbs of potatoes, yams, squash, onions, a bag of carrots, a bag of rice, a bag of dried split peas, a bag of red beans, garlic, bay leaves, basil, cloves, ginger, a couple of other spices, 2 gallons of water and winter clothes; winter hat, long-johns, two pairs of gloves, a couple of sweat shirts, a scarf, 3 pairs of socks and a new bag – with wheels – to carry all this stuff I bought. The Arizona desert in late November can get very cold. It really wasn’t that bad – you’re talking to a Canadian, who has weathered the winters of Northern Québec – Jonquière/Chicoutimi- which is approx. 2hrs north of Québec City past the Laurentians. Now that’s cold! What’s a little Arizona desert chill going to do to this Canuck?

Due to previous commitments, I couldn’t travel with the Caravan of volunteers so I am arriving days late. I hopped on Craigslist. “Is anyone going to Flagstaff?” Luckily, I received a response to my ad. Ron, a naturalist/herbalist who works with the Hopi, and is familiar with the Black Mesa Caravan having volunteered in previous years, was willing to take me there. “Yeah, I consulted the Spirits and they say you’ve got good energy – you’re okay.” Uhhh, yeah, sure – whatever… And then, he offers to travel from Santa Cruz to pick me up – a 2 hrs backtrack to San Francisco – and make the arduous 16hrs drive to Flagstaff, Arizona. I wish I could have met him in San Jose but my bag was almost double my weight (95lbs) with all the food I bought, there’s no way I could lug my bag going up then down San Francisco’s infamous hills!

The Delay

It’s the day before Thanksgiving – a dark, gray and rainy day. Up at 6:00am, all prepared and ready to go for a 9:00am pick-up. “Yup, I’m just getting on the highway on my way to you,” Ron says. “I’ll be there soon.” So I sit and wait for my ride. I wait, and wait, and wait some more, 12:00pm – where is this guy? I call – voicemail. I sit and wait some more. I give up in a fit of tears and defeat. Finally, around 4:30pm I get the phone call; my ride was rear-ended on his way to picking me up. His airbag went off and he was carted to the hospital in the ambulance; thankfully he’s okay, yet his car is totaled. Now, what am I going to do? Especially with all this food! I hate yams and squash!

“Oh. Poor Susannah!” My housemates rally around me in support and they encourage me to check other travel possibilities. Over $200 dollars to fly to Arizona?! I spent all my money on food and clothing. I only have gas money left for my ride home and some to buy jewelry to support the Grandmothers. Plus, the flights only go to Grand Canyon – (and how much will they charge me for my oversized bag of food? Am I even allowed to check my bag of food?) I still need to get to Flagstaff! Out of sheer determination, I check other routes to Flagstaff. The train is the best way to travel, a 23hrs trip! My housemates band together and buy me my train ticket and at 6:00am on Thanksgiving Day, drive me to the San Jose Amtrak station. Blessed Be! Thank you for giving!!

Thanksgiving Day

I leave San Jose (7:25am) on Thanksgiving Day and travel on the Amtrak bus to Santa Barbara, take the train to Los Angeles, wait for a 1.5 hour layover, at Union Station, and transfer to train #4 for another 10-hour ride – arriving at Flagstaff at 6:06am the next day! While riding the train I decided to review my materials ensuring that I know as much as I can about the struggles at Black Mesa.

A Brief History of Relocation on Black Mesa

Source: Black Mesa Ingenious Support

So basically, under the umbrella name WEST (Western Energy Supply and Transmission), by mining Black Mesa, the utilities promised more air conditioning for Babylon (Los Angeles), more neon lights for Sin City (Las Vegas), more water for Phoenix, more power for Tucson – and for the Indians, great wealth. Now over thirty years later the cities have the energy they were promised, but the Hopi and Navajo nations aren’t rich. Instead of these promised riches, Black Mesa, instead has suffered human rights abuses and sociological devastation. The Hopi’s water supply is drying up, thousands of archeological sites have been destroyed, and twelve thousand Navajos have been removed from their lands – making it the largest removal of Indians in the U.S. since the 1880s.

