Last Dance 

Hopi tribesmen destroy Camp Ana Mae Sun Dance grounds in northern Arizona

High in the northeastern Arizona desert, branches of cedar lie in scattered heaps in the sand. Among them rest the remnants of prayers -- strips of red and yellow cloth, bundles of white sage, and bits of tobacco and flesh offerings. Piles of blankets stand where there once were sweat lodges. In the center of the debris where the Sacred Tree stood, there is a 3-foot-deep hole surrounded by tire tracks.

This is all that remains of the Camp Ana Mae Sun Dance grounds. Employees of the Hopi Tribe bulldozed the site on Aug. 17 under the protection of the Hopi police, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency, and the Navajo County Police, an Arizona state agency, leaving many in the American Indian community shocked and outraged.

The incident marks the latest chapter in the decades-long conflict between the traditional Din -- the Spanish called them Navajos -- people of Black Mesa, the U.S. government, and the Hopi Tribal Council. It also raises serious questions about religious freedom for American Indians. It also calls into question the roles of federal and state agencies, which are bound by the Constitution and by federal law to protect American Indian people's access to traditional spiritual practices.

The Hopi Tribe's action has alternately been compared to the burning of black churches in the American South, the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israelis, and the recent blasting of ancient Buddha statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan. But while those events were highly publicized and were met with public outrage, the destruction of the Camp Ana Mae Sun Dance site, named after murdered Indian activist Ana Mae Pictou-Aquash, has gotten little media attention and heard even less outcry.

Conflict and ceremony

The turmoil on Black Mesa, like most Indian conflicts, has its roots in the westward expansion of the United States. On Black Mesa, the trouble came with the discovery of coal by a U.S. geological team.

Eager to protect the coal deposits from encroaching white settlers who might be hard to move off the land, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur created the Hopi Reservation by executive order in 1882. This reservation was to serve as the home for the Hopi and any other Indian people the government decided to settle there.

The land enclosed in the 1882 reservation included mesas the Hopi had called home for an estimated 2,000 years. It also included valleys where the Din, a migratory people, had roamed with their sheep for hundreds of years. Although the Navajo had a reservation of their own to the west, created in 1868, many Navajo had settled in and around ancestral sites on Black Mesa after their release from imprisonment at the hands of the U.S. government. Although there were skirmishes between individual families and occasional supply raids, the two nations lived side by side, repeatedly exchanging sacred bundles as tokens of friendship.

The Din, who outnumbered the Hopi, increased in population, and in a series of land grants, their reservation came to surround the 1882 reservation. By 1943, the government set off a portion of the 1882 reservation for the exclusive use of the Hopi. The remaining portions of the reservation came to be known as the Joint Use Area, available to Hopi and Din alike.

In the 1950s, Peabody Coal Company set its eyes on Black Mesa's high-quality coal deposits, the largest single coal field in the nation. To mine the land, however, Peabody needed the cooperation of the Din and the Hopi, as the two shared title to the land.

Enter John Boyden, a Mormon attorney whose firm secretly represented Peabody. Without disclosing his true interests, Boyden first offered his services to the Navajo Nation government, which rejected him. He then turned to the Hopi and, rebuilding its tribal council with men of his own choosing, began to encourage the Hopi to sue for title to the coal-rich land. (Although he offered his services pro bono, a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Native American Rights Fund of Boulder revealed that he had taken $2.7 million from the Hopi's trust fund.)

In 1974, Boyden pushed a law through Congress -- The Navajo-Hopi Relocation Act -- that divided the Joint Use Area into Hopi Partitioned Land and Navajo Partitioned Land. Most of the coal ended up on the Hopi side.

About 15,000 Din and 1,500 Hopi suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the fence. Given the option of relocation by force or signing a lease that acknowledges Hopi jurisdiction over their land, many Din decided to resist. Of the 15,000 Din on Black Mesa, only 10 of them currently continue to resist, refusing to sign the lease because they believe it violates their religious rights.

"There is no word 'relocated' in the Din language," says Pauline Whitesinger, an elderly Din woman and non-signer who lives on Black Mesa, where she raises sheep and grows corn. "To relocate is to die."

