“This tree is a prophecy. That’s what the Hopi rangers don’t understand. This tree is the fulfillment of a prophecy. This is the end of the 4th world in Hopi prophecy. The name of the 5th world is the World of Glittering Trees.” — Joseph Chasing Horse, Sun Dance Chief, Big Mountain, AZ – July, 2001
BIG MOUNTAIN, AZ – Perhaps officials of the federally mandated Hopi tribal government took heart from the cancellation of last year’s Sun Dance ceremony on the Hopi Partitioned Lands of Big Mountain, AZ. Certainly they’ve tightened their grip on the inhabitants, legally their tenants, by pouncing on livestock which exceed arbitrary quotas, by capping wells in the midst of a drought and falling water tables, and by their arrogant trampling over the ancestral homelands of the local population and the arbitrary enforcement of capricious laws by Hopi Range Monitors.
Perhaps the re-emergence of the Sun Dance ceremony this year, the first of a four year cycle, took the Hopi Tribal Council by surprise. Perhaps their grip on the ill-gotten lands wasn’t as firm as they had hoped. Maybe, despite a shameful lack of support by the Navajo tribal government, and despite hardship, attrition, and death, the roots of the resistance remain strong; and maybe, too, despite an absence of balanced reporting on the issue (if any), support for the resistance from Indians and non-Indians alike remains committed to protecting their native rights to live inviolate and sovereign on their ancestral lands.
Eager to trumpet their title to the land as a fait accompli, the tactics of the Hopi government vis a vis its Navajo tenants on the Hopi Partitioned Lands have always been crude. However, their response to the July 2001 Sun Dance revealed a new, desperate energy, one which has the potential for exposing their crimes against the human rights of the people whom the U.S. Congress, at the behest of Peabody Coal, awarded them as tenants.
This Sun Dance was brought to Big Mountain, to resistance Camp Ana Mae, in 1987. It is one of two Sun Dances brought to Big Mountain by Lakota people to support the resistance to relocation. Yearly these Sun Dances inspire and re-invigorate people from the surrounding communities. The one at Camp Ana Mae is the only Sun Dance on the still- contested Hopi Partitioned Lands.
Hopi rangers and Bureau of Indian Affairs police quickly appeared at the entrance to Camp Ana Mae (Hopi Range Unit 262) following the departure of half the Sun Dance camp to gather the sacred cottonwood tree, center of the Dance. They announced they wanted to speak to the “person in charge” of the Sun Dance. Various people came down to speak with them, and all were informed that a permit would be required for the Sun Dance to be performed.
By the time the caravan returned with the tree securely fastened to a cattle trailer, the number of police cars had swelled to six, and one was blocking the entrance road, provoking alarm, anger, and heated exchanges with the police.
Finally Chief Hopi Ranger Marvin Yoyetewa persuaded five local women to travel to Kykotsmovi for the permit, a mere formality. The tree would wait at the entrance to the camp until the women returned. Their decision to go to Kykotsmovi was motivated by the hope of relieving tension around the roadblock.
Trusting Yoyetewa’s words, the three grandmothers and two younger women were carried in two police cars to Kykotsmovi, where no one was found waiting to speak with them.
Instead, they were placed under arrest and taken to Keams Canyon and jailed. Arrested were Louise Benally, Joella Ashkie, Ruth Benally, Elvira Horseherder, and Pauline Whitesinger. They were stripped, and given jail suits. “I was a woman, but now I’m a man,” proclaimed Pauline Whitesinger, who has never worn pants in her nearly 80 years, before stripping a sheet from the bed and wrapping it around her waist like a skirt.
One of those who returned with the tree to find the road blocked by police was John Benally, lifelong resident. Seeing his ancestral lands invaded and his people threatened, facing an armed force on the land of his birth attempting to derail a sacred ceremony, an angry Benally told Yoyetewa that “we will stop anyone who tries to interfere with the Sun Dance”.
That evening on the TV news in Flagstaff, Yoyetewa was telling reporters that Benally had threatened to shoot Hopi Rangers. This was repeated by at least two morning papers (Gallup Independent and Arizona Daily Sun).
Yoyetewa’s assertion was as far from the truth as was his offer of a permit. Yoyetewa and his men were the only ones with guns.
By his words, and by the press’ docile repetition of them, Yoyetewa is setting up John Benally. He is endangering him.
Make no mistake. It is the Hopi rangers that have made a threat against John Benally, not the other way around.
