Thoughts From Black Mesa

Thoughts From Black Mesa

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December 19, 2012

Despite the horror of the past and the uncertainty that awaits us, the future is full of possibilities if we have the strength and presence of mind to take hold of them. The struggle for rights, land, and a space for indigenous people to revive their traditional ways of being exists not on the fringes of other struggles, but at the center. Self aware and justice oriented indigenous people are at the forefront of the battle against this unstable and malignant settler society. It will of course be difficult at times, but exploring the intersectionality of our common struggles as we work to decolonize will be immensely rewarding.

Near the Navajo Nation on the San Francisco peaks in FlagstaffNear the Navajo Nation on the San Francisco peaks in Flagstaff

Earlier this year when I was invited to come through the Navajo Nation to do solidarity work on Black Mesa I admit that I was excited but also more than a little apprehensive. Being an east coast big city dweller, the prospect of living for an extended period of time without running water, electricity, internet, and all the other modern conveniences we’ve all become accustomed to can be almost terrifying. For a jaded urbanite to have a critique of industrial society is all fine and dandy, but actually going into a situation where I would be forced to put those ideas into practice did indeed take some soul searching. There was also the issue of needing to travel through the state of Arizona to get to the Navajo Nation, a prospect that didn’t exactly fill me with warmth given the ultra-conservative nature of that state. According to my sources, not too many queer anarchists of African descent are hanging out in Arizona; a few of my friends definitely raised their eyebrows when I told them of my plans to visit the veritable Mordor of the U.S. political scene.

Of course, as usual, our fears and our preconceived ideas often make things out to be much worse than they actually are – there were no Tea Party lynch mobs or Mad Max-style, desert roving gangs of shotgun toting rednecks…at least not while I was there. It’s actually quite nice in the college town of Flagstaff where there’s a committed and passionate radical community that’s actively involved in Native American solidarity work. To them and to my other new friends I would like to offer my sincerest thanks for their hospitality and for making me feel welcome.

The morning after my arrival I was contacted by the daughter of one of the elders I would be staying with on the reservation. After a few stops around town to gather supplies and gifts I was on the road, traveling with the son of the elder, just shooting the breeze and marveling at the changing landscape as we crossed over the border into the Navajo Nation. I wish I could devote the entirety of this article to the reveries I experienced there, I really do. During the month I spent there I went through literal ecstasies at the sight of those ancient landscapes and sprawling, panoramic vistas of canyon lands, mesas and mountains formed by volcanic upheavals long ago. Words fail to describe the strength of the people there, forced to live in degraded circumstances yet still unbowed and defiantly guarding their culture and traditions. Words cannot convey all the ways their strength helped to augment mine. How to describe the thousands of moments and the impressions they left? These are moments that will forever be a part of my dreams. The breathtaking sunrises, sunsets and one spectacular rising of the nearly full moon; the adorable puppies that followed me all around across the fields and up and down the mountains and mesas; watching one of the elders make bread, listening to her stories of days long gone; the night sky so clear I could see all of the stars, so many stars and all the visible planets floating amidst the Milky Way which appeared up above like a soft, friendly cloud streaking across the entire night sky; the stillness, the silence so perfect for contemplation and reflection. There are so many moments I will always treasure, and to me they are like gifts of high value. I wish I could focus on all of those things exclusively and make this a really nice feel good fluff piece, but unfortunately I cannot.

The bitter truth is that despite the immense strength of (some of) the people there on the reservation, and despite everything that is beautiful and sublime about that landscape and ecosystem, the dominant culture of death and destruction is at work there full force. The machinations of the federal government and private corporations in their insatiable hunger for the lands’ natural resources have turned one tribe against another and fomented the sort of social ills not unfamiliar to those of us engaged in struggles in the inner cities. While tribal government leaders drive around in fancy cars and live in big, fancy houses, people on the reservations are going without the basics of survival. Traditional ways of being are being forgotten and neglected; there is indeed a cultural genocide taking place not only on the Navajo reservation but across the country. Traditional languages are being forgotten, and while there’s always money for a new casino there does not always seem to be adequate funding for programs to protect traditional ways of life.

I’ve noticed over the years that those of us engaged in the struggle for forming a better world can sometimes become myopic, focused exclusively on our own particular projects while either consciously or unconsciously minimizing or negating the struggle of other people. My purpose here is to show how much we all can learn from examining the ongoing struggle of Native people and the interrelatedness of all of our struggles for freedom.

