And Navajo land defender Katherine Smith has died in Big Mountain, Arizona. While records say she was 98 years old, her family members say she was over 100. Smith spent decades defending Navajo land against intrusions by coal and uranium miners. She resisted resettlement after Congress passed the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which forced an estimated 6,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi to relocate. In 1979, Smith famously fired a warning shot from her shotgun to scare off Bureau of Indian Affairs employees who arrived to build a fence marking a redefined Hopi boundary. This is Katherine Smith.
Katherine Smith: “The U.S. government, they’re trying to get rid of the Navajo here, for took the land away from us. They loaded our sheep. They loaded our cattle. They loaded our horses. They just took it away from us. I used this gun on U.S., who’s trying to stole my land.”
Katherine Smith died March 29 at the age of at least 98, possibly over 100.
The revered matriarch once warded off federally employed fencing crews with a shotgun.
BIG MOUNTAIN – Billowing clouds rolled in and out over Big Mountain, bringing wind, rain, snow and sun when beloved Navajo matriarch and activist Katherine Smith said goodbye to the land she loved and defended.
“In our beliefs, when a death occurs the weather will tell you how blessed they were,” said Smith’s daughter, Marykatherine Smith. “We see rain, wind and snow as prosperity. So she was very blessed.”
The elder Smith, who once met federally employed workers with a shotgun during the infamous and protracted Navajo-Hopi relocation, died March 29. Officially, her age was listed at 98, but family and friends say she was more likely over 100.
Katherine Smith’s grandmother was born on the Navajo Long Walk. In 1864 the U.S. Army forced 9,500 Navajo to walk from their reservation 400 miles to the edge of the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. It was the first of many attempts to relocate Navajos.
And it was Smith’s refusal to become a part of a modern-day relocation that made her an icon and even gave her a role in an Oscar-nominated documentary.
Standing her ground with a shotgun
From a distance Big Mountain appears small, but its importance to the Navajo and Hopi people is great. For centuries Navajo families like Smith’s shared the ancestral land with Hopi villages. They had all they needed to survive. They grew corn, squash and melons and raised sheep. They used the plants like the scrubby sagebrush and juniper for their healing properties.
Big Mountain is considered sacred, with hundreds of prayer sites scattered throughout. Smith’s granddaughter, Davina Smith Spotted Elk, said it’s where her grandmother and great-grandparents have buried their umbilical cords, a Navajo tradition that ties them to that place from birth.
“As she put it, ‘My umbilical cord was buried here at Big Mountain and when I pass on, this is where I’ll be,’ ” Smith Spotted Elk said. “That was always powerful in my mind. You stand up for what’s important to you and I always try to do that wherever I go.”
In 1909 the U.S. Geological Survey discovered the land in northern Arizona was rich with coal, gas and uranium. As the population in the Western states exploded, they looked to the Navajo and Hopi land as the solution to the sudden demand for energy.
The tribes were reluctant, saying they did not want to defile Mother Earth. The federal government encouraged them to form tribal councils. Congress then passed a law allowing the Interior secretary along with the councils to approve mining leases.
Decades later in 1974, Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act to resolve a conflict over tribal land ownership. Under the law, the federal government redefined the Hopi boundary and took control of 1.8 million mineral-rich acres they called “joint use area,” which included Big Mountain.
Katherine Smith and many others believed the land dispute was a cover for mineral leases. They say it was John Boyden, a Utah lawyer with ties to both Peabody Coal and the Hopi Tribe, who took advantage of long-standing tensions between neighboring tribes and pushed Congress into evicting as many as 6,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi from Hopi Partitioned Lands and impounding their livestock.
Peabody established two mines near Big Mountain in the early 1970s to supply coal to the fledgling Navajo Generating Station near Lake Powell.
As a result of the 1974 act, the federal government hired Navajo workers to build a fence at the new boundary. When they came to Big Mountain, they were met with Katherine Smith and her shotgun.
“They just kind of laughed at her and mocked her,” Marykatherine Smith said. “And she said, ‘I’m asking you nicely, you need to stop this work.’ So they continued to mock her and she backed up and said, ‘That was a warning,’ and shot the gun up in the air. That’s when the workers jumped off their equipment and ran.”
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Looking up to a strong, fierce leader
Amanda Blackhorse, a friend of the family and an activist, said this image of Smith has always stayed with her.