Yet it seems that mainstream media and the political powers have presented the Black Mesa story as a centuries-old land dispute between two tribes. One can even say that Black Mesa, is sort of a domestic example of a global syndrome of divide and conquer; a technique, in America and by transnational corporations, of removing Indians from their lands which have been copied throughout the world.

Quite a story!

But what does this have to do with me? I wonder. I am neither a Navajo, an Indian by any means, nor an American – why should this concern me? Sure, Canada has its own issues – that seems to be a carbon copy – of its native communities. Am I attaching myself to a cause that I have no reason to join? Why am I so eager to contribute? Even if I was an American, but not native, what do I care about the relocation of an indigenous culture? I want my lights on, air conditioning and water just like the next person. So I decide to be a quiet observer, help in any way that I can, document as much as I can; perhaps the answers will come.

Save the San Francisco Peaks

It’s 6:06am, the day after Thanksgiving. I am aware that I have missed most of the work yet here I am. Gosh, it sure is beautiful out here in Flagstaff, Arizona! It’s still dark; we grab a cup of coffee for the road and begin a 2hr trip to the campsite.  Sabin, like a good guide that he is, explains some of the political fights that have recently been happening.

“Save the Peaks” campaign was created to save the San Francisco Peaks – three 12, 000-foot volcanic peaks just south of the Grand Canyon and north of Flagstaff. The San Francisco Peaks are sacred sites to 13 tribes of the Hopi and Navajo people.

A ski resort, which currently hosts as many as 30, 000 to 60,000 visitors per year, is seeking to expand its facilities by acquiring another 66 acres of trails. The resort also wants to manufacture fake snow to ensure consistent snow coverage for skiing in order to maintain its current level of visitor attendance. To manufacture this fake snow they plan to use wastewater from the City of Flagstaff. The Hopi and Navajo people fear that the melted snow will pollute the pure mountain water, which residents of Flagstaff currently use.

“Can you believe it?” cried Sabin. “That’s sewage water from the City! Basically, they’re desecrating on ancestral lands!” The fate of San Francisco Peaks is yet to be determined.

We drive a few miles on a paved road where I stare out the window in awe of Mother Nature’s vast desert lands and mountainous regions until we come upon the sign welcoming us to the Navajo Reservation. We turned left and begin our trek on dirt roads to the base camp site. Apparently, the night before, I missed some torrential showers. The grounds are still wet and some roads have been washed out or are thick with clay-like mud making it difficult to get around.

When we hit base camp we are greeted by the support team of volunteers from San Francisco. Breakfast is already made, coffee is poured and we sit around the campfire enjoying our food before we are dispersed to help various families on the reservation.

We are assigned to Glenda’s family. Glenda, I later find out, is featured in the Academy Award winning documentary film “Broken Rainbows”. For those of you who are not familiar with the unfortunate issues surrounding Black Mesa and Peabody Coal Company, one can easily get the DVD or watch in on Youtube, which outlines the details of this decades’ long strife that’s been fought on the Navajo Reservation in Big Mountain, Arizona.

Before we go to Glenda’s home, we drive around to various sites, asking volunteers if they need rides, extra supplies, and general assistance. “Yeah, we secretly call Sabin, Santos Sabin – but don’t tell him we call him that!” Confesses one of the volunteers, “…well, you can tell him after we leave.”  Sabin is a wonderful help, as he’s always been, in his past 10 years of visiting the reservation. His pickup truck is very useful for packing supplies, transporting volunteers and generally helping out. Without his assistance, it is incredibly apparent that volunteering for the group would be that much more difficult.

As we approached Glenda’s home we find some workers shoveling hay and mice “poo” from a huge yellow parked school bus. This bus will be turned into a craft-making shop where items will be taken into town to sell to tourists. The pungent smell stains the air – the volunteers are wearing their head bandanas as masks to buffer the smell.

