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Sunrise at the Great Kiva - Chaco Canyon National Monument




"When you walk around the desert a bigfly will sometimes fly down and sit on your shoulder. In Navajo mythology he is a very important messenger deity known as Big Fly, also known as Littlewind.  He sits on your shoulder and whispers to the young heroes the answers to all the questions that their elders put to them when they were tested.  Big Fly and Littlewind is the voice of the Great Spirit revealing hidden wisdom  – it is the awakening of spiritual intelligence". Joseph Campbell, from The Power of Myth



The Whispering of Big Fly and Littlewind is a photographic documentary about a remarkable community of non-westernized traditional Navajo elders, their families, and the medicine men and women who live in, sustain, and protect a unique spiritually dynamic region of the Navajo and Hopi Nations known as Black Mesa.  Black Mesa, locally referred to as Big Mountain, is not a mesa nor is it black, and Big Mountain isn’t alpine. It is four thousand square miles of wind sculpted sandstone plateau, rolling hills and shallow valleys in northern Arizona.





More than a location on a map, this region is an island of traditional lifestyle and ancient cosmology – deluged by an ocean of modernization in contemporary Navajo and Hopi societies, and by enormous political and economic powers that shape the future of the region. Jointly inhabited by both tribes for centuries, Black Mesa and its southern spur Big Mountain are at the turning point where two worlds collide in surreal counterpoint.  This unique geographical region is a stage where an ancient culture clings to antediluvian knowledge at a precipice of time, juxtaposed by a modern energy crazed society ripping riches from a landscape holding twenty-one billion tons of coal – the largest coal deposits in the United States.


Fifty years ago strip-mining leases were signed, Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils were promised great wealth, and the largest forced migration of American citizens in our nations history went largely unnoticed in the American press.  Today, corporate profits grow, metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson continue to rise from an unforgiving desert, and Las Vegas is a family friendly theme park – all fueled from the mineral treasure chest opened beneath a native sky.  Yet the Navajo and Hopi remain poor – with human rights abuses and ecological devastation their living legacy.


In Navajo Mythology theearth is a living being (Mother Earth).  Navajo mothers bury their children’s umbilical cords in their sheep corrals to consecrate the child’s bond with the life sustaining forces of the earth, their livestock, and generations past, present, and unborn.  For the Navajo there can be no removal of human from this consecrated bond with the soil – a bond that is rooted in an ancient relationship of the human to the planetary consciousness.





Relocated Medicine Man Ben Silver                         Kee Shay - Big Mountain Chief of Salt Clan              Grandfather David - Hopi Medicine Man




Black Mesa/Big Mountain is a pivotal interface where myth is actualized for Navajos.  It is a special place where generations have believed that communication between human beings and the planetary being can be accessed, and where tradition has groomed and maintained shrines since the dawn of aboriginal life in the desert southwest.  Altars and medicine bundles (living beings who dream the world into existence) are carefully prayed over to sustain the subtle forces of nature and spirit. 


Functioning much like a human organ (elders believe that this particular land is Mother Earth’s Liver), BlackMesa/Big Mountain inter-relates with sacred sites throughout the world; in the same way organs co-create balance of the biological system within the human body. It is this mythological dialog that Navajo medicine men and women believe helps sustain the delicate balance of life forces on earth; in concert with shaman of the rain forests, exiled monks from Tibet, and indigenous spiritual leaders at sacred site on every continent. They believe that this global system of sacred sites and indigenous caretakers are the remnants and descendants of a civilization which pre-dates our known history.


Instead of being honored and sought for their knowledge and wisdom, they have been under siege from the prevailing cosmology of the modern world – ever since the Voyages of Discovery and the dawn of the Industrial Age.  Fossil fuel exploration, energy development, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny have pushed indigenous cultures to the brink of extinction world-wide. 


And in the high desert of the Americansouthwest, the last chapter in a saga which began with the arrival of the Spaniards is being written by forces forged in the kilns of Wall Street and the temples of government.


Protecting the primal forces- the wildness of the Earth and human beings, and their cultural relationships to the great mysteries

of life - from the global forces of geopolitical economics, has been the primary concern for contemporary Navajo and Hopi elders.




