Black Mesa Navajo Human Rights and Sacred Sites: The Black Mesa Archaeological Project
Black Mesa in focus ⬿

Black Mesa Navajo Human Rights and Sacred Sites: The Black Mesa Archaeological Project

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Resolution of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, Adopting the Public Hearing Report: The Impact of the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974 P.L. 93-531, 35 al., and Approving the Dissemination of the Report:

“One of the purposes of the Commission is to conduct public hearings on and off the Navajo Nation to determine the state of race relations between Navajos and non Navajos… The Relocation better known as the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute”.

Article 11 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

1. Indigenous Peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

2. States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.

We are descendents of the people who were forced to march to Hweeldi (Fort Sumner) where women, children and men were held captive against their will. This is who we are.

–John Benally, Big Mountain

The first to be relocated

The Black Mesa Archaeological Project (BMAP) was initiated in 1967 at the bequest of Peabody Coal Company. From 1967 and 1973 BMAP authored the removal of 1.3 million artifacts from the Kayenta and Black Mesa Mines.

BMAP can be technically viewed as a ‘first’ relocation of original residents of the Black Mesa and Kayenta mining area. 200 estimated original remains of individuals have been packaged and transported off reservation without any notification to residents.

At a time where handshakes were contracts, quite simply permits filed by Peabody Western archaeologists allowed excavation to begin. Meanwhile, Peabody managed a lease with the Navajo and Hopi Tribal Council; who at the time were busy constructing and executing the forced removal of over 22,000 Navajo with the assistance of the US Congress. According to Peabody, it had self reported complete fulfillment of regulatory compliance by 1986, after Dr. George J. Gumerman had moved the collection to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. It wasn’t until 2013 written OSM confirmation could be obtained that a part of the remains were separately housed at University Nevada, Las Vegas.

“However, certain areas in the lease have not been re-evaluated in compliance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).” Peabody’s Black Mesa Archaeological Report to OSM

Today Peabody Energy is striking an informal but vocalised position that residents who were employed by the project, approximately 200, were willing and completely informed parties, who authorized the removal of the remains and consented to their corporate side arm of museum curation. With the advent of NAGPRA, the company takes advantage of legislation designed to protect and return remains, to insert a one sided custodianship of sacred property. In many conversations its commonly asserted as “better”, “more trustworthy” or superior than the Native Tribes who they admit, do in fact own them.

Non-Native Archaeologists in the Historic Preservation Department have been publicly witnessed at hearings to discuss that grinding remains like manure and digging unmarked pits in which to dump them is the more preferable solution. This is the answer people get when petitions are voiced for direction to shift to Native Managed Preservation and Housing of collections. Rumors abound that one Navajo Historic Preservation Officer is notorious for firing or not hiring any applicant that demonstrates clear language and traditional knowledge of appropriate burial policies that conflict with archaeological planning.

Peabody’s own report admits, and omits still intact sites in the mining expansion area. Instead they focus on “reclaimed” areas. Questions have arisen regarding the factual basis of Peabody Energy’s stated reclamation and actual physical evidence one might witness onsite.

One blaring introduction to Peabody’s Reclamation claims is the “Indigenous Seed Bank” replete with a chart describing each plant in Navajo and Hopi language. When questioned one Peabody employee, BD who is not to be identified in case of retaliation – claims – “its not a seed bank really, its more like a nursery, where we bring in plants to redevelop the area”. Where is this Native Plant Nursery? No one can really say for sure. Another claim is restoring areas to what Peabody claims is better grazing area than before. Minus the fact that these areas are not permitted for any grazing ever again. Again, employees describe burnt and contaminated rock from the permanent underground coal fires ignited by mining equipment, and rubbish are used.

“The initial NAGPRA investigation of sites in the original life-of-mine plan area identified some 39 complete or partial burials that were recovered and re-buried in an area that is now reclaimed.” Peabody’s Black Mesa Archaeological Report to OSM

Recovered and Reburied

They did unearth remains, while mining, and rather than go through NAGPRA guidelines, they reburied them without proper legal process–in shock and horror to residents who hear mention of it. Alan Downer, who runs the Historic Preservation Division for the Navajo Tribe, became the subject of many letters to editors and public hearing comments. He had made statements about digging, dumping and grinding into manure, apparently this was his resident notification that they had found new remains. Reclamation and Enforcement has no real answer for their dilution and removal of this information to the Navajo Tribal Council who approved their lease as this issue was erupting in the mining region.

