Coal in the Navajo Nation: Cultural Impacts

By Maria Bernard

The Navajo nation has an and rich history.  They have deep rooted traditions that are sacred to them and their way of life.  Originally located in the northeast corner of Arizona, northwest corner of New Mexico and the southwest corner of Colorado, the geography of the region became a central part of their culture.  This area is mountainous desert with low shrub cover, and the mountains play a key role in the Nations ancient stories.  

In the Navajo creation story, the first man took four different stones into his hands, jet, white shell, turquoise, and abalone and placed them on the ground in the four cardinal directions.  The first man blew on the stones and turned them into the traditional style of shelter of the Navajo, the Hogan.  The colors of the stones, black, white, yellow, and turquoise are extremely significant in Navajo culture.  They each represent different things in different contexts, but the main significance is in their representation of the Four Sacred Mountains.  

The Navajo believe that the four mountains, Mount Blanca in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, San Fransisco Peaks in Arizona and Mount Hesperus in Colorado are the boundaries of the land given to them by the Sky People to live on.  The mountains themselves are sacred too.  There are four coal mines in operation today on the large Navajo Reservation and one major power plant, the Four Corners Power Plant which runs on the coal from these mines.

The Navajo believe that the land being mined gave them and their ancestors life, to see it being dug out and shipped to the most eastern boundry of the reservation can be heart breaking.  As Jet (1992) puts it “The most sacred places are the four boundary mountains of the cardinal directions. Contemporary desecration of sacred sites by roads, mines, reservoirs, and the like, has caused considerable distress among religious Navajos”.  Clearly the spirit of the Navajo Nation is deeply tied to their landscapes.

Many people on the Navajo Reservation live without power in their homes, and many are unemployed, except for at these mines and the powerplant.  In a research study by Robbins, LA it was “concluded that impacts of energy-related industries now operating on the Navajo Reservation will not substantially aid the Navajo Nation in its attempt to raise the Navajo standard of living to the national average”.  The very culture of the Navajo is being transported out of what they consider to be the soul of the earth, to power the cities and homes of the non-Navajo.  Any form of environmental destruction or degradation goes against the Navajos sacred religious beliefs.

Bibliography

Robbins, L.A. The impact of power developments on the Navajo Nation. United States.

Jett, S. C. (1992). An introduction to Navajo sacred places. Journal of Cultural Geography13(1), 29-39.

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