 “Beneath Grandmother Moon and Father Sun, truth is not summed up by facts. Out here there is a consciousness. It is bigger than the people. It knows the land will be here long after we have gone”. Willie Lonewolf, Sundancer & Big Mountain Activist




In 1966, a consortium oftwenty utilities under the umbrella name WEST (Western Energy Supply and Transmission), designed a new coal-fed vision for the urban southwest energy grid.  That same year, WEST was granted strip-miningleases by the Hopi and Navajo Tribal Councils against strong opposition from the vast majority of traditional Hopi and Navajo, and meager support from progressive tribal members. The long term value of theBlack Mesa coal field was estimated at over $100 billion.  Until 1969, the coal was untouched – with surface seams gleaming black in the dry washes.  Mining operations were awarded to America’s largest domestic coal producer, Peabody Coal Company of Kentucky (in 1966 Peabody was a subsidiary of Kennecott Copper of Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1990 Peabody Coal was sold to Hanson Minerals of London England). But mining such a large area under strong local opposition was political dynamite, and counter-productive to efficient removal and delivery.  So in 1974, a Watergate distracted Congress passed a little-noticed public law, lobbied in behalf of Peabody Coal Company and WEST by former U.S. Attorney and Mormon Bishop John Boyden.  This was Boyden’s great achievement, the fulfillment of nearly 20 years of work.  In 1957, aided by Indian Agency officials and a law partner who wrote the 1946 Indian Land Claims Law, Boyden hand picked the Hopi Tribal Council as part of his master plan to turn coal into riches.


Framed for Congress as a range war between Hopi and Navajo tribes by a Boyden hired public relations firm, Public Law 93-531 ordered the partitioning of the jointly inhabited Black Mesa region into Navajo and Hopi Partitioned Land.  Those Navajo and Hopi who found themselves on the wrong side of a newly constructed barbed wire fence were ordered to move, forcing twelve-thousand Navajo and sixty Hopi to relocate to border towns (Flagstaff, Page, Gallop, etc.) and poorly conceived new communities at the tax payers’ expense.  Other than the internment of Japanese/Americans during WW2, this relocation was the largest forced migration of American citizens in U.S. history, as well as the largest removal of Indians from ancestral land since the 1880’s.


In Navajo language there is no word for relocation, it can only be translated as, “to disappear forever”.  Complexities in Navajo culture were misunderstood and sometimes ignored by the relocation bureaucracy.  The magnitude of the psychological impact of the loss of self-sufficient land based economics - along with dietary requirements, traditional medicine and pharmacology, and ceremonial cycles has been crippling to those who left their umbilical cords behind.  The human consequences can not be underestimated.




Shoni, Shoshoni, and Evelyn James at Hard Rocks Relocation town            Evelyn and Shoni relax after hauling water one mile in a wheel barrel



Offered only meager compensation for their land and livestock, the newly relocated faced overwhelming difficulties in transition to western culture. Inadequate educational provisions for transition to monetary and credit based economics, culture shock, and language barriers caused widespread default on personal loans and mortgages – resulting in catastrophic depression, suicide, and a host of medical problems.  It has been estimated that nearly 50% of the elderly died from related illness or were left homeless in border towns during the first years following relocation.  Children and grandchildren were left marooned between traditional and modern worlds, with alcohol and drug abuse their only harbor.



A new coal seam is opened with high explosives at the Peabody Coal Company Black Mesa Mine



The environmental impact of mining operations and its supporting infrastructure have been disastrous and far reaching. An aquifer fed coal slurry pipeline, and two 2000 megawatt power generating plants have dramatically altered the fragile ecology of the high desert. Despite Peabody Coal Company claims that there is no scientific evidence of harmful effects due to mining, toxic run offs has contaminated the groundwater – killing the wildlife that drink from nearby containment ponds.  The large volume of water – one billion gallons per year – pumped from the aquifer to support the slurry operations has changed the natural chemical balance of this prehistoric underground lake – damaging springs and the seasonal watershed. Elders have noticed a drop in their well volumes and widespread drying of normally wet washes. Annual local rain and (most importantly) snowfall has remained far below normal since the slurry operations began, and although there is no evidence of a relationship between weather changes and reduced aquifer volume, elders are certain that there is in fact a relationship – citing terminal states of decline of local agriculture and medicinal plants.  The impact on the aquifer reached the Hopi mesa’s years ago, drying springs 50 miles away from the slurry infrastructure, prompting re-evaluation of the Hopi Tribal Councils’ relationship with Peabody Coal.  Air quality has also suffered, and this is not a local effect.  The once crystal clear sky of the high desert is now a milky haze and nearby Grand Canyon views are no longer pristine, as the two unregulated coal burning power plants belch large plums of coal soot into the air.