“It showed me women are strong and can be leaders,” said Blackhorse, who is a plaintiff in the trademark case against the Washington, D.C., NFL team over its name. “And within our tribe women have traditionally taken on that role defending family and land. She is a hero and someone who has impacted my life and the way that I see the world today and the way that I engage and fighting indigenous struggles. She is one of the reasons why I’ve taken the path I have taken and I know she’s done that for so many people.”
After the shotgun incident, Smith was arrested and sent to a Navajo jail, then a Hopi jail. A judge acquitted her. But she did not leave Big Mountain. She stayed along with a handful of other Navajo families.
Smith appeared in “Broken Rainbow,” a 1985 documentary that was nominated for an Oscar about the relocation. At the end of the film Smith is seen wearing a red scarf tied around her neck. She walks alongside a tall barbed- wire fence carrying her rifle at her side. Then she puts down the gun, grabs a shovel and starts digging up a fence post. She manages to dig it out by herself, laughs, then throws the post down on the ground.
Andy Bessler, a friend of the family and longtime activist, said the film inspired him to move from Fort Collins, Colo., to northern Arizona to help the Navajos. That’s when he met Smith.
“She was fierce,” Bessler said. “Yet totally gentle, giggling all the time. She was awesome. She had an impact on my life, that’s for sure.”
Her family said even Arizona senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was afraid of Smith. In the 1970s, Goldwater and Arizona Rep. Morris Udall flew to Big Mountain in a helicopter on a fact-finding tour. They landed not far from where Smith was living. Marykatherine Smith said they talked with her mother and when the conversation became heated, she chased them back onto their helicopter.
Smith participated in several protests as the fence was eventually built and the coal mines at Kayenta and Black Mesa were fully operational. At one all-women demonstration along the new fence, police showed up.
“They started beating women with batons,” Marykatherine Smith said. “And she happened to be able to catch the baton coming at her and yanked it away from police and took it.”
Today that baton, along with Katherine’s shotgun, are framed on the wall of her stone cabin on Big Mountain. Next to the gun hang several animal pelts. She trapped badgers, coyotes, bobcats, even mountain lions.
Smith Spotted Elk remembers Smith’s adventurous spirit.
“She had a very old pickup, it had a huge steering wheel and she used to see right through it underneath it,” Smith Spotted Elk said. “She used to make her own roads and we were four wheeling. And it was so much fun.”
The heart of Big Mountain
Smith raised 12 children. She sent them to Indian boarding schools throughout the country because she believed they would receive a better education than what was offered on the reservation. For 20 years Smith traveled to the University of Northern Colorado twice a year to teach about Navajo culture. The university gave her an honorary doctorate degree, one of her most prized possessions.
“When I went away to school, half of my heart was always here but I was always hurt because of the land dispute,” said Roy Vicente Smith, Katherine’s son. “I guess I have to live with that the rest of my life. Most of the kids, grandkids, they have the sense something is missing.”
The Navajo Generating Station has produced electricity for Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Los Angeles for 40 years. The coal-fired power plant, along with the Peabody Coal mines, employ about 800 people.
But Marykatherine Smith said some of the people who were forced to move away couldn’t afford to pay property taxes on their new homes. She said many are now homeless in towns that border the reservation. And others died from the stress of leaving their homeland.
In 2005 Katherine Smith appealed to the U.S. government on their behalf asking it to fulfill promises made to the people who followed orders and relocated and to allow those who stayed to have electricity, running water and paved roads.
But Big Mountain remains without running water and electricity today.
Documents indicate Smith was 98 when she died. But community members believe she was much older. Years ago, Smith told her daughter she wanted to live to 100.
“In January all of a sudden I heard her say, ‘I’m 100 years old’,” Marykatherine Smith said. “I said, ‘No, let’s stay with 98.’ ”
In her final days she celebrated the news that the Navajo Generating Station plans to shut down in 2019, several years ahead of schedule. And her family said she saw this as a victory.
“She kept saying, ‘I never sold out,’ ” Marykatherine Smith said. “ ‘I stayed here. I fought for this land. I am here. I’m going to stay here. I was born here. I never sold out. I outlived all these senators and lawmakers that passed laws against me.’ ”
Smith is survived by six of her 12 children and many grandchildren.
In the 1988 documentary “Heart of Big Mountain,” Smith said, “I was born from Big Mountain. That’s my mother. So all of my life I will always be thinking of this place. My spirit will be here forever.”
Laurel Morales reports for KJZZ’s Fronteras Desk. This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KJZZ and The Arizona Republic | azcentral.com.