Longform

Dark Days on Black Mesa

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The settlement proposal, however, is opposed by some members of the Hopi Tribal Council and the former Hopi tribal chairman.

Besides the high cost to the Hopi, critics say the proposed settlement was developed by a man with strong ties to the Navajo.

Animosity and suspicion between the Hopi and Navajo run high.
The tribes continue to battle over land rights. Illegal Navajo occupation of some Hopi land has earned the Hopi a judgment against the Navajo worth about $20 million. The Navajo, so far, have refused to pay the judgment.

Under the proposed Little Colorado settlement developed by Arizona's Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael C. Nelson, the Hopi would forgive that judgment against the Navajo.

Before he became a judge, Nelson served as legal counsel to former Navajo tribal chairman Peterson Zah between 1982 and 1987. He's also written several books about Navajo government and has served on several Navajo committees.

Former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva is worried about Nelson's long relationship with the Navajo and his proposed Little Colorado settlement.

"Why should we support the position where the Navajos would not have to pay a $20 million settlement to the Hopi?" Masayesva asks.

Masayesva says he's sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, "particularly after having seen what John Boyden has done."

The long, sordid history of the exploitation of Black Mesa by Peabody, Boyden, the federal government and utilities has turned Masayesva and other tribal leaders into cynics.

And now, the Hopi tribe faces another crucial moment in its long history.
"I just can't have trust in anyone who, in my opinion, is not neutral. I don't think Judge Nelson can be, regardless of what he says. In any other situation, it would not be acceptable," Masayesva says.

But this isn't "any other situation"--this is Black Mesa.

Most Hopi ceremonies revolve around prayers for rain.
"We are praying for the cycle of nourishment for all life," says Gloria Lomahaftewa, assistant to the director of Native American affairs at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

The prayers for rain never stop, even in death.
Hopi tradition, Lomahaftewa says, states that when a wife dies, she should be wrapped in her wedding robes for her ride back to heaven. There she will be turned into a cloud.

If she has led a good life, she will return a great blessing to her people.
She will transform into a cloudburst.

John Dougherty is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times, where this story first appeared.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty

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