Open Coal Pit - Black Mesa Mine                                May Shey with land pattern rug                                Coal Conveyor Delivery System




Despite the strong arm ofthe law, approximately 100 Navajo families (about 3000 people) subject to the relocation act resisted forced eviction – enduring tremendous hardships and human rights abuses for the past 37 years.  Without running water or electricity they have stayed.  No refrigeration, television, or laundry – none of the comforts that we take as birthright as American citizens.  Roads resemble the tracks of covered wagons.  Water wells and springs have been capped, archeological sites including altars and medicine bundles have been destroyed, sheep herds (essential to Navajo economy and survival) have been limited, confiscated, and in some cases killed.


Ceremonial cycles have been interrupted and ceremonial sites have been bulldozed, and regular harassment of families during daily ranching activities has led to stress related medical consequences. These well documented human and religious rights violations have all been supported at an expense to the American taxpayer of over one billion dollars.  The (BIA) Bureau of Indian Affairs justifies livestock reductions citing overgrazing.  But overgrazing is an artifact of land partitions.  Traditional grazing practiced by the Navajo showed no impact on the local flora, as herds and families migrated from summer to winter camps - rotating land use from season to season. Previously established grazing districts were redefined at the signing of strip-mining leases, and livestock reductions were imposed as fencing crews divided the landscape.


Enforcement of grazing laws by BIA Agents and Rangers, with assistance from both Navajo and Hopi TribalPolice, has led to confrontations and an aura of a state of siege.  As sources for food declined the frequency of confrontation increased. This situation was amplified by the presence of the FBI investigating so called “hostile” elements, furthering an environment  of fear. Even military over-flights of fighter aircraft and “black” helicopters silently hovering along the fence line and ceremonial sites - became a regular presence in the evening hours for many years.  The Department of Defense explained this as, regular Desert Warfare Training and normal military flight paths.




AIM co-founder Chief Leonard Crowdog holds a ceremonial pipe (left) once smoked by Crazy Horse, and standing (above) in front of the Sundance Tree.

Angora Goats (far right) are part of herds subject to removal.




Resisting elders and their families have received outside help from sympathetic individuals – mostly college students from the U.S., Germany, and Japan in the early years of resistance, along with a growing number of public personalities such as musicians Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.  But the most important support has come from the American Indian Movement (AIM), with seminal leadership coming form AIM founders Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Chief Leonard Crowdog, and local AIM leader Willie Lonewolf. The establishment of an AIM Survival Camp at Big Mountain by Willie Lonewolf gave Navajo elders a resource of daily help - in the way of shepherding, agricultural, and other ranching duties performed by visiting supporters  and political activists.  Despite BIA threats of forced eviction, and late Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1986 promise of calling in the Arizona National Guard, the presence of political activists, college students, news reporters, and AIM kept the memory of the Siege at Wounded Knee fresh in the minds of bureaucrats – defusing the potential for armed conflict.





Willie Lonewolf reads a memorial plaque at the AIM Survival Camp               Willie, Tyrone, and Al at the fence that divides the landscape





As college students arrived at the AIM Survival Camp in the early 1980’s to offer the resisting elders and their families help,

Willie Lonewolf found them work.  Work crews helped with daily chores and built structures for various needs. During that time

elder Roberta Blackgoat assumed a leadership role in organizing awareness activities throughout the United States with help

from supporters at the AIM camp.




After years of frustration inher and supporters' attempts to garner some measure of financial support from the sympathetic people,

Roberta had a vision – of a white haired woman who would come from the west and rescue the families from the forces that lay

beyond Roberta’s reach. One day, a few months after the dream, a new supporter with white hair and a can-do-attitude arrived

from San Francisco with a truck load of wool and food. Roberta’s dream was not a fitful sleep, it was reciprocity - to the elders

it was a message from Big Fly.





“Americans are saving the whales,saving the dolphins, saving the owls, and saving the rainforests.


