Kee Watchman Speaks About Relocation at Big Mountain

Photo and article Kerry Richardson

Kee Watchman, a 54 year old Navajo Indian, talked to a small group December 15, 1997 at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California. Watchman was speaking on behalf of residents of an area where he is from in northeast Arizona formerly known as the Joint Use Area that had been shared by the Navajo and Hopi Tribes prior to the passage in 1974 of Public Law 93-531. The law partitioned the land between the Navajo and Hopi Nations and has resulted in a program to relocate the residents of the area, mostly Navajos living on land awarded to the Hopi Nation.

The area is often called Big Mountain, but when Mr. Watchman was introduced it was explained that the area also includes the communities of Cactus Valley, Red Willow Springs, Star Mountain, Thin Rock Mesa, and Red Lake. It is one of the more remote rural areas within the boundaries of the United States and one of the areas where traditional Navajo cultural activities of sheepherding and weaving are still practiced. The area is mineral rich and is adjacent to the Peabody Coal mine at Black Mesa. Watchman said the relocation law was passed to facilitate coal strip mining.

Watchman said that Big Mountain has been a sacred mountain for more than 1000 years where people collect medicinal herbs. Red Willow Springs is a headquarters of shrines where a special spring for ceremonial use was damaged in 1984 by heavy equipment run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Watchman said the residents of the area want to carry on their traditional way of life and religions.

Watchman said "Our religion is not being respected. Our religion is really tied to the land. Our burial sites are everywhere." He said he had been to the United Nations, most recently in July, and a United Nations representative from Geneva, a special rapporteur for religious intolerance, is scheduled to come to Big Mountain in February of 1998.

Watchman said around 2000 Indians still live in the area, but many have relocated to towns where they can't have sheep and horses, and after a few years elders, who used to live by weaving and shearing sheep, are missing everything they used to have. Some relocatees have tried to return to the land. Some have had difficulty with the money economy and have become homeless or have lost their health or turned to alcohol, and some of the older people have died.

Watchman said residents of the Big Mountain area have been negotiating for over six years with the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments and want to continue to live on the land. He said, "We want the land to be given back to us." There is a prohibition on new construction and limitations on the number of sheep that can be kept making it difficult for elders to have their families near them. Watchman said some of the ceremonial hogans have been bulldozed.

The tribal governments were said to be receiving millions of dollars from the coal mining companies. One of the organizers of the December 15 talk, Arlene Hamilton, requested supporters to contact tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials because residents of the Big Mountain area have experienced problems in obtaining permits to gather firewood to heat their homes. Homes in the area are not supplied with utilities.

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