Hogans and Frybread

As we enter the hogan we meet Sharon, who is in the process of making the dough for fry bread. A hogan is what the Navaho people call home. It can be used as living quarters and it is also used for their religious ceremonies. It can be made out of a mixture of clay-like mud and wire or wood and perma-chink. It’s low to the ground like a hut; it’s shaped like an Eskimo’s igloo but instead of snow and ice, its mud, clay and/or wood. Later, I learn that many Navajo people who move into the city build a hogan in their backyard as a place to reestablish spiritual connections with the earth and to bring their lives into balance.

Mmmmm…. fry bread – an incredibly unhealthy yet yummy doughy delight that’s made with flour, baking soda, salt, and a whole lot of lard, you can also use blue corn fried in, I swear, 3 cups of oil or more! Or for a healthier alternative, it can be baked. You can eat it on its own, spread honey or any sweet spread to make it into a dessert, or eat it with a savory meal like mutton stew.

Quickly, I make myself useful by sweeping the floor, rearranging the items in their pantry, washing the dishes and ensuring the wood stove has plenty of wood on the fire. Specific instructions are made to empty the dishwater 100 feet away from the Hogan and not to leave the dirty water out overnight. Apparently, one of the volunteers did so and by next morning a dead bird was found; it drank the dirty dishwater and met a wet and soapy death.

Later, I am able to investigate the grounds, which are laced with bushes of sage and juniper trees. Juniper berries are used for medicinal purposes and if you’re caught in the desert alone with nothing to eat you can survive by eating them. But it’s not recommended. Off in the distance, I see a wooden structure that clearly had its day. Sharon explains that a couple of years ago that structure was the site of their Sundance festivals.

The Sundance ceremonies have been shared with the Hopi and Navajo tribes by the people of the Sioux Nation. This yearly celebration attracts people of many cultures until 2001 when the BIA and Hopi rangers raided their property, bulldozed the structure and arrested the Grandmothers. What an atrocity, especially because Native communities are matriarchal and respect is expected even demanded for the aged women.  As Sharon speaks I can still hear the pain and regret in her voice.

David, who lives nearby, came to our hogan to enjoy the suppertime meal. “Gee, it sure is nice to see people around here. We don’t get much visitors around here anymore.”

We all nod quietly, again not knowing what to say but having great empathy for their plight. We continue our evening exchanging stories; I am listening to the volunteers retell their experiences and learn of the various activities they’ve been performing.  “Yeah, we had to fix the outhouse, mix some mud and clay to patch the hogan, chop some wood, and fill the ditches on the road. Last night, some coyotes were out by the sheep pen, we had to take our spoons and beat the pots, yell and scream at them to scare them off.” Apparently one of the grandmothers recently lost some sheep to some hungry wild dogs.

Nighttime in the desert, it’s so quiet. Joe, David’s brother, comes by to visit us as well as Grandma Ruth and Irene. Irene translates for Grandma Ruth – Grandma Ruth is anxious to know when we will return to the reservation to continue our work. “Be careful what you say to Grandma Ruth” cautions Sharon, “If you say you’ll come back you better stick to your word! It’s an honor for a Grandmother to ask you to return.”

It’s so delightful to see young and old congregating and socializing together, but it’s late and Joe is getting tired. Joe and I saunter outside to admire the blanket of stars while some volunteers look for a driver to take him back to his hogan. The stars stretch across the sky, so far as the eye can see. Joe is giving me a lesson in astrology, naming the various star constellations in his native language. Living in the city we miss so much of the nights’ starry sky, I could actually see the Milky Way and various star constellations like Orion, the Big Dipper, Little Dipper -shooting stars too!

The brightest stars in the sky are actually the planets, Venus and Jupiter. They are in alignment, something that happens every 26,000 years, according to the Mayan calendar, so I am told. The year 2012 is supposed to be just as spectacular, with cosmic repercussions, when all the planets are supposed to be in alignment. Apparently, this happens every 56,000 – we are truly blessed to see this in our lifetime.

We drive Joe home and as he gets out the car he shakes our hands in gratitude. I am so delighted to meet him and to have shared some quiet time with him. I give him a huge hug and kiss both sides of his cheeks. “Goodbye Joe, have a good night!”