The resisters claim to have suffered years of harassment, ranging from destruction of water wells to capricious livestock impoundments, at the hands of Hopi Rangers and federal officers -- claims the Hopi and the federal government steadfastly deny.

Although area newspapers in 1974 predicted a "range war," there has been little to no violence, as the Din turned to prayer instead of weapons. In 1985, Din elders, together with some Hopi traditionals, traveled north to the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation in South Dakota and asked them to share their Sun Dance.

The Din resisters believed the new form of prayer would make them stronger. The Lakota viewed their request as the fulfillment of prophecy and agreed. The Sun Dance, which incorporates Plains Indian traditions, has been held annually at Camp Ana Mae near Big Mountain ever since.

Wiwang wacipi

The Hopi Tribal Council claims destruction of the Sun Dance grounds was necessary to prevent illegal political activity.

Hopi staff arrived at Camp Ana Mae at about 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 17 and used chain saws and bulldozers to remove an arbor and the site's Sacred Tree. Sacred objects, including strips of cloth representing individual prayers (prayer ties), bundles of white sage used for purification, and even flesh offerings were bulldozed into the dirt when the altar was torn down. Two people were arrested during the raid.

"This is just one of the steps that the Hopi Tribe will be taking to enforce its jurisdiction over the Hopi Reservation," said Cedric Kuwaninvaya, chairman of the Hopi Land Team. "We will keep a close eye on the former site of Camp Ana Mae to ensure that the trespassers do not try and establish another camp at which they hold unwanted gatherings and celebrate their lawlessness."

The trespassers to which Kuwaninvaya refers are members of the Din Benally family who live there. Descendents of matriarch Alice Benally have lived on and around the site for several generations, raising sheep and goats and growing corn. Their umbilical cords were planted in the soil when they were born to symbolize their "deep roots" with the land.

"It hurts my heart deeply to see this, but I never thought I would live to see it," says Joseph Chasing Horse, a hereditary Lakota Sun Dance chief. "We are praying for the Hopi people."

Chasing Horse has been leading the ceremonies at Camp Ana Mae for 16 years. In that time, the Sun Dance has caught on like wildfire among the Din. In recent years, as many as four Sun Dances have been held around Black Mesa, some attracting 500 dancers. The ceremony is now a part of life for many Din and some Hopi.

The purpose of the Sun Dance is give back to the Earth what people have taken, Chasing Horse says. The ceremony is called wiwang wacipi in Lakota, which translates roughly to "dancing in balance in the circle of life," and entails four days of fasting and offering one's own flesh and blood through piercing.

The ceremony is held in a circular arbor that represents the Sacred Hoop. At the center is the Tree of Life, a cottonwood, which is selected, cut and placed ceremonially, then covered with prayer ties. Men tie piercing sticks passed through the skin of their backs and chests to the tree with ropes, then put their weight on the ropes and dance to the drums until the flesh tears free. Women also dance, piercing the skin of their shoulders.

This year's Sun Dance was held in mid-July. Although the Hopi blocked the road and threatened to cite anyone attending the ceremony with trespassing, the ceremony continued, dancers bringing in the Sacred Tree under cover of darkness.

Kidnapping the elders

In response to them sneaking the tree in, the Hopi police invited five Din women, most of them members of the Benally family, to come with them to Kykotsmovi, where Hopi government offices are located, to speak with tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor about a permit.

When they arrived in Kykotsmovi, Chairman Taylor was not available. The women asked to be returned to Camp Ana Mae but were instead arrested and taken to jail. In addition to the arrests, numerous citations were handed out to participants.

"That's kidnapping to me," Chasing Horse says. "So they kidnapped our elders thinking they were stopping the ceremony by taking them out of there."

It's not the first time the Din have had difficulty performing the ceremony at Camp Ana Mae. In 1999, Hopi Rangers, BIA police, and state police set up roadblocks near the site because the Benallys had not obtained a permit for the ceremony. Hopi Rangers searched cars, confiscating water, food, and medical supplies, and threatened to arrest dancers. Many white supporters were turned away. Some feared it would be the last Sun Dance to take place at Camp Ana Mae.