In testimony to the Human Rights Commission, “Ms. Lena Buckinghorse recalled her grandfather telling her about two Anglo men that would come to their home in Low Mountain. Her father served as an escort and took them to places where they would dig up old homes.”

In the entire human rights testimony phase conducted by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission this is the closest statement recognizing that people came to excavate sacred ancestral properties and remains. In Navajo Tradition, people were often interred in burial hogans, or “old homes”. No where else is there any mention in that report that people knew Peabody had taken their ancestral burial property.

The focus instead was relocation and its dramatic and horrific impacts on the destruction of the families, the livestock restrictions and problems, the coping of families entrenched in domestic violence, alcohol and police abuses, health and the mining in general. If Peabody Western honestly contends that residents were aware that their funerary items were taken, and had agreed to this, why was this not mentioned by relocatees and resisters alike?

The Medicine Men were the first to explain that the suffering collectively is not just from relocation of the living, but the relocation of the ancestors specifically. That the suffering of the people will not cease until their ancestor’s return.

Marie Gladue is quoted that the destruction of this important deity and the sacred offerings made and entombed by Black Mesa was a human rights violation of her and other Navajo Families. She believes that regardless of what list a person was on, there was a need to help the people. As I presented the information to her, in the middle of her life responsibilities of caring for her livestock and her home, she admitted she didn’t have time to look at it. But bottom line the ancestral remains should be brought home to Black Mesa. Sentiment echoed by Bobby O’Daniel and Nicole Horseherder. HPL residents who are skilled activists agree to this point.

Why aren’t they just given back to Black Mesa? The answer lies in the company’s historical document and map archive, and the genetic materials that are the core value of the collection. The first part, is non-NAGPRA, and can be returned anytime, from SIUC without repatriation red tape. The list of names of residents that were employed by BMAP, another 200 figure. Then the maps that must surely denote individual people’s homesites from that era, in relation to the excavation sites. This list is an integral piece of the Land Commission disputes on file by residents in the relocation and mining area homesites. The second, is the genetic materials, including the remains of undeveloped and unborn fetus’ found in pottery as well as the other remains.

He who controls the DNA controls Medical History

The conversation again shifts like water in a wash. According to Navajo Burial Policy, these items cannot really be discussed fully without causing emotional harm and spiritual damages. Another advantage taken by NAU, is holding remains for Native People who cannot accept their return traditionally. In fact, many Flagstaff Navajo and others have often answered, no we don’t want the dead things back. It causes problems for people, spirits, and other maladies.

One problem is these residents have not had any discussion of this issue collectively, in Navajo and Hopi language. They have not been able to consult with their Medicine People regarding the implications of this type of natural reaction from hearing about archaeological remains in general, like the Hopi Collection in Flagstaff or another collection held by the BIA in Colorado, where 1.2 million artifacts lay. All of those collections could return to Black Mesa, under NAGPRA guidelines, except they are mired in contracts like the ones being written right now. According to Medicine Man Haastiin B. who’s name is withheld to prevent retaliation, these remains were removed with an express agreement for their specific return to Black Mesa and not anywhere else. There are specific instructions regarding this set of remains, and only medicine people could speak to this process. Why are they not scheduled to return to Black Mesa?

Outside of traditional views, we now have a modern medical era that has specific exploitations of key genetic materials and data. Something, perhaps, the 200 workers had not foreseen; The ownership and licensing of genetic DNA mapping and its use to create a standard model unimpacted by mining residential norms. In comparison, there is the region’s overload of reports of medical illnesses and deaths locally attributed to mining, which are denied under the Indian Health Services Policy. Residents are shunned and prevented from making such claims.