He stiffens nervously “ughhhh….Okay…have a good night!” Later I tell Sabin what I had done and he started laughing.

“Better not tell his wife what you did. You just married him!”

In Navajo custom kissing someone on both sides of the cheeks is a demonstration of having deep affection for one another, similar to being married. I was so embarrassed!

“Yeah, you better watch yourself or else the grandmothers will throw you out back with the sheep!” I totally forgot about that part of the cultural sensitivity document! I always hug and cheek kiss people – like Europeans.

But this is far from Europe!

Day 2 – The Caravan Goes Home

I just got here and everyone is going home. The caravan of volunteers are to meet at Grandma Medas property for the gathering and closing ceremonies. Yet before we make the trip, Santos Sabin and I make a few rounds, picking up volunteers, checking in with neighbors to see if they have rides to Grandma Meda. We stop by Grandma Ruth’s place to nail some flat boards reinforcing the roof of her storage house. She is issuing commands in the Diné language and although nobody understands her we can get the gist of what she is saying through sign language. I can’t wait to get to Grandma Meda’s place to have a taste of her mutton stew.  As we pull up to her property, the campfire is just getting underway. 85 volunteers are bustling about chopping vegetables, unloading a truckload of firewood and washing dishes to prepare for the big feast.

Butchering the Sheep

***WARNING: The following paragraphs has graphic content!***

Off in the distance under a tree, I see some commotion, people are beginning to crowd around some sort of activity. I walk over to investigate. Grandma Meda and Thomas have already begun to butcher the sheep for our mutton stew feast. I missed the prayer and the cutting of the aorta where blood spills to fill about half a cooking pot. Before they butcher any animal, it is customary for them to offer a prayer and thank the animal for giving its life so they can have sustenance. Gee, I wonder how many prayers a factory farmer would have to make when slaughtering animals. Cutting the aorta is the most humane way to kill sheep, it shakes around for a bit as the blood spills out and just like that – it’s dead.

By the time I join the circle of onlookers, the sheep’s body lay on the ground. Its head already chopped off, and then tossed into the fire to cook, singeing its hair and closing the eyelids. No more then a cup of blood is left on the ground from its wound. Grandma Meda and Thomas begin to skin the sheep; delicately they cut the skin in the stomach area and begin peeling its coat from its body like as if they are peeling the skin off a grape.  When they come to the legs, they snap the bone just above the hoof and proceed to skin its coat. The coat will be used for a rug. They put the skin off to the side, tie the front legs of the carcass on to a pole up-side-down, hanging from the tree to let the extra blood and liquid stomach contents drain through the headless neck.

While it is hanging from the tree they take their knives and cut open the belly exposing the stomach contents, intestines, and all the other gutsy stuff. Surprise! This sheep is pregnant. The Grandmothers don’t like it when a female sheep that is butchered is also pregnant. I don’t know how they can tell, there’s so much wool covering their bellies. They pull the fetus out and ask one of the volunteers to slice the fetus open and hang it in a nearby tree. I’m not sure what the reasoning is for this – they have their own reasons and I am too curious to see what they’ll do next to even ask. As Thomas continues to cut open the belly, Grandma Meda is standing by to catch the rest of the stomach contents and lay them out on the newly peeled sheepskin so she can clean the organs for the mutton stew.

It is amusing watching the vegetarians standing around observing all of this. They think they’re tough enough to watch, not even halfway through, I see them cringing, holding back the look of shock on their faces and then excusing themselves from the circle, only to return moments later after they have regained their composure. They’re just as interested as the rest of us.

Jonah, a 10-year-old boy, and a girl, probably a year or two older then he is standing by. Clearly, they’ve seen this operation before and knew every step that Grandma Meda and Thomas are about to take in the butchering process. We watch Grandma Meda, take the stomach and empty its green like substance, which is undigested grass/food and empty it into a nearby bush. She lays the empty sac on the sheep’s skin. A large pot of hot water is brought with a cup so she can begin to wash the sheep’s innards. Then she begins to separate the large and small intestines.