The settler-colonial project that began with Christopher Columbus is not, as our history books tell us, a past tense phenomenon. The project of expanding the settler way of life, which includes religious indoctrination and the ingraining of cultural values, is an ongoing, ever evolving process. A surprisingly large number of people, even those on the left or far left, view the settler-colonial project as a done deal and view Native Americans as practically extinct, the eternal victims; Native struggles are too often viewed as not worth the time or effort in light of all the other struggles taking place. If we are to seriously confront the United States empire and hopefully watch its last gasps we must learn from this empire’s original target; we must examine the Native American victories and defeats, and most importantly we must stop the practice, either conscious or unconscious, of pretending as if indigenous concerns are parochial, far off, and of little consequence to our own daily lives.

For those of us engaged in environmental justice and anti-capitalist struggles, examining the Native American struggle can be particularly enlightening. Andrea Smith, author of ‘Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide’ tells us that,

“…the majority of energy resources in this country are on Indian lands, so the continued existence of Indian people is a threat to American capitalism.”

Coal is one of the energy resources Andrea Smith alludes to, and the Navajo Nation has a lot of it. Much of the southwest depends on the extraction of coal to keep the wheels of industry turning. The large cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas are entirely dependent upon coal from the Navajo Nation. Up to 40% of the energy needs of Los Angeles, California depends on the smooth, orderly extraction and export of coal from Native society to the settler-colonial society. Unfortunately, to ensure this type of smooth, uninterrupted transaction, the lines between settler-colonial society and Native society had to be blurred. The attempt to civilize and control the so-called wild Natives was an attempt to compromise indigenous communities and blur the lines, making them easier to control and manipulate and their land easier to steal. Historically this process took root most firmly with the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ as they were called. The Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles of the southeast were peoples whose original forms of tribal government were relatively decipherable by settlers, making them more susceptible to settler manipulation than other tribes. By the early 1800?s these tribes were so “civilized” that they had joined in with the settler-colonial project of chattel slavery. Beginning in the late 19th century up until the 1950?s, children were torn from their traditional families and “educated” in Western style schools, forbidden to speak their language or practice their “heathen” customs. This methodical, state sponsored exercise in cultural genocide produced a generation of compliant, bourgeois Natives who would accommodate their tribes to the demands of settler society. This occurred all across the North American continent, but the effects of this kidnapping and brainwashing campaign are tragically easy to see on the Navajo reservation where the Peabody Coal company is allowed to operate on the reservation with few restrictions, poisoning the land and water supplies, supposedly all in the name of jobs. Uranium, the lynchpin of the United States nuclear deterrent and military power, is found almost exclusively on Native lands, and was mined for decades by Navajo and Hopi people who were unaware of the risks. Four million tons of uranium were removed from the earth before most of the mines were closed. Many people died from direct contact during mining operations and people continue to die from radiation poisoning from abandoned mines, from contaminated dust and contaminated water. The tribal government does not seem to make cleaning up these abandoned uranium mines a top priority, and attempts by the people to ban further uranium mining have been thwarted by the tribal government.

There are many more examples, but as we can see, the economic well being of the capitalist system in the southwest and the strength of the United States military would not exist without the continued exploitation of indigenous people and their lands.

In order for the settler society to exploit Native lands fully, the bond between the people and the land must be broken; this means that Native culture must be functionally destroyed because Native culture and the lands they reside upon are inextricably linked. Across both North and South America court battles are raging, pitting tribes against landowners, ranchers, state governments and corporations who seek to minimize the importance of Native traditions in their quest to gain access to more resources.

Near the Navajo Nation in the city of Flagstaff indigenous people are being told by the local government that their right to worship (so to speak) and practice their traditional ceremonies on their holy San Francisco peaks is less important than people being able to ski and cavort on reclaimed waste water. The dirty snow created by the ski resort operating there would come from all across the city of Flagstaff including the morgue, defiling a mountain considered sacred by almost a dozen Native tribes. The reclaimed waste water snow would be full of hormones and pharmaceutical drug residues that cannot be filtered out; this would defile a unique alpine ecosystem, but with climate change dramatically reducing the amount of snowfall, the ski industry is claiming that is has no options left. Jobs are at stake and so the religious concerns and health concerns of the Natives must take a back seat, all the way to the back. While I was on the reservation talking with someone about the imminent defiling of the mountain we could see shimmering off in the distance, they told me that the San Francisco Peaks they call Dook’o’oos?ííd (Its Summit Never Melts) is considered by many on the reservation to be the sacred heart of that entire area. For the settlers however it’s merely a playground, a thing to be used for amusement, and a source of income. In a country where we pay lip service to freedom of religion, we should wonder why the federal, state and local governments have such a long history of delegitimizing indigenous claims on lands based on religious concerns.

