A strip mine atop Black Mesa in northern Arizona.

4 Congressional Land Grabs

Christina Rose

Oak Flat, Arizona, and the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, are sacred sites under attack by state officials, who successfully lobby Congress to take the land for state’s interests. When Congress sides with state petitioners, it routinely places profit before environmental concerns, tribal interests and even treaty rights. Low-level jobs and billions of corporate dollars win out over the long-term prospects of tribal nations and mankind in general. Land exploitation is rife with ecological nightmares, and it is usually the people of the land who are left behind to suffer. Here are a few instances of devastating tribal land grabs from the past 80 years.

Black Mesa, Arizona

In 1966, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, the newly installed Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils (brought together specifically for the purpose of mining Black Mesa), and Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates (a coalition of 21 energy companies from seven states,) granted Peabody Coal Company the right to mine Black Mesa. More than 64,000 acres of Black Mesa, the sacred Hopi lands in the four corners area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico were mined, 40,000 of which had been shared by the Navajo and the Hopi, states CulturalSurvival.org, an indigenous rights advocacy organization.

In 1974, Senator John McCain wrote the 1974 Relocation Act, which forced more than 10,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi from their homelands to allow further mining. To drive the Navajo out, their homes, traditional plants, and medicines were destroyed, and they were offered land in Chambers, Arizona—the site of a uranium mining accident. Many Navajo developed lung cancer and babies were born with birth defects.

According to a 2012 Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission report, “the human rights of thousands of Navajo citizens were violated, compromised and swindled away before, during and after people were forcibly removed.”

Watch a documentary called “Broken Rainbows” about this on YouTube.

Ocotillo, Southern California

The Ocotillo Express Wind Facility was built quickly in 2012 on 10,150 acres of public land in Southern California. The area was a sacred site to the Quechan, Kumeyaay, Cocopah Nations, among others.

Before the wind factory, the Bureau of Land Management website for the territory read: “Removing, disturbing, or attempting to remove archaeological materials is a felony.” But when President Barack Obama announced his program for green energy, all of that changed.

According to the lawsuit or filed by the Quechan Nation in 2012, the area qualified as a historically protected site under the National Registry of Historic Places, but Pattern Energy ignored the presence of culturally rich artefacts, including pottery shards and ceremonial circles, and continued construction of 112 wind turbines.

During construction, 19 sites with the remains of 22 Native cremations or burials were identified, and there were indications of possibly twice that many in the area. The documentary “Greed Energy” called the entire site “one continuous burial and ceremonial area, and has been for over 10,000 years.”

Now, three years after the project’s completion, dust storms have become common; prior to the wind farm, there had been none. At night, the jet engines of the turbines hum and bright red lights dot the once dark and peaceful desert. One resident, Parke Ewing, told ICTMN that the facility is only running at 24 percent and has never reached the goal of 34 percent.

Preston Arrow-Weed, Quechan, told ICTMN that the tribes have prayed about the site, which has had a powerful effect—an arm fell off of one of the turbines and the massive brake fell off another. Some of the turbines leak oil and have caught fire. Arrow-Weed said the dust that has been stirred up carries Valley Fever, and some have become sick. “Don’t mess with sacred sites,” Arrow-Weed said. “Because unusual things happen.”

Janklow/Daschle Rider Takes 92,000 Acres

In 1999, Governor Bill Janklow and Senator Tom Daschle tacked a rider to a 14,000-page Senate appropriations act, transferring 92,000 acres of treaty land to the state of South Dakota for recreational purposes. Only Cheyenne River and Lower Brule Sioux Tribes were consulted and received compensation.

The other five Lakota tribes named in the Fort Laramie Treaty—Standing Rock, Oglala, Santee, Yankton, Rosebud and Crow Creek—were not permitted to petition Congress, even though the move caused the tribes to lose their treaty rights, “guaranteed in perpetuity.”

Janklow told activists the Treaty of 1868 was not valid because he did not sign it and neither did the people present. “He has to deal with things the way they are today,” Bob Mercer, Janklow’s press secretary, said, adding that the move would build relationships between the state and the tribes.

Sale of 9,000 Acres in Michigan

In the “largest single public land deal in Michigan history,” according to the Detroit Free Press, almost 9,000 acres of land will be transferred to the Graymont Mining Co. to quarry for limestone in the state’s pristine Upper Peninsula.

RELATED: Michigan Sells Treaty-Protected, Pristine Public Land for Limestone Mine

Members of the Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians filed a class action lawsuit and injunction against Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Resources (MDNR). MDNR is the agent for the State of Michigan in the sale to Graymont.

Phillip Bellfy, White Earth, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told ICTMN that the judge dismissed the case without standing. Bellfy believes the case was dropped because no tribal councils committed to the lawsuit, although several wrote resolutions against the Graymont sale.

According to Win Awenen Nisitotung, the newspaper of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, DNR protocol dictates a 30-day public comment period once any revisions are received, however, no such public comment period was allowed.

An injunction filed by Bellfy stated the “Defendant ignored the information, consultation, negotiation, and Dispute Resolution mandate” of a 2007 Inland Consent Decree that upholds the rights granted by the 1836 Treaty of Washington Ceded Territory.

If the land is sold, approximately 13,000 acres of pristine landscape will fall under the mine’s pursuits, and while the judge ruled in favor of allowing the sale, he referred the issue to the Court’s Magistrate to pass it on to a judge who oversees the consent decree.

This dirt road in the bucolic Upper Peninsula of Michigan could be replaced by asphalt, with mining trucks lumbering into and out of the woods. (Detroit Free Press/Associated Press)

A March 19, 2015 announcement by the MDNR states the deal, approved in March, allowed the direct sale of approximately 1,781 acres of state-owned land and 7,026 acres of mineral rights to Graymont. A land exchange whereby Graymont will acquire approximately 830 acres of state-owned land, and a 10-year option secured by Graymont to acquire an easement over a maximum of 55 acres of state-owned land within an identified area of 535 acres.

Graymont will pay $4.53 million and $0.30 per ton of limestone removed from the ground. According to Sault Tribe Board Chairperson Aaron Payment, “We are also concerned about the potential environmental impacts of the proposed mining activities; to the best of our knowledge, these impacts have not even been identified or discussed, at least publicly.”

Dr. Martin Reinhardt, an assistant professor of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University, Sault Tribe member, said in Win Awenen Nisitotung, “This decision to allow Graymont to open a mine was highly irresponsible… and exemplifies how the state is mismanaging public lands in violation of Anishinaabe treaty rights and human rights in general. You can get short-term economic gains through these types of actions, but it will have severe repercussions for future generations. Our Anishinaabe ancestors warned us about this path of destruction, and it is up to us to stop it before it is too late.”

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