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On the Front Lines: Diné Women Stand Firm Against Increased, Unfettered Oil Development

In Navajo stories, the Twin Heroes Naayéé? Neizghání and Tóbájíshchíní fought many evils and monsters, including dinosaurs. Today some people worry that the battles are being repeated, though with oil drills instead of monster reptiles. And a handful of Navajo women are at the vanguard, trying to draw attention to the effects of drilling on their communities and keep the fossil fuel industry at bay.

“It’s almost like we’re standing against an evil giant,” said Etta Arviso, an advocate for Navajo Code Talkers who is concerned at the growing number of oil leases being sold by allotees to their land. “This has gotten way out of hand. It’s like they’re bringing the dinosaurs back to life.”

Here in the Juan Basin, there are an estimated 22,000 natural gas wells, as well as uranium mines, coal mines and coal-fired power plants. Now, Navajo women like Arviso are bracing for the next wave of development as companies explore for oil from the Mancos Shale, thousands of feet below the surface of the earth. She and a handful of other women are the thin female line between unfettered development and the environment that sustains their communities, working with other environmental groups including Diné CARE.

Sarah Jane White is another. Pinching a sage bush, she rubs the gray-green leaves between her hands. The fragrant leaves can be used fresh, or dried for use during the winter.

“It’s been medicine for years,” said White, turning her gaze toward the hills south of Counselor, on the eastern Navajo Nation. “There’s a lot of sacred places, too, and burial sites.”

Like Arviso, she is worried. Since early 2014, the federal government has approved about 100 new wells around the Navajo communities of Counselor and Lybrook. These wells were “exploratory”—companies were supposed to be seeing if there’s oil worth investing more time and energy into, not actually producing large amounts of oil to sell.

But people who live here seem surprised by how quickly things have changed. The highway is busy, day and night. Semis and tanker trucks roar up and down the gravel roads. And flares from the wells can light up the nights for weeks or months at a time. All that changes the land, and the relationships people have with the landscape.

RELATED: Oil Leases Proliferate in Northwestern New Mexico as Diné and Pueblo Call for Oversight

“There are medicine gathering places in these hills, every direction you look, there are offering places,” White said. “But corporations don’t have respect for that. The only thing they’re looking at is dollar signs and getting the job done. Human beings, human health? They don’t care. Especially if it’s Indian.”

Standing in front of a makeshift church, White mentioned the homes along the packed dirt road to the church from US Highway 550 in northwestern New Mexico.

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“As you drove in around here, how many people did you see have electricity?” she asked, pointing out that the people living here are still struggling to survive. “I noticed this church doesn’t even have electricity.”

In the 19th century the federal government deeded 160-acre tracts of land to individual Navajo families. Here, on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, there are about 900,000 acres of these allotments—and this is where much of the current oil drilling and leasing is occurring.

For a one-time payment, sometimes topping out at nearly $100,000, hundreds of individual families have signed agreements with drilling companies exploring for oil within the San Juan Basin. Those allotments aren’t part of the Navajo reservation—they are held in trust by the federal government—and the Navajo Nation does not have oversight when it comes to drilling or development on those lands.

Companies have already paid out tens of millions of dollars to families who agree to allow drilling. And the work brings jobs and revenue to the area. But it’s still not enough to lift many of the people on the edge of the reservation out of poverty.

“Any company—it doesn't matter if it's oil, coal, uranium—they hit the minority people, the people that have hardly any money, that live like this. They show a few dollars, who’s going to refuse it? If I live here and somebody’s going give me a little bit, of course I go for it,” White said, waving toward the church and the two-track dirt road. “The thing is that in the long run, what do we get into? Sickness, bad health, all kinds of bad health is what we run into.” And she worries that once the oil wells run dry, companies will pull out, leaving behind contaminated lands and water.

This time, she wants to make a stand against the development, she said.

“I don’t agree with it, and I don’t care how much money they’re going to be giving to the people or the Navajo Nation,” White continued. “What I want is clean water, clean earth, clean air, for the next generation.”

Her four year old grandson, Albino, plays around outside the church.

“The next generation, I’m talking about 50, 100, 200 years from now," White said. "Or else, our kids—like my grandson—they’re going to be drinking oil infested water, they’re going to be drinking poison, they're going to have a hard time.”

Next: ‘Death in the San Juan Basin’: Navajo Women Combat Unregulated Oil and Gas Exploration