The C Word

Originally published March 27 2015 at

By Collin Smith, 2015 Uplift organizer

There’s no word for “conservation” in Navajo

I just returned from a week-long trip to Black Mesa, a region of the Navajo Nation known for its remoteness, traditional herding lifestyle, and rich cultural spirit. It’s also known for a strip mining operation run by Peabody Coal that has been at the heart of a controversy over forced relocations, water and air pollution, and politics that have complicated traditional life on the mesa. 

A fellow member of the Uplift organizing committee, Adrian Horseherder, grew up on Black Mesa and invited a group of Whitman College students to stay on his family’s property for a week during our spring break to help with projects while learning about politics, history, and conservation issues at Black Mesa.

Understanding the Issues

As part of our education, we attended a meeting of the Little Colorado River Water Committee, a group of Black Mesa leaders working to find ways to replenish the Navajo aquifer. The aquifer is a pristine pool of water that underlies Black Mesa, and, in the past, fed the springs that made life on Black Mesa possible. 

That all changed in the early ‘70s when Peabody began using millions of gallons of water to slurry coal from their mines on the mesa down to the Mohave Generating Station over 200 miles away in southern Nevada. During its operation, the pipeline was labeled the most profligate use of water in the entire West. The end result of pumping all that water was the catastrophic drawdown of the aquifer, leading to dry springs, empty wells, and sinkhole collapses across the region. 

Black Mesa Leaders in Action

Instead of waiting for Peabody or the U.S. or Navajo Nation governments to fix the problem, this committee of Native leaders decided to take matters into their own hands, drafting community plans to increase groundwater recharge on Black Mesa.

As the committee members discussed plans, they slipped between English and Navajo, using whichever language most conveniently expressed their ideas. One English word kept coming up -- conservation. 

Many of the projects they discussed, like building small dams to halt arroyo formation or restoring water catchment structures, were familiar conservation strategies. So I was surprised later when one of the younger Navajo members told me she felt irritated that the members kept using the c-word. 

There’s no word for conservation in Navajo. It’s part of everything we say in the language. 

She elaborated. Conservation is how the Navajo people traditionally described and interacted with the Earth. No single word could capture their understanding since it flowed throughout their culture. 

Listening to her, I aspired to steep conservation so deep in my actions and worldview that naming it in isolation became redundant.

Sharing the experience

At Uplift, we’ll be sparking the conversation between the conservation fights and indigenous rights struggles happening on reservations across the Plateau today. As young people, we have the incredible opportunity and solemn responsibility to build a relationship between these two worlds in order to bring a unified front against the powers of globalization that threaten the Plateau. I can’t wait to meet everyone at Uplift and get started!