“This is my favorite part.” Jonah blurts out. “Watch, she takes the intestines and squeezes out the poo!” And sure enough, Grandma Meda grabs the intestines, walks to a nearby bush and squeezes the fleshy tube, pellets of sheep “poo” the size of and what looks like large chocolate chips spill into the bush. Jonah and his friend giggle in excitement, as Grandma Meda brings back an elasticky looking, string-like emptied intestine. She grabs a cup of hot water and pours it into the fleshy tube to distill it. So this is how they make sausage!

Meanwhile, Thomas and another volunteer are sectioning off the thigh, legs with their knives and once the sheep are all cut and ready for cooking, with their foot they kick dirt to cover the very small spills of blood from the sheep. It’s all done! I clap in sheer awe and amazement!

I can learn a few good lessons from the Earth Keepers (indigenous cultures), we seem to be too dependant on our capitalist system for providing us the necessities of life. I wonder, what if some disaster fell upon us and obliterated our whole present system of things? Can I survive? Can I live off the land? Can I make my own shelter or hunt for food? Do I know what plants to eat or harvest to make medicine?

Just then Sabin asks me if I want to join him to drive back to Glenda’s place to get Joe, so he too can join in on the festivities. When we arrive, we learn that we have just missed Joe, who caught another ride to Grandma Meda’s place, so we sit with his wife chatting about the political activities on the reservation. We are so used to it being so quiet out in the desert– there’s hardly any commotion. As we are about to say our goodbyes and to drive back to Grandma Meda’s place, all of a sudden we hear a loud thundering sound off in the distance.

“Did you hear that?” We both nod. “That is dynamite from the mines and look over there” we both look in the direction of the sound and see a puff of dark smoke off in the distance. “Isn’t that gross?! And all that crap is floating over here! We never used to hear or see the mining, now it’s getting closer and closer – If they allow this mining expansion – give it a couple of years, they’ll ruin everything!”

I can hear the concern and distress in her voice and I clearly see it on her face. But what can I say – I stay quiet. Still shaking my head in understanding and we bid farewell to her. We have to go back to Grandma Meda’s.

The Caravan Good-bye

Driving up the long dirt road to Grandma Meda’s property, we see the rest of the caravan gathering in a circle, hugging and shaking hands of the Navajo residents. The residents are thanking the crew for helping them over the past week. Everyone has already eaten and it’s time to go home. I missed the mutton stew?! Thankfully, there are some leftovers. Some people are staying behind for another week providing more support to families. The sun is beginning to set and before the caravan bus takes off for its long trip to San Francisco, Portland and its final destination, Seattle the crew gather together to conduct a meeting to review the week. Many participants are members of various environmentalist groups and they are able to present their initiatives, inform other members of upcoming activities and websites.

What’s next for the Black Mesa volunteers?

Some go home and others are off to Denver, Colorado for a protest. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) is releasing a “Record of Decision” on the “Black Mesa Project” Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The decision will determine if the now closed Black Mesa will reopen more lands for coal strip mining, potentially relocating more families from Black Mesa and give Peabody Coal Company a Life-of-Mine permit on Black Mesa. If granted in favor of Peabody Coal Company, it will allow them to mine untouched coal reserves indefinitely. The Black Mesa Water Coalition is concerned. Coal equals pollution, water depletion, and global warming.


My hair has been tied up for the past couple of days. The Grandmothers requests that those with long hair or dreadlocks be tied back when conducting their duties. Since this is a social time, so we are allowed to let our hair down and hang loose. I am so happy to release my locks and let it rustle in the wind. Chenoa, one of the residents, approach me from behind.

“Yah’at’eh” she greets me with a big smile on her face. “My name is Chenoa, what’s yours?”

“Yah’at’eh” I greet her back a little nervously – did I use the correct pronunciation? “My name is Susannah.” She didn’t notice my pronunciation; she is staring at my hair. Just then I notice, hey am I the only black person here? I scan the crowd and could only find one other black male; his hair is a short afro which is covered by a hat.

“I love your hair! Can I touch it?”

