A group of young Navajos on a yearlong, 1,200-mile walk arrived in Cortez last week to raise awareness of environmental and social issues.
Since Jan. 6, 30 activists have covered 850 miles on their journey across the reservation to visit the four sacred peaks of Navajo culture. Hesperus Peak, in the La Plata Mountains, is the tribe's most northern sacred mountain.
On their trek, called "Our Journey for Existence," the group witnessed the impacts of uranium mining at sacred Mount Taylor, visited coal mines and power plants at Black Mesa, and saw the Aneth oil fields. They then discussed their environmental impacts with community members at the end of the day.
"We've been walking 10 to 15 miles per day and talking directly with the people at the grass-roots level," says Nadine Narindrankura, of Big Mountain. "On our journey, we've seen a lot of heavy industry and pollution."
At Cortez's City Park, fiery speeches were given condemning irresponsible energy extraction, radioactive pollution and use of recycled wastewater for snowmaking at the Snowbowl, Ariz., ski resort in the sacred San Francisco Mountains.
"Colonization brought capitalism and greed that is not part of our traditional values," said activist Nick Ashley, of Jones Ranch, N.M. "Big cities consume and consume energy from our coal, but the system is unsustainable and is killing our people, polluting our land."
A renewed focus on agriculture and sheep herding is needed, he said, including sharing the harvest within the community.
"They tried to assimilate us into a Western way of thinking with boarding schools, tried to take away our language, then used our language to win a war," said a speaker called DJ. "We're still here, but as a tribe we need to become more informed about what is happening around us so we can control our destiny."
Outside corporate interests in resources such as uranium have left a legacy of contaminated soil and water, said McCai Lewis.
At the Church Rock uranium mine in 1979, a containment dam broke, releasing millions of gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River, Lewis said.
"The people there told us the river ran green with sludge, contaminating the water and land relied on for crops and grazing," Lewis said. "People are still affected by this. But it's not taught to the younger generation. You have to go to college to learn about it."
Along the way, the walkers met with medicine men and elders. Prayer ceremonies were conducted at each sacred mountain.
In the evenings, a meal is prepared by the walkers' support staff, and visitors may join in.
After the speeches in City Park, musicians strummed guitars and sang songs imploring action for change and resistance to destructive outside influences.
"It's been a long journey," Lewis said. "Our hope is to share what we learned and encourage our people open their eyes and research what is happening in your area."
The Navajo are resilient, Narindrankura said in closing, withstanding discrimination and oppression, at times sanctioned by the U.S. government.
"Our ancestors prayed for us to be back in these mountains, not in Oklahoma, where we were forced to relocate during the Long Walk 150 years ago," she said. "And on this journey, as we walked through 106-degree weather, through the rain, and as the sun set, we pray that in another 150 years we will still be here, connected to the land in a sustainable way."