For the Din the issue is simple: Black Mesa is their home, and they have a right to live there and to follow their spiritual traditions without permits. They point out that Hopi residents held, without obtaining a prior permit, a Christian revival the same week of the Sun Dance and were not disturbed or cited.

Claire Heywood, spokeswoman for the Hopi Tribal Council, said the heart of the issue from the Hopi perspective is this: It's Hopi land, and the Hopi want it back. The Hopi don't object to the Sun Dance as long as it isn't held on their land.

Because of the recurring difficulty each summer, a decision was made to dismantle the site. The Hopi had no difficulty and felt no foreboding tearing down the Sun Dance structures despite their religious significance, she said.

"We don't view that as a sacred site -- it's just a site where sacred ceremonies take place," said Heywood, who, though an employee of the Hopi Tribal Council, is a white from South Africa who has lived in the United States for a decade.

"Are the Hopis insane?" asks Boulder attorney Lee Hill, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). "To the degree that the U.S. government is encouraging this, it is an act of cultural genocide."

Careful to distinguish the Hopi Tribal Council from the Hopi people, many of whom reject the U.S.-imposed council, Hill said the tribal council is exhibiting attitudes toward land that were introduced by Europeans.

"I would be terrified to do something like that," Hill said. "I don't think actions like that happen without severe (spiritual) consequences."

Politics and prayer

Heywood, who admits she has never been to the Ana Mae Sun Dance, was skeptical about the nature of the ceremonies held at Camp Ana Mae. The ceremonies, she said, were more political rallies than spiritual gatherings. The Hopi also object to the fact that so many outsiders, specifically white activists, attended ceremonies there.

"We resent all those strange people coming out," Heywood said.

Chasing Horse called Heywood's allegations "absurd."

"Perhaps she needs a class in cultural sensitivity," Chasing Horse said. The Sun Dance predates U.S. law and should be respected, he said.

Boulder residents Paul Soderman and Cathie Quigley have attended the Sun Dance ceremonies at Camp Ana Mae for the past 10 years. The couple runs The World Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building cross-cultural unity for all people, and have close ties to both Lakota and Din people.

Invited by a Sun Dancer, the two have acted in a support capacity, tending the fire, helping with sweats, and transporting supplies. For them, the Sun Dance is a way to pray.

"In our view, the focus of this ceremony has been purely spiritual despite the land dispute. We have no opinion on the land dispute," Soderman says. "To us, that's an outside issue."

Having attended other ceremonies elsewhere that included strong political messages, Soderman and Quigley say they feel comfortable at Camp Ana Mae because there is no political agenda.

According to Soderman, when Chasing Horse spoke to the dancers prior to this year's Sun Dance, he simply said, "Let's go pray."

"It impressed me," Soderman said.

The destruction of the Sun Dance grounds came as a shock to Soderman and Quigley, who got the news from Chasing Horse himself.

"If you're involved in that prayer, you're connected to these things in every way -- spiritually, emotionally, physically," Soderman says. "Everything there is a living prayer, so how it felt to us is a violation of our being."

Quigley said she felt a terrible sadness when she heard what had happened. However, she draws comfort from the thought that people's prayers are safe.

"There's nothing they can do," Quigley says. "In my opinion, bulldozers and chain saws can never stop a prayer. The prayer continues."

Louise Benally, who was one of the five women arrested in July, agrees.

"The people's prayers are still in place. The power of the Tree is still working," Benally said. "We will have our ceremonies. Our ceremonies will go on regardless of their aggression. That's one thing they're afraid of -- spiritual unity, spiritual solidarity."

Benally's son, Eric Crittendon, was one of the two arrested during the raid. He had tried to take pictures and refused to leave the area, and is now facing trespassing charges.

"I'm proud of him," Benally said. "He just turned 18, but Eric has grown up here, so he's very aware of a lot of stuff. With Grandma going to jail in the '70s and '80s and Mom, too, he's aware of how people are treated out here."

