Earth Mother vs. Money
Abbott Sekaquaptewa and I were sitting precariously on the edge of a mesa, the dark desert spread out below us, the night sky overcast and black.
Abbott told me that way back when the Hopi were protected by the Apache, the Hopi tribe was united—everyone hated the Apache and would have nothing to do with them. But later, when the Hopi were protected by the Spanish, some Hopi cozied up to their Spanish masters, learned Spanish, even had children with them.
During the famous Pueblo Revolt in 1680, however, all the Spaniards were killed, as were the Hopi “collaborators.” Unfortunately, ten years later the Spaniards returned in force and reconquered the Hopi.
When the Americans expelled the Spanish, a similar phenomenon happened—some Hopi hated the Americans, while others attended American-style schools, learned English, became Christians, even went to American universities.
Over the long decades of American domination, the Hopi tribe gradually divided into the “friendlies”—the majority—and the “hostiles,” a passionate minority. The Sekaquaptewas were among the most progressive, Abbott said, willing to cooperate with the whites as a way to improve the lives of the tribal members.
Indeed, one of Abbott’s relatives, Emory Sekaquaptewa, graduated from West Point and law school and was a professor at the University of Arizona. Emory was also the editor of the first Hopi dictionary.
However, many Hopi fell into the “hostiles” camp. Most villages were either friendly or hostile, but the largest village, Oraibi, was divided. That village suffered many years of tension and strife, especially between the chief of the “friendlies,” Lololoma, and the “hostiles” chief, Lomahongyoma. In 1906, the dispute had become so bitter that the “hostiles” left en masse and founded the new village of Hotevilla a few miles down the road.
Abbott emphasized that not all hostiles hated white people, although some surely did. Many simply felt that intermingling with the whites was inherently corrupting to traditional Hopi values, and therefore the whites were to be avoided like the plague.
After that, Abbott was silent for so long I thought he might have fallen asleep. But then he said, “The hostiles are not all wrong. The Hopi venerate the Earth Mother, even those of us who are baptized. The mining at Kayenta and Mohave—it is like ripping out the Earth Mother’s internal organs. Mining is not stewardship, it is not sustainable. And the water in the underground aquifer is like the blood of the Earth Mother. It is sacred, not something to be used to pump coal somewhere.”
Abbott sighed deeply, then added, “But we need the money.”
It was at that moment that I knew in my heart the Hopi tribe would never come to a consensus about the mining and water and royalties. The hostiles knew as well as anyone that the Hopi needed money—the tribe was desperately poor. But mining and profligate water use was, for them, a sacrilege, pure and simple. There could be no compromising the Hopi obligation to care for the Earth Mother.
At the same time, the friendlies were horrified by the mining and embarrassed by their willingness to, in effect, allow the Earth Mother’s organs and blood to be ripped from her body. On the other hand, Hopi were dying for lack of good medical care and sound nutrition. Money could save lives.
Altogether Abbott had talked for almost two hours and I hadn’t said a word. But now that he seemed to be finished, I asked an obvious question: “If the tribe is so divided, Abbott, how can we possibly negotiate with sophisticated coal and utility companies? To say nothing of the Navajo, Abbott, where the tribal chairman, Peter McDonald, is a notoriously sharp-elbowed operator?” (McDonald, friend of American Presidents and senators, would eventually be sent to prison for fraud.)
Abbott stood up, dusted himself off, and walked back to the village, speaking not a word until we had arrived at his ancient pickup truck. Then he said, “Tomorrow I will speak with the mesa people.”
Sure enough, early the next morning Abbott began hiking up the long trail that led from the desert floor up to the top of the mesa. A large band of hostiles watched from the rim, outlined against the morning sky. All went well until Abbott got about one hundred feet from the summit. At that point the hostiles began shouting at Abbott and throwing rocks at him. Abbott shrugged, turned around and walked back down the trail.
“They don’t want to talk,” Abbott said.
I could go on and on, but the upshot is that I gave up. I flew back to Pittsburgh and prepared to call Peabody, the utility companies and the Navajo and cancel our scheduled meetings. First, though, I called my friend Jack Moore at Southern California Edison to let him know I had failed miserably in my attempt to help the Hopi.
“That’s too bad,” Jack said. “I think the utilities were willing to listen to what the Hopi had to say.”
Jack and I commiserated for a while, and then Jack said, “Wait a minute! Don’t you folks”—he meant the Mellons—“Don’t you folks support a bunch of environmental groups?”
“Robert Redford’s on the board of NRDC [the Natural Resources Defense Council]. He’s interested in these tribes and I’ll bet he’d be willing to help. You know—in return for a big contribution to NRDC.”
I doubted all this very much, but I did call NRDC, which set up a meeting with Redford. I explained to “Bob” (we were on a first-name basis for about three hours) about the difficulties I’d had with the Hopi and that I was about to cancel the negotiating sessions we’d set up.
“When are those meetings?” Bob asked. I told him and he consulted his calendar. “I think I could do that,” he said. “Let me give it some thought.”
Exactly what Redford could do for the Hopi that I hadn’t been able to do was a mystery to me, but I supposed that was why he was rich and famous and I was working seventy-hour weeks. What Redford actually ended up doing was—well, it was simply amazing, as we’ll see next week.
Next up: Abbott Sekaquaptewa, Part V