Treatment facilities that could handle uranium or coal ash exposure are hundreds of miles away; one facility has only 8 beds. Regardless, Peabody Energy wants control of the Navajo Property, and has licensing and patent ability that Peabody most certainly has not discussed with the people on the land, or with the Tribe. Had they, the package would have been brokered much differently for the lease.

Absence of colonial designation of settler massacres

Another critical piece of repatriation as a puzzle, is the censorship of the academic studies, analysis and any other document associated with the research in this collection. Some of these sites may in fact be in the settler era where people were chased by the US Army through the hills, washes and canyons–captured to be taken to concentration camps like Ft. Sumner. Today western’s are filmed in this same area, yet not one find or publication points to settler colonialist massacres that did occur in this area.

Resident stories abound of sites of torture, murder and rape, colonial disputes over livestock and coercion into religion are spoken here with great reverence. Sometimes you can find them mentioned in history book. For instance, A View From Black Mesa By George J. Gumerman examines “The 70 Burials [which] consisted of 32 adults (20 males and 12 females) and 38 infants and juveniles.” In this particular reference, Gumerman specifically details the fetus and pottery burial. Medicine men acknowledged these particular individuals were in ceremony when the events took place.

Peabody and NAU have refused access not only to the archaeological collection, but also to the research data which specifically restricts resident access. Are these the types of secrets that Peabody is so vigorously paying for? That, if residents did study the materials, and were allowed to speak to their still living elders, they would be the generation to finally piece together the evidence of pre-mining massacres.


These are glimpses into a project that requires immediate attention by Navajo and Hopi leaders. The project has recently entered into a 5.5 year plan that involves a new building to house the entire collection, perhaps 200 jobs, and a curation that will be funded into infinity by Peabody Western.

The human rights resolution by the Navajo Tribal Council does recognize that self-management and Navajo stewardship is the proper course for situations like BMAP. Referring back to the human rights report I focus on for this article, over and over throughout the hearings people all discuss the need for jobs, opportunities and programs on the land.

The issue is getting the Navajo Tribal Council to take a position on this collection, and to take over the multi-generational contract from George Gumerman.

The advisement shunts people into chapter houses and tribal delegates, a situation that pleases few. Not to mention that the Navajo Historic Preservation Office has not spoken a single word about the BMAP collection to any one impacted resident. Certainly the studies on DNA and the Navajo at large would be compelling evidence that all Dineh people are connected to this sacred being. Something they don’t need DNA to tell them, but perhaps they need to hear that we who are occupying and have controlled the Black Mesa landscape finally realize.

The direction to assist the people of Black Mesa must come from people on the land. And this time, it is the entire mining region that is impacted, not just an NPL/HPL division. For this NPL and HPL could work together. For the relocation to be repealed, it requires the repeal in our own minds. Instead of activists dividing the area by Relocated and Resistor, we must return to what Navajo already call themselves. The people, of Black Mesa.

Jennafer Waggoner-Yellowhorse
Black Mesa Coal’tion (928) 246-1635

Viewpoint: Economic, social and environmental justice for Black Mesa by Vernon Masayesva, Black Mesa Trust

Just as mining has caused irreparable damage to surface waters and waters that lie deep below, mining has erased the footprints of Hopi ancestors who settled in Black Mesa while awaiting entry into the Hopi villages.

During a 20-year survey starting in 1968, an archaeological field school hired by Peabody found 1,026 historic and 1,596 prehistoric sites, of which only 168 sites were excavated. The study also located 178 burial sites. What happened to the rest of the remains of Hopi ancestors and the ancestral villages, has yet to be revealed. This demands a full investigation. The federal government is responsible for the destruction by failing to carry out its trust duty.

Recently, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office succeeded in dropping the term “Ruins” from Homolovi State Park near Winslow, done on the Hopi belief that Homolovi was never abandoned and that the spirits of our ancestors are still there. This is the same reason why Black Mesa Trust (BMT) is determined to stop strip-mining, which is destroying our ancestral villages and resting places of our ancestors on Black Mesa. Our success in helping other parties shut down coal slurry operations in 2005 is evidence that Hopi people are now empowered to take control of their resources and destiny.

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