Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest


by Charles Wilkinson, Moses Lasky Professor of Law
University of Colorado School of Law


Geologists, beginning with John Wesley Powell, recognize the Colorado Plateau as a physiographic province, isolated from adjacent regions. Just a few dozen million years ago, the Plateau was a flat plain, a former ocean floor with rivers flowing across it. Then gigantic forces caused the region to rise. But the rivers held resolutely to their courses, cutting into the ground as the land mass rose around them. This left canyon-cuts all across the Plateau. The Grand Canyon is the most spectacular, but scores upon scores of others are fabulous in their own right. Wind and water have worked on the soft rocks in other ways, crafting all manner of monuments, pillars, arches, natural bridges, spires, minarets, cliffs, and crags, ablaze in every hue of earth color, but with the red--all variations of red, always the red--the most memorable to our eyes.

The Plateau is barriered off in nearly every direction. The southern border is the Mogollon Rim, a cliff for most of its 200-mile run, a thousand feet high or more in places; below the Rim, down in the Salt River Valley, are Phoenix and its suburbs. To the southwest and southeast, modest mountain ranges separate the Plateau from lower-lying Las Vegas and Albuquerque. On the West, the province is bounded by the high and jagged Wasatch Range, across which lies Salt Lake City. The crest of the Uinta Range, nearly in Wyoming, marks the northern boundary, and the lower beginnings of the Colorado Rockies define it on its eastern side.

The Plateau Province thus includes about half of Utah, northern Arizona, the northwest corner of New Mexico, and a long strip in westernmost Colorado, some 80 million acres in all. By way of comparison, the entire state of Arizona holds 73 million acres.

Throughout almost all of its reach, this land is arid, a desert. Except for the mountain spines above 10,000 feet, it receives ten inches of precipitation a year or less, the traditional measuring stick for defining a desert. (Scientists now also require a high rate of evaporation for classification as a desert, and the Plateau’s bright sun, heat, and winds qualify it within that framework also). A small part is “hot” desert, mostly in deep canyon bottoms in the southwestern area of the Plateau; the hot desert receives the lowest amount of precipitation, sometimes as little as three inches a year. The bulk of the Plateau’s land mass is 5,000 feet or higher and, apart from the upper alpine reaches, this is “cold” desert--more than half of the precipitation comes in the form of snow. Deliciously temperate springs and autumns precede and follow the chill winters of the high desert. Summers, mid-May through mid-September, are blast furnace torrid.

Remote, rugged, and dry, at once forlorn and glorious, this is a separate place, a place with its own distinctive landscape, history, and future.

Many of my travels, first as a law student and young Arizona lawyer, then as a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, later when teaching and writing about the laws, land, and people of the West, have taken me to the Colorado Plateau. Some have come as part of the joy of writing this book, when I have made a point of getting out on the Plateau about once a month. Other trips have been with family, friends, or students. Still other visits have been as a lawyer, working for the Navajo and Hopi on tangled issues involving ideas and events that went back decades, centuries, more. Inevitably, working with Indians is working with time.

For it is this other sense, our sense of time, that becomes so fully engaged on the Colorado Plateau. All the recently-made dams, reservoirs, coal mines, coal-fired power plants, transmission lines, oil and gas rigs, uranium mines, mills, and dumps, motels, condominiums, and espresso shops prove how quickly our kind can move, how little time we need to reach large results. Yet time’s longer and more profound side still pervades the Colorado Plateau. Deep time is laid bare everywhere, in all the stripped-off rocks of this brittle, elevated land that holds some of the finest displays of exposed geology anywhere on Earth. The ancient cultures have left us their handiwork and their ideas. Indian people on the reservations, having heard the old stories over and over, possess a precise consciousness that stretches far back and blends into the remembered Earth. The quiet of the deep canyons and the long still vistas, encompassing so much sacred ground, slow us down, take us far back, and hold us there. Yes, the Colorado Plateau is a place where we can discover great distances, both of terrain and time.