Late that night, supporters who had gone to Kykotsmovi in the false hope of bailing out the five arrestees returned to find the tree sitting at the entrance to the camp, and no police. Quickly the tree was driven up to the arbor, morning had not yet broken, and everyone in camp was roused to help place it in the ground.
In the dark, perhaps a hundred people lifted the huge 35 foot tree onto the ground next to the hole, while others scrambled over it attaching prayer ties, prayer flags, and ropes which would be used to hoist the tree and later to tear out the cherrywood from the pierced flesh of those making offerings. All were tied so quickly and skillfully by the Sun Dancers, as if they were just tying their shoes, that in no time it all they scrambled off the tree, and as the first light of morning appeared in the sky the sweating, grunting mob lovingly hoisted the tree into its place in the center of the arbor and firmly fixed it there.
With an enormous sense of joy and relief the crowd circled the tree for a prayer, then dispersed, leaving the Sun Dancers to sweat and prepare for their first rounds.
This was a victory, but at the cost of five arrests.
This was not the first illegal Sun Dance. Christians, missionaries, and bureaucrats whose job it was to superintend the lives of the surviving Plains Indians on their reservations took offense at the Sun Dance and had it declared illegal in the 1880’s. It wasn’t until 1934 when U.S Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier issued Circular No. 2970 on Indian Religious Freedom that it was resumed legally. (This was the same John Collier who supervised the devastating reductions of Navajo livestock in the 1930’s).
The next day the five were released on their own recognizance, charged with “criminal trespass”, and assigned to a hearing at Keams Canyon on July 30. They returned to camp joyfully to find the tree safely in the arbor surrounded by Dancers, the drums beating, and singers lifting their voices to the sky.
As the Sun Dance progressed, police began to block the roads as they had in 1999, warning drivers and passengers that they faced fines of $500 doubling every day (Quick: How many days would it take for the fine to reach a million dollars? Answer: 12 days). In fact the notices Hopi police were handing drivers were dated July 9, 1999. In copying them, they hadn’t even bothered to change the date.
They then began issuing citations, though somewhat inconsistently. Some people were stopped by BIA police at the wash, then by Navajo police on the NPL side of the fence, an then issued citations by Hopi police if they crossed the line. Those who were darker and obviously native received tickets to Hopi Tribal Court, where non-Indians may not be tried. Others, not so obviously Indian, were ordered to Navajo County, State of Arizona court. Most were charged with criminal trespass, but on some citations the box for civil trespass was checked.
Some citations weren’t signed reflecting, many believe, a distaste for their task by the rank and file. Many described personal encounters in which police embarrassment was palpable.
The roadblocks intensified and were set up on the back road on the second day of the Sun Dance. A truck with portapotties and a truck with water for the camp were not just ticketed but turned away, as was a doctor bringing medicine for a diabetic Sun Dancer.
Interestingly, in an apparently unrelated (?) occurrence, the water tank at Rocky Ridge School had been locked, denying access to a wide number of local residents who rely on it since wells are dry.
As an aside, most people consider their wells are dry because of the coal slurry line, the only one of its kind in the world, which takes a billion gallons of water a year from the desert aquifer underlying Black Mesa to slurry ground coal through a pipeline two hundred miles to a Laughlin, Nevada power plant where the coal is fired to generate power to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and the water is cleaned and sold to those thirsty cities.
One grandmother told of having had ponds and groves of fruit trees on her land her whole life, ponds now dry, fruit trees dead. This same grandma now must drive 50 round trip miles twice a day to get water for her sheep.
That night the back roads were clear of police, and water was brought into the camp.
As the Sun Dance went on, some people received tickets, some were stopped and had information taken from their driver’s licenses, some were just watched by police as they drove in.
And some turned around and didn’t try the blockade for good reasons or not. We will never know who many people traveled what distances to share the Sundance prayers and perhaps be healed only to find their way blocked and to have to return home, disappointed. One person heard a ranger say that 2 out of 3 cars were turned back by this show of force, but who can believe what they say?
The Sun Dance took its own time, and set its own pace, and proceeded magnificently to a conclusion on Sunday, July 15. Throughout the four days, countless thunderclouds had drifted by, monsoonlike, sometimes floating over the Sun Dance itself, dropping rain and flashing electric charges and booming, sometimes just lighting up the horizon, or sending a charge into some distant brush.
That final Sun Dance afternoon we watched the tree and its colorful prayer flags, newly washed by a thunderstorm, glittering in the last light of the day.