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from bows and arrows to lawsuits

By Jennifer H. Arlen

The contamination of the atmosphere by Four Corners Power Plant is so pervasive that smoke from the plant was the only evidence of current human activity on earth visible from the moon during the Apollo space program.

"At the end of this summer, before I came back to school, the people in my town got together and held a prayer ceremony for me in the Native American Church--which is an attempt to combine Christianity with the Navajo culture. Although I am not a member of the church, the ceremony was a gesture which I accepted from the people because it was their way to support me in coming back to school here. All through the night people sat around the fire in a hogan singing, praying and chanting with the drums. Old people sat up all night long praying and singing so that I could come back and help them. There were times when no music was played and each person prayed silently to himself. Other times the Road Man (medicine man) passed the prayer stick to some one who would sing and chant to the accompaniment of the water drum. This is a religion of the earth, and the ceremony involved humbling me to all living things. The fire, the smoke, the peyote, are all seen as means of putting the body and the prayer out into the elements. The purpose of this ceremony was to call upon the forces of nature to give me strength and wisdom to come back."

Sue Williams '77, a Sisseton Sioux by birth, was raised on Window Rock Reservation--a Navajo reservation approximately three times the size of Massachusetts, which encompasses 1/2 of northern Arizona, a good portion of northeastern New Mexico, and a smaller chunk of southern Utah. Williams, a resident tutor at Quincy House, is now in her first year at Harvard Law School, after majoring in economics as an undergraduate.

"All through the night, people kept telling me to come back. They kept repeating over and over 'our young people get educated, they leave us, and they don't come back and help us. Our land is being taken away. Look what's happening to us.' I made a committment that night, I reaffirmed a commit ment that I have, to go back home and help those people there at home."

After she graduated from Radcliffe, Williams deffered her admission to Harvard Law School, and returned to Window Rock where she worked as Chairman of the Navajo Tax Commission, implementing a tax she developed in her senior thesis. This tax program, which is currently being disputed it the courts, may give Indians the right to tax non-Indians on reservations.

In 1962 the Tribal Council (the elected representative body of the Tribal Government set up by the Department of the Interior) signed a lease with a consortium of utility companies approving the building of Four Corners Power Plant (the largest power plant in the southwest) and sanctioning the digging of a large strip mine--the largest in the country. The reservation remained quiet, the mine was dug, the plant was built, and the Tribal Council seemed content with the royalty provisions of less than 3% on a ton of coal, and agreed not to tax the utilities for 35 years. In 1968 the Tribal Council signed a similar lease with a different consortium of utility companies allowing them to build the Navajo Generating Station, approving the digging of Black Mesa strip mine. Once again they agreed not to tax for 35 years. This time, protests broke out when the Navajos heard that Black Mesa, sacred Indian land, was going to be destroyed for a strip mine. In the six years after the signing of the first lease, the Navajos had seen the destruction caused by a strip mine and had watched Four Corners spew 123 million pounds of sulphur dioxide into the air each year. Six years of watching the energy companies desecrate their environment had taught people what another strip mine and power plant meant, and they weren't going to see sacred land destroyed so that people in southern Arizona, southern Utah, and Los Angeles, could be supplied with more electricity.

However the protests were unsuccessful, the mine was dug, and the plant was built. The Tribal Council had already signed the leases, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (an agency within the Department of the Interior entrusted with safe-guarding Indian interests) had approved them.

Williams says it was during the Black Mesa protests when she was a sophmore in high school, that she first decided to go to college and become a lawyer.

"I was very naive then," she says, "I thought I had to go to a good college, get good grades, go to law school, and get a good education, so that I can deal with all these well-educated non-Indian people on an equal ground. I eventually decided to go to Harvard because I hadn't seen the east, and once again from my very naive framework, thought that economics at Harvard would be really very good," she says, laughing at herself.

"It was difficult being here at first," Williams continues, "but I also wanted to understand this other way of life because in some very significant sense, this institution, and the kinds of people who come here, represented the attitudes and the experiences of people who might be seen as our oppressors."

Williams says she was once a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM)--an indian activist group) when it first started. I believed there had to be the board that whacked the donkey on the back and said, 'wake up America. Look what's happening!" I think it served it's place, and there still is that need, but there's also a need to say O.K., now that we have your attention, now that we've made these problems known, let's have a second wave of people come in and try to deal with these problems. That's where I've tried to fit in. That's where I see my life's purpose--in that second wave."

"For the last 150 years we've known that we don't play and win wars using bows and arrows," Williams continues. "We are having to use white man's tools. White man's tools mean having a knowledge of economics, having a knowledge of the law, and fighting them on their own terms. So while it may be all well, and good and humanitarian, in our legal briefs and commercial agreements to say?--we're destroying a culture, we're destroying a way of life, and these are our concerns, it requires more than that. What we're going to have to do is show, in a straightforward economic analysis, that these power plant leases and coal leases, do not give the tribe a fair deal. And we submit that we can hold up to any comparison anywhere in the world, that we are getting the shaft all the way. And that's what a court is going to hear. That's what a court is going to listen to. Not the religious arguments."

Williams says she developed the Tax Program, the first comprehensive Indian tax program in the country, in an attempt to raise badly needed money, and to correct some of the injustices in the two power plant leases and their coal leases. The three-part tax program consists of the Business Activity Tax (based on gross receipts over $500,000 per year), the Possesory Interest Tax (which is based on the difference between what a leasor should be getting and what he is getting over the life of the lease) and the Sulphur Emissions Charge (which Williams says is legally a regulatory measure and not a tax).

"As we saw it back in 1975, there was a real problem with the leases. We felt there was a gross violation of trust responsibility on the part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in signing and approving those leases which have essentially created islands in the Navajo nation which the tribe cannot touch."