This book recounts my journey through the Colorado Plateau, a journey through place and time and self. The journey was unstructured, depending as it did on requests for assistance from Indian tribes and community groups, on family and teaching schedules, on the beckoning of my personal interests, and on flashes of suspicion that caused me to drop everything and track down a lead. I did a great deal of formal research--in the literature, library collections, and government documents--but the travels mattered more. Fascinating and valuable though the reading has been, my best learning took place at arduous late-night meetings, listening to the deliberations of earnest Indian people; at the base of a power plant with 700-foot stacks, trying to imagine how the coal somehow produced electricity for cities hundreds of miles away; in a blue-ribbon trout stream below a 400-foot dam, casting a fly and wondering about the societies submerged by the reservoir; in a twisty black canyon where the Ancient Pueblo people once resided, moving down a faint trail with a backpack and a boy; and beneath a great natural arch in a conversation of reconciliation with the father who forced me west in the first place.

During my journey of more than three decades, I found a land that sears into my heart and soul, a place that has taught me and changed me. I also discovered a land of conquest and endurance, a land that has given birth to one of the great chapters in American history.

The methods of conquering the tribes were many and diverse: war, land sales, bad resource deals, cultural assimilation, and the treachery of their friends. As for the land, the most notable conquest took place from about 1955 through 1975--I have come to call it the Big Build-up. The cities surrounding the Plateau--Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Los Angeles--had exhausted their own local resources. Civic leaders organized a concerted campaign for the rapid, wholesale development of the energy and water of the Colorado Plateau.

Indisputably, the Big Build-up achieved the objectives that its architects intended. It made the modern Southwest, transforming it from a backwater region of 8 million people at the end of World War II into a powerhouse of 32 million today. It was one of the most prodigious peace-time exercises of industrial might in the history of the world.

The consequences of this conquest for the land, rivers, air, and human health, were many, and they are with us still. So, too, are the consequences for the tribes. Among other things, the linchpin for the Big Build-up was Black Mesa, sacred ground for the Hopi and Navajo, who leased their coal and water at prices far below market value.

Standing near the center of the Big Build-up was an eminent Salt Lake City lawyer named John Boyden, who represented both the Ute and Hopi tribes. For years, charges had swirled that during the decisive times of the 1960s Boyden, in violation of his high ethical and legal obligations to his tribal clients, also worked in the dark for Peabody Coal Company and other development interests that wanted Indian land, minerals, and water. At first, as I began to look into these episodes, I doubted that Boyden had acted wrongly or, if he did, that it could be proved. The existing evidence was thin. But gradually, by the plain luck that sometimes accompanies perseverance, I uncovered the truth about Boyden’s dealings. His story is the story of the conquest of Black Mesa and the two tribes, and in turn the story of the conquest of the Colorado Plateau. There are ways in which Boyden’s story is the story of us all.

Yet, for all the many conquests, the home fires of endurance burn still. This is a big land, and its rough, dry landscape gives it the shield of remoteness. The wild desert country, as I learned, can still heal us. The Indian people, against all odds, have held on. They still own a third of the Colorado Plateau. Their cultures--battered all over, to be sure--remain strong.

The tribal endurance raises questions that burn in the coals of every piñon fire and twine through all of the back canyons of the tribal homelands. Why, for all the effort, all the money, all the military might and threat of it, for all the industrial efforts, for all the apparent helplessness of the tribes, for all the shouting-out inevitability of the final result, has the forced assimilation never finally taken? Why is the Colorado Plateau still Indian country? Why do the Navajo still tell the Coyote stories and fight--successfully--to send their children to their own Indian schools? Why, after the warfare in the sagebrush bowl on upper Milk Creek between two military forces, one native, one from the newer nation, and after all the consequences of that battle, do the Ute still hold nearly two million acres? Why do the Hopi still perform Home Dance, with all its pageantry, dedication, and commitment of weeks of time just to prepare for this one ceremony? Why do the tribes still govern themselves and their land by the old values and priorities?

One might surmise that this is simply because no one yet wants the tribes’ lands and minds badly enough. Perhaps. But in learning the story of the Colorado Plateau, one finds another reason, which is that the tribes possess a tenacity, a tenacity stronger than all the technology and guile levied against it, a tenacity that would not, would not ever, let go.

If that tenacity is the secret, then the secret inside of it is the core value that fuels the tenacity: a reverence--think that word through--for the land, for a particular place. Romanticism? The story of the Colorado Plateau makes it plain that, in this age when we careen toward an uncertain destination, a true and lasting commitment to place may be as valuable to us as any serum.