In 1989 a Utah politician by the name of Scott M. Matheson gave a very eye opening and unusually honest testimony before a Senate committee. Speaking on behalf of the mining industry he spoke frankly on why the Senate should oppose the protection of indigenous sacred sites:

“Much of the country’s natural resources are located on federal land. For example, federal lands contain 85 percent of the nations crude oil, 40 percent of the natural gas, 40 percent of the uranium, 85 percent of the coal reserves, and 47 percent of standing soft wood timber… Thus it is obvious that [federal protection of sacred sites] by creating a Native American veto over federal land use decisions, will…severely interfere with the orderly use and development of the country’s natural resources.”

In the United States, capitalism and the industrial infrastructure underpinning it are, and have always been, reliant upon the exploitation of indigenous people. Native concerns, far from being ancillary to the fight against capitalism, are actually very much central, or should be. For those of us engaged in the struggle to protect what remains of our environment, the reasoning behind embracing indigenous struggles should be self evident. We should not hesitate to engage with and hopefully learn from those who were once living sustainably on this continent for thousands upon thousands of years. When settlers arrived here this land was a virtual paradise, and now… But we can rebuild, we can hopefully regain some of what has been lost, but we cannot do it without the wisdom and guidance of cultures who were here long before ours.

A key component of embracing solidarity with indigenous struggles is a commitment to confronting and dispelling the myths about the origins and purpose of American empire. From my experience this seems to be one of the toughest challenges because many, even those on the left, are still enamored with fairy tales of the goodness and high Providence of the United States. According to many people, we’ve made mistakes as a country but at its core the United States is essentially good and founded upon humanistic principles; these principles were perhaps not able to come to fruition in the lifetime of the founding fathers, but if we follow the noble template they left us (the Constitution and Declaration of Independence) we will one day manifest their true vision of a fair and just society.

Going into a history of what the United States is actually founded on would take much too much time, so instead I’ll share a personal anecdote, a conversation I had earlier this year. I was at a party and making small talk with a stranger about our various travels when they asked me if it ever bothered me, living in Germany and knowing the sordid history of everything that happened there. It was obvious that they were referring to the atrocities committed by the German military and civilian government during WWII, nevertheless I still said, “What?” For a brief moment I stared back at them, totally incredulous and must have looked like I’d just suffered a stroke. No matter how much you think you can mentally prepare yourself for such moments it’s a totally different matter when they’re actually happening. For this person to make such a statement meant that they considered themselves as an American citizen to be on some sort of moral high ground. Where does this come from? The ignorance of many Americans seems to be bordering on willful because the facts are not hidden, and most people have access to books and computers. For example, if asked about the untimely demise of many Native Americans shortly after the arrival of European settlers, quite a few people will quickly and enthusiastically give a spiel about smallpox; usually the smallpox plague is framed within the context of an act of god, nature, or mysterious fate. Occasionally some shameless person (usually a Republican) will invoke Manifest Destiny. Others will bring up Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ to explain it all away.

The fact that so many Americans are tragically misinformed is no accident. Critical self examination cannot be a feature of the settler-colonial project because if seen and understood clearly many people would (hopefully) reject such an enterprise and the stability of this settler nation would be undermined. I didn’t get very far with the person who viewed Germany as the home of all that is evil because they were unable or unwilling to see that the track record of the United States is no better and actually worse in some instances. The vilification of Germany by Americans has always fascinated me. People honestly and truly believe that the history of Germany is more soiled and tragic than our own; this never fails to boggle my mind. If people would even bother to crack open a history book they would learn that Hitler studied the 18th and 19th century Native American concentration camp, er, I mean, reservation system when planning his own torture for Jews and others not pure enough for his thousand year Reich. The concept of lebensraum is nothing more than a demystified version of Manifest Destiny, and both Germany and pre and post revolution America used science to justify the genocide and enslavement of “subhumans” – but guess who did it first?

