What Robert Redford did – how does he think this stuff up? – was to invite the CEOs of Peabody and the four utility companies, along with the two tribal chairmen (Peter McDonald from the Navajo and Abbott Sekaquaptewa from the Hopi) to come to Sundance for a “pow-wow.”

And I mean an actual pow-wow. The big-shot CEOs and the august tribal chairmen all sat on blankets under the aspens – no lawyers, no PR people, no handlers – and were entertained by Ute dancers and medicine men. Then they got down to some serious pow-wowing.

Abbott spoke about the Hopi legends, their obligation to care for the Earth Mother. He expressed his anger with the Navajo for their seizures of Hopi land over the centuries. But, he said, in the end he was prepared to compromise for the sake of his impoverished people.

McDonald, a more modern politician, spoke about the importance to his tribe of the jobs at the power plants and coal mines and of the royalty payments. The Hopi, he claimed, didn’t need much land since there were so few of them. Still, whatever was right should be done.

Ultimately, everybody smoked a peace pipe. (I’m guessing, I wasn’t invited.) I’ve forgotten the exact details of the compromise that was worked out, but essentially there were three elements to it.

First, going forward the Hopi would receive half of all royalties on coal mined on the Area of Joint Use (as calculated by Peabody, not the Navajo). Second, the Hopi would receive a lump sum payment to make up for past royalties they had missed. Third, Peabody would slightly increase the royalty rates it was paying, to compensate the Navajo for their losses.

Abbott Sekaquaptua returned to the Hopi reservation to a hero’s welcome – the settlement worked out at Sundance was beyond the Hopi’s wildest dreams, and the money was quickly put to good use to fund the most urgent of the tribe’s needs.

But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Abbott received three-quarters of a hero’s welcome. In the eyes of the hostiles, Abbott was no hero – he was a traitor to all things Hopi.

As the hostiles saw it, not only were the friendlies allowing the Earth Mother to be ravished, they were actually profiting from the outrage. As a result, the hostiles believed that an angry Earth Mother had placed a curse on the Hopi tribe that would last for centuries.

And in the end, the hostiles may have been right. Over the subsequent years Americans in general began to be vastly more concerned about the natural world. They may have been 2,000 years behind the Hopi in their desire to live in harmony with nature, but they made up for lost time with their fervor.

As a result, the four western utility companies came under intense pressure to find ways to generate power that didn’t involve coal, and slowly they found those ways. In 2005 the Mohave power plant was closed, along with the Black Mesa mine. In 2018 the utility companies announced that the Navajo power plant would also be permanently closed. The Kayenta coal mine is still technically operating, but at a very low level.

In other words, the Hopi had violated their most sacred vows and now had nothing to show for it – exactly as the hostiles had predicted.

Fortunately, Abbott didn’t live to see that day. During his lifetime the coal royalties were put to good use: medical clinics were opened, a new elementary school was built, the Hopi Cultural Center and Tribal Council buildings were improved, a transit system was established on the reservation.

But those days are now gone. Without the coal royalties, the Hopi tribal budget has been ravaged.

*  *  *

In 1542 Vasquez de Coronado retired to Mexico (New Spain), where he was promptly charged with war crimes, supposedly for his conduct in the Tiguex War, but in reality for failing to find the Seven Cities of Gold. (He was acquitted, but he threw his captain, one Cárdenas, under the bus; Cárdenas was convicted.)

At that time the Hopi and Navajo lands were roughly equivalent in size and the population of the tribes was also similar.

Fast-forward to today. The Hopi lands are now completely surrounded by Navajo lands, like a tiny hole in a very fat doughnut. There are roughly 12,000 Hopi scattered among the villages on and under the mesas, and these are encircled by – I’m not exaggerating – 360,000 Navajo. Beyond that, of course, the Hopi are surrounded by 330 million Americans.

The Hopi are desperately poor, with unemployment above 40%. The average value of an American home in Arizona is well over $200,000; the average value of a home on the Hopi lands is about $20,000.

The Hopi are scourged by many lifestyle diseases, including alcoholism and diabetes. Their average life is expectancy is far below that of even the poorest American counties.

Hardly anyone ever visits the Hopi reservation these days. It’s an eight-hour roundtrip from Phoenix, the nearest large population center, and once you get there you don’t much feel welcome. The friendlies are, well, friendly enough, but they are also very private people. No photos, recordings or even sketching is permitted. And the hostiles are outright hostile.

The Hopi have resided on the mesas in what is now northeastern Arizona for at least 2,000 years. Their gentle, matriarchal culture bears many similarities to the world American environmentalists and political Progressives advocate for all of us: peaceful, anti-violent, sharing resources, living in harmony with nature.

Even those of us who are politically more centrist can be forgiven for sometimes wondering why we have to live in such a violent world. Why do we need nuclear warheads, defense contractors, two million men and women in uniform? Why can’t we be more like the Hopi?

But Native American tribes, like species, don’t exist to flatter human ideas of what is good. They exist to compete with other tribes and civilizations. By this metric the Hopi are a sad failure.

For centuries the Hopi existed at all only at the sufferance of others, and that is still true today: if the American government stopped interposing itself between the Hopi and the Navajo, the Hopi would be wiped out in a few months. As it is, they are impoverished, unemployed, and unhealthy.

The difference between the apparent attractiveness of Hopi culture and the utter uncompetitiveness of the tribe is worth pondering as we think about what the future should hold for America.

Next up: Opening the Medical Mind

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