If Americans declare something valuable only

when it becomes endangered, then it is time

to save the elders at Big Mountain.


These are America’s grandparents

for God’s sake”.


Arlene Hamilton – The Weaving for Freedom Foundation






From 1984 to 2001 Arlene Hamilton brought more than one truckload of wool and food, she brought a vision of economic self-sufficiency and political abilities that would give hope to a culture.  Reminiscent of Gandhi’s Home Spun Resistance to British rule and textile monopolies, Arlene and Roberta founded a traditional textile cooperative - The Weaving for Freedom Foundation. The Weaving for Freedom Foundation gave Navajo weavers the ability to retain 100% of the sale price for their rugs and blankets, not the meager commissions received through traditional sales at trading posts on the reservation and at boutiques in neighboring border towns - creating a sustainable way resisting elders and families could not only earn needed money for food but find needed legal assistance.  Hamilton sends rugs to volunteers across the country who sellthe rugs for $50 to $2000 at galleries and private showings.





Roberta Blackgoat talks of land and spirit at the AIM Survival Camp               A new cell phone gave Roberta the reach to gain political support




Since 1986, Arlene raised more than $600,000.00 for the elders.  The inflow of cash at Big Mountain could make the multimillion dollar federal effort to remove the resisters more difficult. The extra money makes it easier for the elders to stay and fight. Every three months Hamilton caravans with Big Mountain support groups from California to the reservation, bearing the fruits of hard work– donation dollars, commercial wool for weaving, and literally tons of food.  To combat the shortage of sheep Arlene drives to Utah yearly to truck dozens of sheep and smuggles them into Big Mountain - maintaining wool stocks for weaving and providing breeding stock.




 Lucy Silver at the loom in her Forest Lake Relocation Home                       Big Mountain elder Zonnie Kateney with new born lamb




Hamilton, who works as a SanFrancisco County Department of Corrections Councilor at the SF County Jail, also brought her conflict negotiation skills to Big Mountain, and began a dialog between tribal councils and Peabody Coal Company officers. Her political savvy and unbounded enthusiasmled to the first direct meetings in twenty years between Peabody Coal Company and resisting elders in 1992. Peabody Coal Company President Dennis Stevenson conducted the first meeting, and as his face and voice changed during stories of hardship expressed by various elders - Arlene saw hope.



Peabody Coal Pres. Dennis Stevenson at Big Mountain meeting                   Big Mountain elder Elvira Horseherder talks of extreme hardships




Stevenson vowed to make changes and begin a policy of direct dialog with the resisting families.  But, two weeks later Stevenson was transferred to over see mines in West Virginia.  Meetings continued with a new Peabody president but offered little dialog. So a new strategy emerged when supporters raised money to buy stock in Hanson Minerals (owner of Peabody Coal) – go to London and address the issues at the annual stock holders meeting.  Roberta Blackgoat spoke at the stock holders meeting to a standing ovation and Arlene brought tears to the eyes of people who never herd of Big Mountain. This empowered the elders and gave them a new resolve to maintain the resistance through more political activities - culminating in a 1997 United States Ninth District Court (San Francisco) ruling providing the resisting Big Mountain families a Guarantee of Occupancy for 75 years.  Although the ruling was unacceptable to the families (elders wanted an unconditional timeline guarantee) it did provide a buffer to forced eviction.  But this ruling has only followed in the tradition of broken promises and treaty violations.





“Big Mountain elders are likened to a last stand of old-growth forest,

alone in a culture clear cut from its roots and seeds.

Arlene Hamilton – The Weaving for Freedom Foundation





Arlene began receiving many threatening phone calls at this time.  BIA officials said she was a trouble maker and called the Big Mountain supporters the “Wannabe Tribe”.  Phone calls continued and threats became real in the form of legal action. Hamilton was forced off the reservation via a court order.  Supporters were turned away and sometimes arrested for trespass at Hopi roadblocks - preventing supporters from delivering wool and food. The land is being cleared, leaving elders and families isolated.  It is the BIA plan to reduce livestock herds by 90% in 1998 - a policy that can only be seen as termination of traditional life at Black Mesa/Big Mountain.  Without the economic base traditional ranching provides, the land will become uninhabitable for the resisting families – clearing the way for expanded mining activities.  And, with Arlene Hamilton banned from the reservation, the Weaving for Freedom Foundation would no longer be viable.  But, the elders and Arlene just couldn’t allow the dream to die.  In 2000 Arlene married Big Mountain resident Leonard Benally, and as a Navajo citizen and mother of a Navajo child (Arlene and Willie Lonewolf’s child Trevor was born at Big Mountain in 1987) she could legally live on the reservation.