Whatever the empire, be it German, Chinese or American, the main goals are always the same: to create an unchallenged mythology or narrative, gather resources and living space for the desirable ones, and expel or destroy the undesirables. Of all the empires that ever existed, the United States has been the most successful at replicating itself and spreading not only across its own continent but across the entire globe. Yet as we can see from recent events, this empire is far from invincible. The settler-colonial social fabric is tearing apart at the seams; the mentally ill go untreated yet have easy access to assault rifles; random acts of senseless violence are on the rise, cities are going bankrupt and ending much needed social services for the poor and the sick. People of color are being killed by the police at epidemic rates, rounded up by ICE, and left to stew in their misery with no opportunities or hope for the future as schools and jobs in urban environments disappear. Prisons are full to overflowing with more being built almost every day; non-violent people are to sent to prison for drug offenses and return to their communities as hardened, emotionally and physically scarred individuals. On top of all of this the global economic and environmental crisis may soon push us into uncharted territory. Secession murmuring has begun once again in some southern states, and although it may not seem realistic at the present moment, the integrity of the United States as a union may not survive a true test with its complacent, over-medicated, and over-privileged populace. One environmental cataclysm or global disaster could be enough to bring this empire to its knees. The question is what will replace this current system?

Despite the horror of the past and the uncertainty that awaits us, the future is full of possibilities if we have the strength and presence of mind to take hold of them. The struggle for rights, land, and a space for indigenous people to revive their traditional ways of being exists not on the fringes of other struggles, but at the center. Self aware and justice oriented indigenous people are at the forefront of the battle against this unstable and malignant settler society. It will of course be difficult at times, but exploring the intersectionality of our common struggles as we work to decolonize will be immensely rewarding.

I would like to bring this article to an end with a brief examination of the very real possibility of decolonization as an achievable goal and why it is so vitally important that it happens. Decolonization in some ways looks to the past as a template for the future and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Indigenous societies were of course not perfect but they offered much more in the way of personal freedom than what is offered today by settler society with its unfair economic system, callous hierarchies and rigid gender roles. Violence against women is endemic in our society yet in traditional Native societies rampant rape and abuse were not tolerated. The physical and sexual abuse of children, drug abuse, alcoholism, homophobia, neglect of the elderly, suicide, mass murders, and all the other sicknesses of our civilized society were mostly unknown here before colonization. Unfortunately these social ills have become a part of the daily landscape on many reservations where traditional ways of life are being exchanged for the illusion of security through assimilation.

For people experiencing the effects of genocide, decolonization as a concrete, viable alternative is an urgent necessity. In their article, ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang start off by informing us of the essence of what decolonization is and what it is not. Decolonization:

“brings about the repatriation if Indigenous lands and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.”

Decolonizing our hearts and minds is a necessary first step, but it cannot end there. If we, Native and settler alike, are to retain our humanity and a living, sustainable planet, it should be obvious to all but the most blind that we must begin dismantling the profiteering, dominating, life destroying settler-colonial society handed down to us from our forefathers. The future society we build must have its foundations in true justice which must include a return of what was once stolen to the original inhabitants of this land. Only then can true healing begin.

After a month of living amongst traditional Dinè people I can honestly say that such a way of life is worth fighting for even if it is not my own. In the process of freeing ourselves from the oppressive dominant culture, those of us who are not Native will have to learn to love the land and form our own relationships with it; we will have to create our own traditions and culture and mythologies as we go along; it will not always be easy but we can do it if we love life and freedom more than the illusions of comfort and security fed to us by the settler society, a society very much concerned with keeping the status quo more or less intact. Cut off as many of us are from the natural forces that used to guide us, there is much we cannot now see, but maybe we one day will.

I began writing this article on Black Mesa in the stillness under the light of stars you cannot see in the cities, in a special kind of tranquility that cannot exist in areas geared toward the constant turning of the engines of industry. It was a brief taste, but it was enough to light the way. Some people have asked what would really happen if settler society one day crumbled and Native people were actually in a position to reclaim their lands and sovereignty. Would the former masters be mistreated and turned out into the wilderness? Maybe. I suppose it depends on what happens between now and then, but probably not. If traditional Native ways of being continue to thrive we should have nothing to fear. We share common struggles, goals and aspirations, but Native origins are much different than the origins of the settler society. In many ways they are not like us. For that we should be grateful.

Commentary originally published at

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