Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

February 14, 2023

The Long Journey Home: Peabody Coal removed 341 Navajo and Hopi ancestors from their burial places

Roberta and Danny Blackgoat protesting Peabody Coal
slurry line in Flagstaff. Photo Brenda Norrell.

The Long Journey Home

Peabody Coal removed 341 Navajo and Hopi ancestors from their burial places

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Feb. 14, 2023
Translated into French by Christine Prat

BLACK MESA, Arizona -- Peabody Coal removed 341 Navajo and Hopi from their burial places for its coal mining, a tool of genocide, oppression and relocation.

Southern Illinois University still has several million artifacts stolen from Black Mesa by Peabody Coal, some dating back 8,000 years.

On this long tragic road home, the ancestors were sent to five different museums -- in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Nevada, and then finally to the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff -- before reburial in their homeland. 

Louise Benally, Dine' of Big Mountain, said, 
"Peabody Coal Company doesn't have any respect for anything or anybody, only their greed matters." Benally responded in 2013,  after the discovery of the removal of the ancestors.

"They steal the souls of the ancestors that lie in the land. Bones need to be left alone," said Louise, who spent her life resisting Peabody Coal and relocation.

Peabody Coal's theft of the ancestors began 45 years earlier on Black Mesa.

Today, Nicole Horseherder, Diné, Big Mountain, Black Mesa and director of To Nizhoni Ani, said the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments have been held hostage.

"There is no end to the exploitation from Peabody Western Coal Company. They took over 60,000 acres of land for mining, pitted families against one another, destroyed shallow aquifers and water sources, impacted the balance of the deep aquifers, and dug up our ancestors just to send them to museums and institutions without our consent.

"It is a shame the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe have allowed themselves to be held hostage for 50 years, but Dine community members know that the artifacts and ancestral remains should be returned to Black Mesa for reburial," Horseherder told Censored News.

Nicole said Dine' who live on the land were never informed about the reburial of some of the ancestors.

"The fact that we were not informed or consulted is a testament as to how treacherous Peabody Coal Company has been to the Navajo communities. We have had a racist relationship with Peabody since they were granted coal leases."

Beginning in 1968, Peabody removed 200 ancestors from their burial places as it dug up the earth to mine coal on Black Mesa. More ancestors were removed from their burial places in Klethla Valley near Kayenta, for the railroad to carry coal to the power plant near Page, according to the NAGPRA notice.

It was Prescott College and Southern Illinois University that carried out the 'Black Mesa Archaeological Project,' -- benign words that cover up the horror of digging up graves and stealing ancestors and their last belongings. Prescott College announced bankruptcy during this time, according to the NAGPRA notice that details this horror.

Vernon Masayesva, former chairman of the Hopi tribe and founder and director of the Black Mesa Trust. Photograph: Sam A Minkler/The Guardian

Vernon Masayesva, former Hopi tribal chairman, said, “I am incensed that my ancestors were dug up, ground up and sent off to universities to be studied.”

The Guardian newspaper reported the struggle to bring the ancestors home in 2014. However, it was another five years before the ancestors were reburied.

“The bones are a byproduct of mining,” said Nicole Horseherder, an activist with the Navajo grassroots group Tó Nizhoni Ani. “They should have come up with a plan to rebury them… Instead, they created a situation they don’t know how to fix.”

A report by the Army Corps of Engineers described the deplorable conditions the ancestors were kept in at Southern Illinois University. The facilities had been broken into and artifacts were missing.

Alan Downer, a former historical preservation officer for the Navajo Nation, said the tribe had never authorized any remains to be loaned to a professor, Debra L Martin, who teaches at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He said he was “shocked to find out” about eight years ago, that she had had the bones since 1980, the Guardian reported.

Several million artifacts taken from Black Mesa by Peabody Coal remain at the university.

Kelley Hays-Gilpin, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Arizona who participated in the dig said in a written statement that on one Peabody dig she saw human bones being ground up by mining machinery and ancient ruins excavated with a backhoe, the Guardian reported.

Southern Illinois University still has several million artifacts from Black Mesa in the Black Mesa Archaeological Project. Photo Southern Illinois University website.

Bringing the ancestors home

Richard Begay, Navajo historic preservation officer, and Hopi cultural preservation officer Stewart Koyiyumptewa worked together to bring the ancestors home for reburial. Their efforts began in 2017, according to the Southern Illiniosan newspaper. 

Begay said, "We believe that the spiritual remains of those people are still residing at Black Mesa, though they had been languishing for quite some time.

"We wanted to make sure we gave them a sense of peace.”

Before the reburial, the burial objects remained in Carbondale, while the human remains had been transferred to a researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Representatives from both Navajo and Hopi traveled to Las Vegas to arrange for the skeletons’ return to Arizona. They also visited Carbondale twice to retrieve the burial items, driving them back to Arizona in a U-Haul.”

The ancestors were buried by Navajo and Hopi, with their own ceremonies, near the place where they were taken in May of 2019, Southern Illinoisan reported.

(Doc Searls/Wikimedia Commons)

Roberta Blackgoat: Peabody Coal is mining our Mother Earth's liver

Roberta Blackgoat, who spent her life battling Peabody Coal and resisting relocation,  said, "Our mother earth is like a human. It is as if she is getting a lot of surgeries everywhere and the dust is going out and getting in our lungs. It causes the cancer and these kinds of sickness. Our youngsters are being sent overseas and being used for their language and to kill people for Washington. Besides, we are not even recognized as humans. We need to be known."

