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Hopi election follows year of turmoil and controversy

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KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. – In the wake of Hopi Tribe elections Nov. 18, a former tribal chairman said he plans to work on environmental issues involving Black Mesa coal mining and the potential consequences of an expanded permit there, but he welcomed an end to efforts he said were calculated to prevent him from running for future tribal office.

Criminal assault charges against Ben Nuvamsa were dismissed in tribal court after they were filed months ago in political infighting that led him to resign his chairmanship. He said he never assaulted anyone and that “these are all trumped-up charges to find me guilty of breaking some law so I will not be able to run for office again.”

His acquittal came only days before Leroy Ned Shingoitewa was elected Hopi Tribe chairman and Herman G. Honanie vice chairman, both for four-year terms, after the offices had been vacant since Nuvamsa and the former vice chairman resigned effective last Jan. l.

The charges stemmed from a quarterly tribal council meeting nearly a year ago when, according to Nuvamsa, an exchange occurred in which the tribal secretary said she “felt threatened” by him. Asked for clarification, the tribe’s public information officer said she has only been in her position a couple of months and does not know first-hand what unfolded at the meeting.

That meeting last December adjourned and did not subsequently take up a petition on a matter that remains a divisive issue into the present – opposition by some tribal members to the potential expansion of strip mining on Black Mesa and related economic and cultural issues

triggered by Peabody Western Coal Company’s mining profits and practices, Nuvamsa said.

At issue is the kind and extent of Hopi control over Black Mesa’s vast coal resources and its underlying aquifers and the way in which that control – actual or potential – affects tribal values, economic well-being, and even spiritual practices, according to various tribal members.

Nuvamsa advocated for greater Hopi control over the resource and for a greater Hopi share of mining profits, which he says are presently a fraction of amounts the tribe could receive.

Opponents counter that he and others are allied with environmental groups that want to harm the Hopi economy, destroying job possibilities in order to advance a green agenda.

According to the Navajo-Hopi Observer, the new chairman, Shingoitewa, said a main goal was to generate more revenue for the tribe, while vice chairman Honanie said on the newspaper’s Web page that he ran in part because tribal government may be “in disarray,” and noted the council disallowed “environmental groups to assist Hopi on issues affecting our health and environment.”

Despite forces for change, the newly elected officials may encounter some hurdles. For one thing, a reorganization task team crafted a resolution to remove the chief executive officer powers from the tribal chairman position and make CEO a separate job answerable to the tribal council, “which would prevent the chairman from issuing executive orders that bypass the council,” a tribal press release states.

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The reorganization was approved in a special meeting Nov. 22, when the proposed CEO title was changed to executive director, a position to be filled for up to 90 days by the tribal vice chairman until the director was selected. During the meeting, one person was removed by guards or BIA police for causing a “brief disruption,” according to the tribe’s information officer, who could not confirm the person was a Denver coordinator for Black Mesa Water Coalition.

Another difficulty facing new tribal council officers may be that traditional leaders acting in a political, rather than religious capacity appoint council representatives which, according to some observers, can exacerbate a split between the secular tribal council and more traditional village governance.

Controversy over the huge strip mine atop Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona has a long history. A half-century ago, a lawyer representing the Hopi Tribe in dealings with Peabody was accused of also working for the coal company, and a legacy of mistrust was created.

More recently, internal dissent over coal policies divided the tribal council as it weighed an expanded Office of Surface Mining-issued permit for the Black Mesa Complex. Inner strife also has accommodated an alleged “coup,” dissolved the tribe’s appellate court, created personal enmity, possibly enabled an unauthorized militia, ousted major environmental groups, and threatened to pull in everyone from the U.S. president on down.

The OSM-extended permit in question on 100 square miles of Hopi and Navajo lands would allow the renewed mining of approximately 5,590 acres of remaining coal at Black Mesa. The mining complex includes Kayenta Mine, which supplies coal to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. and Black Mesa Mine, which supplied Nevada’s defunct Mohave Generating Station.

The OSM permit revision would continue Kayenta Mine’s present operation, but would allow the NGS to potentially use coal from additional coal resources within the Black Mesa Complex, including areas within the Hopi lease portion.

Recently, in the run-up to the elections of chairman and vice chairman, economic issues came to the forefront, with Peabody proponents asserting that coal mining revenues funded nearly 90 percent of tribal revenues, an amount at least one-third higher than earlier estimates.

Proponents of the present arrangement with Peabody have also raised the specter of job losses if the OSM permit were not approved, a concern downplayed by those who contend no Hopi jobs were lost when MGS closed.

Opponents question a recent $6 million to the tribe’s energy team from an $11 million payment from Peabody lease amendments. The allocation to the energy team did not require village input, according to the implementing resolution, and will be used for purposes under the present Peabody arrangement as well as in other energy-related areas.

Even though dismissal of the charges might clear the way to a future in politics, Nuvamsa said he is content to work on environmental issues or possibly in lobbying for tribal interests. He heads Kiva Institute LLC, which provides technical training to tribal nations.

Nuvamsa said a non-Native lobbying group, Husk Partners, has been employed by the tribe at $13,000 per month but “they have not produced anything – why can’t we do it for ourselves?”