With a renewal of hope upon Arlene’s marriage, energized elders took their cause to the world through the growing financial support of the Weaving for Freedom Foundation, but the telephone threats continued almost daily. Arlene remarked, “I feel I know how Karen Silkwood must have felt. It didn’t stop her and it will not stop me”. Threats could never stop Arlene - they had been coming to her for years. She planned numerous rug shows and hit the road with a truck full of rugs.


First stop, Taos, New Mexico – a long bone rattling drive through the rutted dirt roads of the reservation to the scenic highways of the Land of Enchantment.




Telephone threats became common for Arlene Hamilton                              Arlene takes to the road with truck loads of rugs





No one is quite sure what happened, but according to Navajo Tribal Police, Arlene’s truck went off the road and Arlene was killed. No witnesses, just another accident on a lonely road - roads that take so many lives each year on Navajo lands. A memorial service followed a few weeks later in San Francisco. Roberta Blackgoat, Arlene’s husband Leonard Benally, and many of the elders spoke at Arlene’s memorial, vowing to keep the dream Roberta had so many years before - of the white haired woman – alive.  That night Roberta fell into a dream and never awakened.





Roberta Blackgoat







I began reporting on this story as an investigative photojournalist in 1986, while on assignment for the San Francisco Chronicle.  In the following 15 years of reporting and photography at Big Mountain, I made over 25, primarily self-funded two to six week trips to the Navajo and Hopi Nations.  I visited, interviewed, and photographed many Navajo and Hopi elders, families, government officials, and human rights activists. I also visited and photographed coal mines, power plants, centers of government, corporate offices, political awareness activities throughout the western United States, and the surrounding lands and border towns of the Navajo and Hopi Nations.


I became a familiar feature on that landscape, and in some measure one of the historians of that period of time: 1986 – 2001. My life long interest in Native American culture drew me to the land, these people, and this story - and in so doing, allowed me to discover my psychological homeland.


The Whispering of Big Fly and Littlewind follows the history and daily events in the lives of those who live in that landscape, but more importantly offers a context to communicate the emotional, psychological, economic, and spiritual consequences of people facing loss and the possible end of ancient connections rooted deep in the soil of human experience.


Howard Gale Ford






In Memorial: Willie Lonewolf looks to a more uncertain future after the passing of Arlene,

and Roberta. Willie kept the dream and memory of Arlene and Roberta alive for a few

more years, but soon, Willie would join them. My dear friend Willie passed away in 2009.




During the 15 years I visited Big Mountain I worked with two reporters - Scott Ard and Kristen Muller, resulting in news

and feature stories that appeared various publications.



Print Publishing History


1986: San Francisco Chronicle ...To Disappear Forever

Photography: Howard Gale Ford special for the Chronicle

Story: Scott Ard special for the Chronicle


1987: Prism Magazine – Ancient Lands Divided

Photography: Howard Gale Ford – Staff

Story: Scott Ard – Staff


1992: Oakland Tribune The Saga of Willie Lonewolf published as a three part series

Photography: Howard Gale Ford – Tribune Staff Photographer

Story: Kristen Muller – special for the Tribune


1993: Marin Independent Journal – Navajo Resistance Finds Local Help

Photography: Howard Gale Fordspecial for the IJ

Story: Kristen Mullerspecial for the IJ





1995: Sun Galley, Hayward,CA Native American Voices Group Show

Photography: Howard Gale Ford

Reading: Kristen Muller


1996: SEVA Foundation - Concert Honoring Indigenous Peoples of the Americas

Performers: Jackson Brown, Buffy Saint-Marie, and John Trudell

Photography: Howard Gale Ford Multi-Media Presentation during concert at Berkeley Community Theatre


1997 –1998: Various Locations - Navajo Rug Shows in the US and Japan Traveling Exhibit

Traditional Weaving: Various Big Mountain Weavers

Photography: Howard Gale Ford - Exhibit during rug show