That treatment includes harassment and cultural insensitivity, relocation resisters say. When the five women were arrested, two elders -- Pauline Whitesinger and Ruth Benally -- were forced to wear pants in jail, something foreign to traditional Din women, who wear skirts. It was interpreted as a sign of disrespect.

"I was a woman, but now I'm a man," Whitesinger reportedly said after being forcefully stripped of her skirt and made to put on pants.

Whitesinger had never worn pants in her 80-plus years and was so uncomfortable she tore a sheet off her jail cot and wrapped it around her waist like a skirt.

Fear and the future

On Aug. 25, many traditional Din attended a meeting at Camp Ana Mae, despite Hopi threats of arrest, to voice their concerns to Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye. Sitting in the heat for several hours, Begaye listened while Din elders expressed their grief, anger and fear, some elders breaking into tears.

"The people are grieving, feeling sick," said one elderly matron.

Some Sun Dancers were too upset to speak about the destruction of the Sun Dance site.

"The destruction of this Sun Dance ground should be a sign to the Navajo Nation that someone is going to get hurt," said Joyce Wagner, a Din woman living on Hopi partitioned land.

Begaye has already issued a statement lambasting the Hopi government and asking for an apology.

"The Hopi government's decision to bulldoze the Sun Dance ceremony site at Big Mountain is deplorable," Begaye stated.

"In the strongest terms, I object to such a violent action against the Navajo families who reside on Big Mountain and who participate, as part of their spiritual beliefs, in the Sun Dance ceremony ... Like all peoples, the Navajo families on Big Mountain should have the freedom to practice their nonviolent beliefs without governmental interference."

The Hopi lashed back, refusing to apologize.

Members of the Navajo Nation Council resolved to provide legal help to the resisters, who plan to take the Hopi to court over the Sun Dance grounds.

As the dust settles at Camp Ana Mae, Din residents of HPL say they are now living in fear.

"It always hangs in the back of my mind what they'll do," Benally says.

Hopi officials say they continue to ask the Justice Department to forcibly evict the 10 families that have refused to sign leases. Kuwaninvaya publicly stated the Hopi government's intent to step up those efforts.

The outlaws

On one thing the Hopi government and Din agree: The United States is to blame for their current predicament. The Hopi say the U.S. government started it by allowing the Din to settle on land intended for the exclusive use of the Hopi. The Din fault the federal government for funding and supporting the actions of the Hopi government and the decades-old mining aims of Peabody.

"Because we don't ask permission to pray, they call us lawless," Louise Benally said. "They're the ones who are lawless because they don't follow the Constitution of this country."

An official from the Bureau of Indian Affairs said their agents did nothing illegal or unconstitutional when they offered support to the Hopi in dismantling the Sun Dance site.

"I would refer you to the Ling decision," said Tom Davis, Western regional range management specialist for the BIA.

That recent decision, handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, stated that one group of people cannot hold another group hostage because of religion, Davis said.

"Your religious interests are well and good, but you can't use them to control what someone else does on private land," he said.

The BIA was on hand simply to protect both the Din and the Hopi from one another during the demolition, Davis said. He has no worries that the agents' presence will be found to violate either the Constitution or federal law.

Meanwhile, since the bulldozing, chiefs and spiritual leaders from several Indian nations have gathered near Big Mountain to pray and to stand up for the Sun Dance. Among them is Arvol Looking Horse, chief of the Lakota and 19th-generation keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle.

"My prayer is for this issue to be resolved in a most Peaceful way," Looking Horse said in a written statement. He accused the Hopi who destroyed the Sun Dance site of having a "disease of the mind" brought to North America by outsiders.

Chasing Horse, who will be joining them at Big Mountain, said the words of Black Elk have been in his thoughts since he got word of the destruction. When chain saws cut down the arbor and the Sacred Tree, Black Elk's prophecy about the broken hoop and dead Tree of Life was fulfilled, he says. The repercussions affect everyone, not just Native people, he said.

"If there's going to be any hope in this world, we must mend that hoop and make that tree live again."


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