"We think there's so much at stake in not addressing the very severe problem with the leases. We have, we feel, an entire culture at stake when you have activities such as these destroying the enviornment, destroying the land, and creating economic and social disruption, which the tribe is unable to control. That is the crucial point. We think there ought not to be paths set which will destroy the environment and are in conflict with the values of the Navajos'."

Williams says the tribe decided to levy the taxes because they have a large remaining tax base in addition to the power companies, and the tribe hoped to force the power plants to challenge the program in court.

This summer the Navajo tribe won a major court victory when a Federal District Court judge in Phoenix upheld the indians' rights to tax non-indians in a suit filed by the owners of the Navajo Generating Station. The Judge side-stepped the issue of alleged violation of the leases, deferring the matter to the Secretary of the Interior. He also dismissed--without prejudice--the suit against the Sulphur Emissions Charge, because it has not yet been approved by the Secretary of the Interior.

The Sulphur Emissions Charge, the first attempt in this country to tag charges on emissions with the hope of providing companies with financial incentives to install clean-up devices, has been awaiting comment by the Secretary of the Interior for the past year and a half, while he considers its potential ramificiations for the Clean Air Act.

The Navajos are fighting a similar court battle in a Federal District Court in a suit filed by the owners and operators of Four Corners Power Plant. If the Phoenix and the Albuquerque decisions conflict, the suits will be appealed to the Supreme Court, which will decide the question of Indians' rights to tax non-indians. Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the indians, approximately 60% the country's uranium, 30% of the nation's coal, and the significant amounts of the country's oil and gas which are on indian lands could be subject to taxation and increased indian control.

"We are seeking simply to have the Navajo tribe, and any other tribe share equally and fairly in the wealth of its own resources. The consumer has been getting cheap power for too long, and who pays for it? The Indian people." The Indians do not have the management expertise to develop their own resources, Williams says, but there are other ways of being part owners of these activities. The Navajo tribe just recently signed a huge joint venture uranium exploration agreement with Exxon. The agreement, (the first Indian joint venture agreement) gives the tribe equity shares in the extraction of uranium, and increased control in the rate and manner of development, should the tribe decide to develop.

While court battles continue, and the Department of the Interior ponders the ramifications of the Sulphur Emmissions Charge, the Navajos have begun to implement the tax program--authorized by the Phoenix Federal District Court decision. The first collection date has been set for the end of November, and Williams says the tribe expects to receive at least $28 million in the first year of collection--more than half of which will be furnished by the two utility companies. If the companies don't pay, the tribe will either enforce the penalties in the laws, or, ultimately, they have the right to shut down the activities.

Williams says most of the revenue will have to be spent on infra-structure needs, such as sewer lines, housing, roads, electrical lines, which are presently very inadequate. There is also a move in the Tribal Council, she continues, to use part of the money to encourage Navajos to open small businesses on the reservation.

"There are many Navajo businessmen who would like to open small businesses, but are unable to obtain loans from off reservation because it is illegal to come on the reservation and foreclose property. It is up to the tribe to provide a base for business developments which are in line with Navajo cultural values, so that you don't have someone creating a bunch of McDonalds but instead have people serving their own people," Williams adds.

Williams says she velieves more and more young people are leaving the reservation with the goal of getting educated and coming back to help their people.

"A lot of people who left the reservation in my parents generation, left at a time when assimilation was what was sought and strove for. Education meant you could be like a white man. Young people now are brought up proud of their heritage and not punished and spanked in school for speaking their own language like I was and those before me. I think there's a renewed sense among the young people that what we have to preserve is so important for our people, our culture, and ultimately the American system. I think white America has a lot to learn from the Indian people in forging out our future existence on this planet."

"Being here is schizophrenic," she continues, "It is hard here because here are a lot of people here who are dissatisfied with where we are now and where we're going, and in that sense there is some camaraderie here. But although a lot of people may be sensitive, they still don't know what it's like to live in a family torn apart by alchoholism, by social disruption; people who don't have enough to eat, younger brothers and sisters, younger relatives with malnutrition in 1978. People here don't see the tragedy of it and how it can compel some one to try to do something about it."

"Let me tell you a story," she says. "I was home the weekend before I came back to school, and my family wanted me to see a medicine man to have a prayer done before I left. It involved seeking out this medicine man who does this special four part ceremony that uses the earth, the sky, the water, and a member of your family. The purpose of the ceremony is to put you in balance with nature so that in coming back to school your humility and respect for all living existance is heightened and therefore wisdom is more likely to be accorded to you. It was very difficult to find this guy because he lived in one of the temporary camps near the Navajo Generating Station. We had to drive almost clear up to the generating station and through the boom town affiliated with it. It was boom town all the way--transit trailers, new business; fever atmosphere. We drove through the town and back down to the reservation. In the space of 15 miles we came to the camp where this guy and his family lived. It was a very rugged road and we had to use a four-wheel drive to get back into this camp. I had been insulated from extreme poverty before because I lived in one of the settlements. This man lived in a traditional round mud constructed hogan, with no windows, a hole in the roof to let out smoke and let in light, and an old mattress on the floor for a bed. The ceremony he did with me involved my humbling myself before all of nature, and truly feeling, through intensive prayer and meditiation, that all nature, all existence, is interdependant; and man is only one simple humble part of all of it--not the center, not all powerful, but a part of it. I couldn't get it out of my mind that over the next hill was this huge power plant. There these people sit, living a beautiful but very difficult way of life, while 15 miles away the energy interests, some of the most opportunistic enterprises in the world, are exploiting Indians' lands, polluting their lands, yet the Indians share few of the rewards and are powerless to prevent such development."

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