Originally posted by the Navajo Times. Reposted here with its original intended title.
The first thing I must acknowledge is that, though I will do my best, my words could never do Ida Mae Clinton or her struggle, justice. There is no way to adequately describe her strength, her resolve, or the depth of the spiritual relationship she had with the land that sustained not only her, but countless generations before her. Ida was what in a sane world would be considered a “national treasure,” yet her passing and the passing of others like her have taken place with barely a whisper, barely a mention.
First and foremost, Ida was an activist fighting to save her way of life from the forces of colonialism. During the 1980s Ida and other elders on Black Mesa took their activism to another level and opened up their homes to “supporters” who came from all over the world to see firsthand what was happening.
Supporters began staying for weeks or months at a time herding sheep and providing elder care and domestic assistance. One important task of the supporter is to spread the word about what is happening in that area. The message of Ida’s resistance must be heard. Her message, her truth, is exactly what we need to hear In today’s world of multiple and overlapping crises, many of them stemming from our warped or totally nonexistent relationship with the land we live on and the natural forces that sustain us.
Ida Mae Clinton was one of the last of a generation that truly knew what it was to be free. Their worldview is almost incomprehensible to us. How many of us can go down to our local river or stream and drink from it? How many of us can feed, clothe, and house ourselves without the aid of money or huge corporations?
Imagine learning everything you need for life without expensive universities and tedious hours of absorbing and regurgitating useless facts and information. Imagine a way of life that does not pollute and destroy the earth we depend on for survival. Though the modern world has given us much, the price has been steep and something has been lost, something fundamental to our humanity and to our ability to be good stewards of this precious earth.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Baby Boomer generation was coming of age and driving the expansion of cities and suburbs in the increasingly energy-hungry southwest. Amazingly, at that time and despite all the assaults against indigenous people over the centuries, many traditional Diné still thrived on the so-called reservation. Around this time is when the U.S. government instigated land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes began in earnest.
It was no coincidence that the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act came into effect during this period of settler expansion in the southwest. This legislation that officially disenfranchised many thousands of traditional Diné was enacted in 1974. The Navajo Generating Station power plant was officially brought online two years later in 1976; it ran on coal that was strip mined from lands that had until a few years before been occupied by traditional Diné and Hopi living together in relative peace and harmony. Essentially, there was cultural genocide in exchange for cheap, dirty energy.
Ida lived far enough from the mine and the Navajo Generating Station to avoid the very worst aspects of this turmoil (devastating pollution and a marring of the landscape), but she was still swept up in the tragic events due to living on the wrong side of the newly created Hopi partition boundary. In the very beginning she could have taken a settlement and moved to relocation housing like many others were compelled to do, but she did not. As the years wore on, and as she grew frailer, rather than take the easier path of moving in with relatives to live out the rest of her days in relative comfort, Ida chose to continue residing on her land despite the hardships she knew she would face.
Her own tribal leaders, many of them brainwashed by the settler education system and more concerned with money and status than with anything else, turned their backs on her and the other resisters. Services like road and home repairs that were provided to most tribal members were denied to Ida because, according to the bureaucrats, technically she was no longer living on the Navajo Reservation. I remember Ida telling me several times how she and her daughter Rose (who was special needs and required a lot of care) would often resort to eating potatoes for days on end. There were times when she would be fearful of people trespassing on her land, yet there was no phone line, no electricity. Living as a resister to relocation also caused rifts between Ida and members of her family who had made different choices. There was bitterness on both sides; some relationships fell apart and were never mended.
Knowing the physical and emotional hardships she would face, why did Ida choose to stay? Well, when the land dispute kicked into high gear, she recognized right away that the future of the Diné people was in jeopardy. She understood instinctively that dislocation from the land would mean a loss of tradition, a loss of language, and that the loss of these things constituted a form of violence. This is why she advocated for direct action. When the livestock impoundments began, Ida fought back. Along with her friends and family in Star Mountain valley she confronted BIA officials, even going as far as to get into physical altercations with them. She marched, she protested, she traveled to faraway cities to spread awareness about the threats facing her traditional way of life.
Here are some of her words from the last video recorded interview she gave to NaBahe Katenay Keedihiihii for Big Mountain Productions: “Our livelihood, like the sheep, all of it they confiscated! The sheep are our savings and income, food as well. There are the cornfields, the sweat lodges, places of holiness — all of these they destroyed in our area. To me it is unacceptable! Another solution with more force perhaps; stronger plans initiated from here; our supporters and non-Native allies notified — Access into [the] coal mine pit needs to be blocked, a barrier set up and their operations halted.”
During the last weeks of Ida’s life the Hopi and BIA assault on Black Mesa elders was renewed with the tacit support of the Navajo tribal government. Swat teams complete with helicopters descended on Black Mesa after a lull of over a decade, terrorizing and arresting people and confiscating livestock. Though Ida was recovering in a nursing home far from her own land at the time, and though her family did not dare let her know what was happening, it was almost as if she could somehow sense what was going on. The small progress she had managed to make began to reverse itself. She became “agitated” according to the nurses, and began insisting on being allowed to go home immediately.
I wish I could say that Ida passed peacefully from this world after her decades of inspirational struggle, but that would be a lie. Thanks to a fundamentally broken geriatric care system, her last months on this earth were very difficult. The details are too painful to recount here. In the end, her heart that was so strong and warm and full of love failed. Because of the situation on Black Mesa she could not be buried on her beautiful ancestral lands, but instead was laid to rest in some strip mall border town. Sadly, the circumstances of her passing are not unique and will be familiar to many reading this.
What is unique is the way she lived. She lived life on her own terms. She fought for what she believed in, drawing upon wells of strength that must have been quite deep. In the days following her passing, many family members came out to her land over a period of several days to pay their respects, as is their custom. Seeing Ida’s great-grandchildren and other young relatives taking the sheep out to pasture made me smile in spite of my grief. She had left them an important gift; she had been a living example, a living testament to the importance of holding onto their traditions. Her sacrifice was not in vain.
Over these past few months I think I’ve cried more for her than I cried for my own grandmother when she passed in 2010 (rest in peace). This was surprising at first, but then understanding dawned on me. Yes, Ida was not related to me by blood; she was not flesh of my flesh. Yet flesh can be corrupted, destroyed, and obliterated. Flesh rots away and blood can be tainted. Spiritual bonds and emotional ties born of shared experiences, mutual respect, and an acknowledgement of another person’s humanity and uniqueness — these bonds are not so easily broken. Some might say that these bonds transcend our earthbound existence; they are, or can be, immortal.
I will end this with Ida’s own words: “The aggressors force requires prayers to confront them, “Stop your fears! Believe strongly in yourself!”