Big Mountain is not on the map. It is more of a collective description of an expansive high plateau where the ridges spread in all directions and the ravines tear deep cuts in the bushy landscape. It snows here in the wintertime, with the desert almost within sight, creating over rocky hollows and dusty slopes a white silence that is spelled isolation. With the melting moisture parts of the still sparse road system disappears and the other year a dam reservoar in concrete was crushed by the flood from the heights.
In late summer, the heat lasts long into the evenings. At dusk, cicadas by the thousands are playing, it is a hymn in the upper fluttering part of the register, collectively attuned but also individualized and unsynchronized, free from any dialect as if sung in a special cicada Esperanto. Lying on your back and watching from your sleeping-bag, you see stars that you have never before noticed, new formations and offshoots, glimmering patterns and fuzzy milk-white spots, an absolute timelessness caught in symbolic signs.
After the morning coffee I walk down the slope. I let my gaze wander: all I see is cedar and juniper and pines and rounded mountain ridges; a huge space. The sounds of the night are gone and there is a quiet murmur in the wind. A sheep is bleating, the herd is moving slowly sideways, with a desolate tinkle from the leader-animals.
Mae Tso comes up to me and nods her head.
“I can never move. The Great Spirit placed us here so that we should take care of this land. The law of nature is more powerful than the inventions of humans.”
She has pulled her blue-white scarf over her head, a cool wind is playing around in the thickets.
When the fence-builders from the Bureau of Indian Affairs came here with their truck and started driving posts into the ground to mark the new border, Mae Tso immediately showed up, with three curious dogs in tow, and scolded them. Perhaps they laughed at her. They raised their sledges again. Then she tore up one the posts and the fight was in full swing between the short, earnest woman in a velvet blouse and a Navajo skirt and the irritated workers in thick-soled boots and rolled up shirt-sleeves.
The police was sent for, and Mae Tso was arrested for disturbance and unwarranted interference in a government project laid down by law.
She and her family live in a grey stone-house with one room and a kitchen. At the far end there is a bed with a metal headboard, while hanging on the walls there are pictures of relatives, some worn poster with an Indian motive, a tapestry with Jesus in insistent colours. The wooden stove is about to go out in the kitchen. The youngest daughter, Juanita, swabs the floor while we fill our stomachs: boiled mutton and coffee from a tin mug.
We came here with the assistance of Mae´s son Earl. He drove in front of us, putting us on the track, and pretty soon after we had left the asphalt road through the Hopi reservation we were skidding uphill in dried-out creek beds, with our exhaust-pipe scraping against the sand and the air filled with the smell of sage. As our engine growled we frightened a bird of prey that would soar within sight for ten minutes before turning off behind a big rock.
The trick was to maintain an even speed and steer up on the tightly stuffed banks of sand. Small cacti were peeping out in the low brushes with violet and yellow flowers, from a distance the ground looked green in a barren and slightly prickly way. We did not see any people, behind us only an impenetrable cloud of dust.
Earl´s parents live way up on top of a hill, with their house shadowed by two planted trees, just where the bushes begin sliding down again on a faint slope facing west. Some fifty sheep are being corraled at night. Between the trees a couple of horses, not yet broken in, move anxiously with their front legs fettered and their ears twitching nervously. Along the trail down to the outhouse stands a fairly recently built hogan, where the childen can stay when they come to visit.
“I was born here, my parents were born here, as were my grandparents on my mother´s side. My family has lived in this area for nine generations.”
Mae Tso speaks quietly, monotonously, with a kind of suppressed stress in her voice. She takes care of the sheep, the house, she weaves and manages the tradition.
“We have heard about this forced relocation for many years now. It began when they came and confiscated our cattle. We are living under severe stress, both bodily and mentally. People are affected, a lot of them can´t handle it. Some of our relatives have committed suicide or taken to the bottle. You can reach a point when you no longer care about what´s going to happen.”
Mae adjusts her scarf.
“We know that we are dealing with a very powerful organization. The U.S. government makes laws and money. The military enables them to govern almost everyone here in America and other people´s lives, too, in other countries. We live just like in the Third World. It is very difficult, and also confusing. You can´t go to sleep without thinking about it. We always think about what will happen tomorrow. As soon as you let the sheep wander off for a few minutes, you need to go out and look for them. If we are not nearby, they will take our animals. That´s how we live, who don´t obey the current American legislation. It´s not good to worry all the time, to be afraid for your life, your home.”
“What do you think will happen to you and your family?”
“We will not move. We will resist as long as it takes. Even if they press on with their relocation programme, even if they put more power behind their words, we will resist.”
She makes a sweeping gesture with one hand.
“The land here is a part of us. It is our religion, our life. We can´t desert the natural laws of the Great Spirit. Nobody has the right to tell us not to follow them, they are the only laws that we live by. Our ancestors are here with us, the spirits of our ancestors are in the ground, with Mother Earth. They are in the plants and in our animals. They are in the springs where we pray and give our offerings. We are connected to the land.”