Conspiracy theories still rage over land
By Jerry Kammer
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 2, 2000
Non-Indian involvement remains
Navajo-Hopi deadline marked
BLACK MESA - Religious duty,
economic rivalry, cultural friction
and the vacillation of the federal
government -- these forces have
driven the Navajo-Hopi land
dispute for more than a century.
But some Navajos and their supporters also blame another, more
factor: White corporate greed.
Call it the "coal-conspiracy theory":
Critics of Navajo relocation charge that Peabody Coal Co. worked
secretly for legislation to evict the Navajos and clear the way to strip-mine
millions of tons of coal that remain key to the explosive growth of the
This claim burst onto the screen in Broken Rainbow, a 1985
Oscar-winning documentary narrated by actor Martin Sheen.
Even today, one non-Indian group flatly declares on the Internet
Navajos are being moved "so that Peabody Western Coal Company can
mine their coal-rich land."
Just as flatly, Peabody spokeswoman Beth Sutton denies it.
"I've been saying until I'm blue in the face that Peabody
has nothing to do
with the dispute," Sutton said.
The theory also exasperates Hopi officials, who say it trivializes
Navajo-Hopi history. As tribal spokesman Eugene Kaye says, "This land
issue has been here a long time before Peabody."
An Arizona Republic examination found that no direct evidence
Peabody or any other commercial interests applied political muscle during
the Navajo-Hopi fight in Congress.
And in the 25 years since relocation became law, thousands
have relocated, but Peabody has not extended its mining beyond the area it
leased in the 1960s.
Sutton said Peabody has more than enough coal under lease to
customers demands far into the future. She rejects the Navajo claim that
the company has its eye on Big Mountain, the center of resistance to
relocation. Pointing out that Big Mountain is 15 miles from the mining
operations, she suggests that the claim is geographically implausible.
Nevertheless, Peabody's history in Navajo-Hopi country is open
question. It is a history replete with apparent conflicts of interest - on the
part of government officials, a tribal attorney and a high-ranking
Department of Interior official who played a key role in the land dispute
and then went to work for the coal-mining company.
There is also evidence that the company allied itself with
the Hopis in the
early 1970s, when both encountered the Navajos' aggressive new
chairman, Peter MacDonald.
A heavy lode
At the center of this swirling cloud of charges and suspicions
Mesa coal, millions of tons of fuel that for nearly three decades have been
vital to the fortunes of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and other major
Five million tons annually come from the mine that lies on
land caught up in
the Navajo-Hopi disputes. The mine flushes the coal through a 273-mile
underground pipeline to the Southern California Edison's power plant on
the Colorado River at Laughlin, Nev.
Peabody takes an additional 7 million tons from exclusively
Navajo land to
power the Navajo Generating Station at Lake Powell. Operated by the
Salt River Project, the plant sends much of the power to homes around
The plant is co-owned by the federal government, which uses
some of the
electricity to power Central Arizona Project pumps that bring water from
the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson.
Peabody signed leases with the Navajos and Hopis in the 1960s,
federal courts ruled that the tribes were joint owners of 1.8 million acres of
land centered on Black Mesa.
A 1964 article in the Oil and Gas Journal noted that the rulings
opened up an area long believed to contain vast energy storehouses.
"For more than 35 years, oil explorers have been frustrated
over land boundaries," the article noted. The same was true for coal
companies until the two tribes were able to work together to sign the
But that lease quickly came under fire for providing the tribes
rock-bottom royalty rates.
In 1970, Peter MacDonald was elected Navajo chairman and began
talking tough. MacDonald said he wanted to renegotiate with Peabody. He
also vowed to protect the environment from the mines and power plants
springing up around the edge of the Navajo Reservation.
"We will not turn our land into another Los Angeles, and
we won't let
anyone else do it," MacDonald said.
Meanwhile, the Hopi tribal chairman was speaking as a friendly
would never dream of threatening the supply of electricity to Phoenix
air-conditioners and swimming-pool pumps.
"In a real sense, we consider ourselves fortunate to have
plants developed in the areas around our reservation," Clarence Hamilton
said in a 1972 statement.
It is here, in Hamilton's approach to the coal issue, that
among the Hopis, the coal and the land dispute.
Hamilton's 1972 statement, for example, was prepared by the
City public-relations firm of Evans and Associates. The firm was hired by
John Boyden, the Hopis' Salt Lake attorney.
It was also Evans who, according to the Washington Post, "virtually
stage-managed a range war on the borders of the Hopi Reservation" to
convince journalists that Congress must intervene in the Navajo-Hopi land
As the Hopis' attorney, John Boyden, was active in pushing
intervene for the Hopis. His list of clients included Peabody Coal Co.
Boyden's dual role representing both the Hopis and Peabody
was a clear
conflict of interest, according to University of Colorado law Professor
Charles Wilkinson. Wilkinson said Boyden's dual loyalty could have
compromised the Hopis, pushing them to accept Peabody's royalty offer.
But it also could have given Boyden and the Hopis a powerful
Peabody in the push for relocation of Navajos.
Meanwhile, another potential link between Peabody and the land
surfaced in the person of Harrison Loesch, a U.S. Department of Interior
assistant secretary and supervisor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
According to former Interior lawyer Graham Holmes, it was Loesch
in 1972 changed the Interior Department's long-standing policy of
neutrality in the Navajo-Hopi dispute.
In a recent interview, Holmes recalled that Loesch ordered
Commissioner Louis Bruce to testify for Boyden's bill at a congressional
Fired from Interior in 1972, after Indian militants seized
headquarters in Washington, D.C., Loesch joined the Republican staff of
the Senate Interior committee, which in 1974 passed the relocation
He later became a Washington lobbyist for Peabody Coal.
It was during the early 1970s, critics charge, that Peabody
behind the scenes to assure itself the best possible deal on its coal leases,
regardless of the impact on the tribes.
Historian Alvin Josephy pointed to Black Mesa coal development
prime example of federal failure to protect Indian rights. In 1971, Josephy
reported that the "negotiations and lease contract signings . . . were carried
out so quietly that they provide a classroom example of how serious has
become the lack of accountability by government agencies working
hand-in-glove with industry in the United States today."
Last June, the Navajo Tribe itself weighed in, claiming in
a lawsuit against
Peabody that the firm conspired against the tribe by hiring a lobbyist to
derail a 1984 federal plan that would have boosted Peabody's royalty
payments at Black Mesa.
Under the 1964 lease, the Navajos were receiving a 2 percent
the coal. But the lease allowed the government to adjust the royalty rate
after 20 years.
In 1984, the suit contends, Interior staffers determined that
should rise to 20 percent. But that proposal never saw the light of day.
The suit claims it was quietly killed by Interior Secretary
after Peabody hired as a lobbyist former Interior official Stanley Hulett,
Hodel's close friend.
The Navajos, working without knowledge of the 20 percent
recommendation, agreed to a 12.5 percent royalty. They are now charging
Peabody with fraud and with subverting the Interior Department's fiduciary
duty to the Navajos. They claim the scheme has cost them $600 million in
Peabody and Hodel, now a consultant in Colorado, both reject
conspiracy charge. The company claims that in hiring Hulett, it was merely
exercising its right to lobby. Hodel claims he never lost sight of his
Despite such denials, the lawsuit continues to make its way
federal court in Washington, where trial is pending.
And despite the lack of conclusive evidence against Peabody
corporation's controversial history makes it a convenient target for