When tribes divide: Progress verses culture
PORTLAND, Ore. - As a rule, tribal members are like physicians, dentists
and lawyers when it comes to running defense for one another in front of
the unanointed. They may have plenty to say at home within their own
community, but when it comes to sharing differences with non-Indians
outside the circle, mum's the word.
When it comes to extractive industries - the idea of what folks can get
from Mother Earth in the way of coal, copper, gold and gas to trade for
power and wealth and the pace of development, however, the facade tends to
Many tribes pushed off prime agricultural and timber lands during the
heyday of non-Indian settlement found themselves sitting on mega-wealth
when mining companies started rooting around after World War II. The trick
was learning to be smart in dealing with the corporations, how not to get
so caught up in the capitalist world that one's culture disappeared.
In the American Southwest, the battle is between Hopi progressives and
traditionalists. Up in British Columbia, Tahltan First Nations elders are
taking younger tribal members to task. Whichever the arena, the issues are
the same: how do tribes market their natural resources wisely and avoid the
crush of capitalism? How do tribes think not only of their immediate
financial straits, but of the legacy they will leave for future
In short, how do tribal councils generate enough funds to provide services
and not sell their world down the natural resource highway?
Thirty-five Tahltan elders finally had enough of all the talk. In
mid-January they took over their Telegraph Creek Band office, saying they
will remain until their demands are met. They want Tribal Chairman Jerry
Asp to resign, and curbs placed on the pace of natural resource
Ranging in age from 55 to 84, their ranks include 64-year-old Lucy Brown,
who has slept on the floor each night and spent her days sewing and
strategizing with her companions. Group spokesman Oscar Dennis, who holds
university degrees in Anthropology and Native Studies, said a meeting the
tribal council staged with the mining and hydro development interests
prompted the takeover.
"That meeting was the last straw," Dennis said. The tribal council "paid
all these educated young people [who are tribal members] to fly in and
present information. To an outsider it must have looked like they had this
awesome meeting. But in fact it was a bunch of young people who did not
grow up on the land."
The elders said they saw the meeting as rigged, and that three large mining
projects, a gas field and a hydroelectric dam is just a bit too much to
sign off on all at once.
"The elders do not oppose development," said Dennis. "The elders are
saying, 'We don't need six projects at once.' They want controlled
sustain-ability. They're saying, 'If we open these projects in sequence, it
would guarantee a place for our children in this capitalist society for
generations to come.'"
There are 5,000 Tahltan living throughout Canada, although only 1,500 of
those live on the 11 reserves in northern British Columbia near Telegraph
Creek. Times are relatively flush for the Tahltans: because of mining
developments, unemployment is at an enviable low of 6 percent. Still, said
the elders, "Jerry Asp has lost all credibility. He is far too cozy with
industry and government, and poses a threat to our very existence."
And that's going on in the lower 48 as well, down in the Southwest on pink
and buff mesas where the Hopi have managed to hold on to their corn culture
and katsina ceremonies for over 1,000 years well before the United States
set up business just over 200 years ago. While selling rights to coal and
the water needed to shunt it via pipeline 275 miles to southern Nevada
sounded OK to leaders in the 1960s, by the time the new century rolled
around springs were drying up and 'fears of running out of water rippled
over the mesas.
Vernon Masayesva, cofounder of the Black Mesa Trust, a traditionalist group
organized to oppose progressives in the tribal council, spoke at a
contentious hearing in January on the mining operation's future.
He was joined by Manual Pino from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, who
described his tribe's experience with mining - including the death of his
grandmother to stomach cancer. "We have lost human lives to satisfy the
greedy and consumptive needs of the dominant society," said Pino. "Water is
a prayer. Water is life. To destroy the land and water is to destroy the
Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor Jr., a seasoned politician, tries to
deflect any idea that the Hopi people are divided and instead puts the
blame for the controversy on non-Indian environmentalists, writing: "There
is the romantic notion held by environmental extremists that indigenous
people are so at one with nature that we leave no footprint on the land."
Taylor also failed to mention the Black Mesa Trust: "We on Hopi are
continually confronted with environmentalists who have no grasp on the
complexities of energy production" ("Preserving Hopi will be our legacy,"
Indian Country Today, Vol. 24, Iss. 36).
Au contraire, wrote Masayesva in November 2004: "Since 1989 the Hopi people
have been saying 'no' to Peabody [a coal company] pumping, but to no avail.
This time we intend to prevail to save our precious and sacred water once
and for all."
So that's indigenous North America in 2005. From the warm mesas of Hopiland
to the grays and misty blues of British Columbia, questions of dollars,
culture and, ultimately, their very existence divide tribes.
Traditionalists say enough is enough. Progressives say those who complain
about tribal policies don't realize how much money it takes to run a
One thing is certain: if the pace of environmental and cultural change is
as rapid over the next 50 years as it has been the last 50, the tribes'
situations will be precarious. As Alph Secakuku, owner of Hopi Fine Arts
and BIA retiree noted, "Who will we be if our culture goes? Once we forget
our language, our whole religion and culture goes. And once that goes, who
are we at that point? I guess we're descendents of the Hopi."