"The most important thing that we've been mentioning in this area is that here is the Altar, that was given to us by the Holy People, and that the Four Sacred Mountains that we Dine' live here between are like a hogan, and where we live on Black Mesa is the Altar. And it is right here that they're mining our mother earth's liver, the coal. So we are struggling here to protect our Altar these days. That was the law that was made for Dine' people."

"We're not doing it only for the present human beings now. We're looking forward and on and on for generations to come so they can make a good life for themselves on the planet. We want to stop these pollutions so our young ones can live in a healthy way after us. That's how the prayer and the holy songs have been set -- that's our path, for a healthy way of life."

Museum of Northern Arizona

On Monday, Kristan Hutchison, director of public engagement at the Museum of Northern Arizona, told Censored News, that the Navajo and Hopi ancestors taken from Black Mesa were brought to Flagstaff from Las Vegas before being reburied in 2019.

The ancestors that were taken during the coal railroad construction had been at the Museum of Northern Arizona since the time they were removed from their burial places.

“All human remains and associated funerary objects recovered from the Black Mesa Archaeological Project and the Black Mesa/Lake Powell Railroad (everything reported in that Federal Register Notice) were repatriated to and reburied by the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation in May 2019.”

“As reported in the published notice, the remains from the railroad were housed at the Museum of Northern Arizona from their discovery until repatriation.”

The Museum of Northern Arizona was not involved in the removal of the remains at Black Mesa, but became involved when the repatriation process began in February of 2018.

“For Black Mesa Archaeological Project, the Museum of Northern Arizona was not involved in the fieldwork but once the repatriation was under discussion in 2018, the remains and objects were transferred from Southern Illinois University, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, to the Museum of Northern Arizona because we are close to both tribes and could house them until repatriation occurred."

"The transfer to the Museum of Northern Arizona was requested by the tribes to facilitate repatriation," Hutchison said/

The Tragedy is Detailed in the NAGPRA Notice 
by the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff:

(Above) Native American Graves and Protection Repatriation Act notice in Federal Register.

NAGPRA notice:

-- From 1967 to 1983, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issued Antiquities Act permits authorizing excavations in the Black Mesa region of Arizona. Black Mesa, an area of roughly 49,300 hectares, was leased to Peabody Coal Company (now Peabody Energy) by the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and Navajo Nation, Arizona, New Mexico & Utah for the purpose of mining coal deposits.

-- The Black Mesa Archaeological Project (BMAP), conducted by staff and students from Prescott College and later, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIU), gathered archaeological and anthropological data on Black Mesa.  In 1974, Prescott College declared bankruptcy and closed.

-- In 1976, after being housed at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, for one year, the Black Mesa Archaeology Project collections and records were transferred to Southern Illinois University.

-- In or about 1979, Southern Illinois University entered into a long-term loan agreement with Debra Martin for the human remains from Black Mesa Archaeological Project.

--Dr. Martin transported the human remains to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and in or about 1986, Dr. Martin moved the human remains to Hampshire College.

-- In or about 2006, Dr. Martin, with approval from Southern Illinois University, relocated the human remains to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

BIA was never consulted nor advised of any of these loans or moves. The associated funerary objects remained at Southern Illinois University.

-- In March and May 2018, the BIA, in consultation with the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and Navajo Nation, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, authorized the physical transfer of all Black Mesa Archaeological Project human remains and associated funerary objects to the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona. The human remains were transferred to the Museum of Northern Arizona in May 2018, and the associated funerary objects were transferred from Southern Illinois University to the Museum of Northern Arizona in October 2018.

-- In 1960 and 1971-72, additional excavations were conducted under Antiquities Act permits issued by the BIA on ten sites in Klethla Valley, Arizona. One site was excavated in 1960 as part of the construction of a highway. Nine sites were excavated in 1971 and 1972 within the right-of-way corridor for the Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad. Human remains and associated funerary objects were removed and have been housed at the Museum of Northern Arizona since their removal.

-- From 1960 to 1983, human remains representing, at minimum, 341 individuals were removed from numerous sites on Black Mesa and in Klethla Valley in Coconino and Navajo Counties, Arizona. No known individuals were identified.

The 10,889 associated funerary objects include ceramic vessels, beads, pollen and soil samples, sherds, lithics, plant and wood materials, groundstone, shells, and faunal remains. A complete, detailed inventory is on file with the National NAGPRA Program and available upon written request to the BIA.

Black Mesa Archaeologist Project

The Peabody mine on Black Mesa. Photograph: Sam A Minkler/The Guardian

                              Moencopi Wash is shown in the lower left corner.

Southern Illinois University says now:

The Black Mesa Archaeological Project is one of the largest, longest-running projects in the history of North American archaeology. Fieldwork spanned 17 years (from 1967 to 1983) and at its peak employed more than 200 persons in a single summer. Nearly 2,500 archaeological sites were identified, and more than 200 sites were excavated, on the 256 km2 of Black Mesa, Arizona, leased from the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe by Peabody Energy. Fieldwork produced several million artifacts, dating from over 8,000 years ago to historic times.

About the author

Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter in Indian country for 40 years, beginning at the Navajo Times during the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation. She was a correspondent for Lakota Times, Associated Press, and USA Today. After serving as a longtime staff reporter for Indian Country Today covering the west, she was censored and terminated. As a result, she created Censored News in 2006. Now a collective, Censored News is in its 17th year, with no ads, salaries or revenues, with 22 million page views.

Article copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News. Censored News content may not be used without written permission. Content may not be used on webpages with advertising, or any manner resulting in revenues, including films, television, books, dissertations, grants, non-profits, or in any other manner.

No comments: