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Din? Bidziil - power of the people

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - She's been carrying signs protesting the treatment of Native Americans and traveling as far away as Washington, D.C. to make her feelings known for the past 30 years.

But little did Navajo activist Hazel James realize that she would one day become one of the main faces of Indian activism in the most rapidly growing Native protest movement in the country.

James, 45, and another longtime Navajo crusader for social and environmental justice - Norman Brown of Shiprock, N.M. - are the moving forces behind the Din? Biziil Coalition, which started as a small gathering seeking better Navajo government two years ago.

It now is an umbrella of 37 North American groups and more than 1,200 people representing a broad spectrum of causes from protesting uranium mining on the Navajo Nation to emphasizing alternative energy in South Dakota Sioux country to reclaiming sacred indigenous sites throughout California.

Din? Bidziil, which means power of the people in the Navajo language, also has designs on going worldwide, James said. It already has linked with Zapatista causes in southern Mexico. A member of the group went to an indigenous conference in New Guinea during the summer and also will be attending a meeting of Canadian Native American protest groups in Vancouver this month.

That's definitely not James, who has more than enough irons in the fire to keep her very close to her Flagstaff home.

On this particular weekend, there's a meeting to honor the memory of Roberta Blackgoat, a traditional shepherd who galvanized opposition to the relocation of Navajos during the bitter land dispute with the Hopis in the 1980s. Then, organizing and turning a large crowd out for a Flagstaff speech by Native activist Winona LaDuke. Then, on to making plans for a rally against proposed snowmaking and improvements for skiing at Arizona Snowbowl ski area, which is located on the San Francisco Peaks and is sacred to Indian tribes of northern and central Arizona.

"It's a busy life but I feel like we are getting a lot of things done," James said, discounting any comparisons between the environmentally oriented Din? Bidziil and the American Indian Movement, which reached its zenith a generation ago. "AIM used volume and was very aggressive and vocal pushing its causes in the 1970s and '80s. Our way is very peaceful and low key and trying to change things at the community level first."

Navajo politicians have taken notice of the rising influence of the coalition. President Joe Shirley, Vice President Frank Dayish Jr. and Arizona State Rep. Jack Jackson Jr., D-Window Rock, have been regulars at Din? Bidziil meetings and have offered help on a number of fronts to the various groups involved.

Shirley and Dayish even marched with the wing of the organization calling for a moratorium on uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, said Brown, whose protest roots go all the way back to being an AIM activist as a teenager and being inside the federal siege at Wounded Knee, S.D.

"We were able to turn out about 500 people for that (uranium) demonstration on pretty short notice and definitely got our point across," Brown said.

But Brown said that the coalition has had to stay "a lot more loosely federated than we like" because of the thousands of miles distance between some of the groups, the lack of telephone and Internet availability in some areas and the expense involved.

"What we are expecting to do the next four years here locally is to build a political infrastructure and support base that has been shut out traditionally in the Navajo tribal council," Brown said.

That starts with mitigating the influence of European ideas on tribal government, James said, and following the coalition's motto - one prayer, one mind and one voice.

"Roberts' Rules of Order has got to go," James said. "We want to bring back consensus decision making as the foundation of Navajo government."

But she doesn't want to return to the past of relations between Indians and non-Indians.

James said she had barely reached her teen years and learned English when her grandmother took her from their traditional hogan in the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo Nation to the protests churning in nearby Gallup, N.M.

Navajo activists had a laundry list of complaints. Police brutality and neglect had been responsible for many Navajo deaths. Tribal dancers participating in city festivals had received only nominal pay for their services. There were more bars in Gallup in one square mile than any place in the nation.

"We were marching one day and there was this string of people yelling 'stinking Indians' at us when all we were seeking was just treatment of other human beings," James said. "I've never forgotten that."