“Sure – knock yourself out!” Delicately she feels my hair clearly enjoying the texture of my dreadlocks. Many of the volunteers have deadlocked hair, but none quite like mine. I explain to her that one must have proper texture in order to correctly lock their hair and if they did have proper texture, you wouldn’t run into issues with using beeswax, or not washing their hair for weeks, like some people do.

“You must come and meet my Grandmother!” Smiling she explains, “Do you know what we call you? – Obama’s sister, cause that’s what you look like.” And she giggles.

Wow!! What an honor! I get to personally meet Grandma Meda? She brings me into Grandma Meda’s Hogan; it’s all nice and toasty warm. Grandma Meda is 80 years old; she is sitting on her couch with her mother who’s pushing 100 years old. A grandmother and a great-grandmother, what a treat! I sit nervously between the two while they eye my hair.

Chenoa speaks in her native language to the Grandmothers and then translates to me.

“The Grandmothers like your hair – Obama’s sister.” Then she triumphantly raises her fist in the air “Obama!! – We are so happy that he won or else we would have been in big trouble!”

Later, I learn that the mining expansion of the Peabody Coal Company is a pet project of John McCain if he came into power…well, let’s put it this way, they can kiss their sweet land good-bye!

“Obama!” they all giggled again. Hmmmm…maybe I should tell them I’m Canadian. They didn’t care. “Obama!!!”

I sit with the Grandmothers for awhile as they shared their family photo album and crafts that they make. Grandma Meda makes these awesome wool blankets, she shears the sheep’s wool, spins it into yarn; she makes her own dye and weaves a beautiful cultural pattern into the blanket. Now I understand why these blankets are a little pricey, it’s well worth every cent. The Grandmothers want to know when I am returning.

“Perhaps in the springtime; what happens in the spring?” I inquire.

“We plant corn.” She points to a picture in the photo album of her planting corn with her family.

Well, it’s confirmed! I’m back in the spring, and this time to really be an effective worker I will stay for the whole month of May with Grandma Meda and Great Grandma-ma!

Little Bo-Peep – Herding Sheep

It’s a crisp frosty morning yet the bright morning sun promises an unusually warm day. I am on dish duty helping with the big clean up after the Caravan has gone home the day before. I serve Grandma Meda and Great Grandma-ma their breakfast and tea. They’re sitting in their chairs outside the hogan; Grandma Meda is spinning her wool to make yarn to weave her next blanket. It’s already dyed in a deep chocolate brown color. I joke with her; saying that her wool looks like my hair. She chuckles, nodding in agreement and drinks her tea.  While washing the dishes, Thomas mentions that Hillary and Jeff are about to herd the sheep, he knew I was keen on trying shepherding, I’ve been asking to do this all throughout my visit.

“Now if a coyote or some sort of wild dog threatens the herd you must stamp your foot and growl like this – Meee-aww!!!” It’s a deep throaty growl, the only language the wild animals can understand and apparently if you do it correctly, the wild dogs will run away.

“Take lots of drinking water with you and sandwiches to eat you’ll be out there all day.” They caution, “Stay about 10 feet away from the herd, they know where they are going even if you get lost and keep a close watch on them as they tend to stray. If you lose a sheep, you’ll have to go and find it. The Grandmothers don’t like it when you lose their sheep. If you do lose one, just keep a lookout for fresh tracks in the dirt and you’ll be able to follow their trail.”

Sheep are a precious commodity for the Navajos.  With sheep, the Navajos say that ‘you’ve always got food on your table and clothes on your back’.  We herded 28 sheep and 3 goats. The grandmothers are used to having 200 sheep or so but through time they lost them. It also doesn’t help when the local BIA restricts the number of sheep they can have by limiting the number of grazing permits. When the permits have expired the BIA wouldn’t renew them.

Herding sheep is pretty uneventful. These passive little creatures graze from bush to bush, basically, for them, it’s an all you can eat buffet. As we saunter across the desert plain, I take a moment to reflect on the current crisis that has brought us all out here bringing our support to the residents of Black Mesa.

I wonder if the Babylonians or I should say, citizens of Babylon, residents of Sin City, Phoenix and Tucson know the true costs of bringing their electricity for their gambling casinos, water for their pools and lavish fountains that decorate their golf courses and retirement developments and power for their air conditioners. A continual displacement of a whole culture of people and damage to our planet too.  Power plants that use fossil fuels are responsible for 40% of carbon dioxide pumped into the earth’s atmosphere every day. There’s no such thing as ‘clean coal’ it’s all dirty. According to Roberta Blackgoat, a Navajo who has lived on Black Mesa all her life, who was one of the major leaders in the Big Mountain resistance says, “Coal is the liver of the earth.” It purifies our water. “When you take it out, she dies.”

Surely there is some way we can have our cake and eat it too. What about methods that work in unison with the earth – sustainable energy -such as solar, wind and geothermal power; can it really work? Okay, maybe I am not a native, nor an American but the issues surrounding Black Mesa is about our environment – something that we all have to share. Black Mesa is just one of many environmental projects that should have us concerned. Projects like this are happening all across the globe, whether it is in Africa, China, Mongolia, Siberia or South America.  For example, Peabody is conducting its mining operations in Venezuela; the indigenous cultures are currently resisting the mining expansion just like the residents of Black Mesa. “We don’t want another Iraq over here. Instead of oil, it will be for our coal” explains a concerned Venezuelan resident I watched on a DVD documentary from one of the volunteers. “If they want our land they’d have to kill us all!”

No words for Good Bye

Now it’s our turn to say goodbye to the residents of Navajo. The sheep are herded and brought back safely to their pen. I see Grandma Meda and Great Grandma-ma still sitting on their chairs outside the hogan spinning wool and drinking hot tea. I embrace Grandma Meda and Great Grandma-ma while Sabin takes our pictures. I promise to send the grandmothers a copy our pictures to add to their photo album.

The Grandmothers are always sad when the volunteers to go home. Desert life can get lonely, quiet and still especially in the winter months. It seems the younger generations do not come out to the reservation, as often as they should, to help relatives who have chosen to live their life traditionally. Why should they? If busloads of volunteers bustle to the area and do their work for them. These relatives are aging. If they die before passing on their traditions and way of life to the next generation, we can lose the many secrets and stories of their people and how to live off the land.

I’m still embracing Grandma Meda as we walk together to join the rest of the family and few volunteers. My head rests on her shoulder, while she cuddles my head and strokes my hair. I am sad to leave her. There’s no word for “good-bye” in Navajo. I like that. “see you later…” or “until next time…” But will we? Through days of hard work and socialization, wonderful friendships have formed, yet when the crew packs up and go home there is a sense of curiosity; just who will return the next year?

Sabin and I wave one more goodbye and begin driving away. I can’t bring myself to look back at the two grandmothers who are now back sitting in their chairs waving goodbye, so I positioned the rear-view mirror and watch them disappear into the horizon.


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1 http://

The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land Rebuilding the Economy

On Sale Now:  Amazon, or Indigo Bookstores

In this book Arthur Manuel and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson challenge virtually everything that non-Indigenous Canadians believe about their relationship with Indigenous Peoples and the steps that are needed to place this relationship on a healthy and honorable footing.

Manuel and Derrickson show how governments are attempting to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples without touching the basic colonial structures that dominate and distort the relationship. They review the current state of land claims. They tackle the persistence of racism among non-Indigenous people and institutions. They celebrate Indigenous Rights Movements while decrying the role of government-funded organizations like the Assembly of First Nations. They document the federal government’s disregard for the substance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples while claiming to implement it. These circumstances amount to what they see as a false reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Instead, Manuel and Derrickson offer an illuminating vision of what Canada and Canadians need for true reconciliation. In this book, which Arthur Manuel and Ron Derrickson completed in the months before Manuel’s death in January 2017, readers will recognize their profound understanding of the country, of its past, present, and potential future.

Expressed with quiet but firm resolve, humor, and piercing intellect The Reconciliation Manifesto will appeal to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who are open and willing to look at the real problems and find real solutions.

Overview By: Google Books



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