50 Years Ago: Peabody debates how to transport coal

Fifty years ago, officials for the Peabody Coal Company had to make a decision.

In stories written in the Navajo Times, and in other papers during the months of August and September, the coal mining company was trying to decide how the company would transfer coal they mined from the Black Mesa Mine to Needles, California.

The company had a few months prior reached an agreement with the Navajo and Hopi tribes to mine between four million and seven million tons of coal from the Black Mesa Mine annually.

There were some in the company who supported the construction of 106 miles of railroad track from the mine to the Santa Fe Railway main line near Canyon Diablo. From there it would take the main line to a spot some 34 miles from Needles, at which point the coal company would have to build a spur line to Needles.

A Peabody spokesman said construction of the railroad connection could create as many as 250 new jobs and $2.2 million per year in payroll costs.

Another proposal that did not garner much support at the time was to build a pipeline and use water to float the coal to Needles or to a site near Needles.

No one knew how much this would cost but company officials said they planned to do a feasibility study to determine if there was enough water in the area to make this possible and which proposal would cost the company the least over the life of the lease.

Officials for the company would take months to make the decision and interestingly enough, it appears from the articles that appeared over the next few months, that officials of the tribe had no opinion on which proposal they would take.

But while this was going on without much comment from anyone, tribal officials were holding hearings to determine if there was some political motivations underway by then Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall in the way he was investing tribal funds.

The first thing members of the Navajo Tribal Council learned in these hearings was that tribal leaders had no say in when the tribe’s money was placed in two banks in Buffalo, New York.

Udall was trustee for the tribe’s land and money and government attorneys said he had the power to finalize any decisions he chose to, with or without the tribe’s permission.

It turned out, according to testimony at the hearings, that when the question came up of where to invest $12 million of the tribe’s funds, tribal leaders were not asked for their opinion, with Udall basically saying he knew better about what was best for the tribe than tribal leaders did.

In the debates on this subject, the phrase “tribal sovereignty” never came up. Instead, tribal officials used the phrases like “inherent rights” and “treaty rights” to argue that the tribal government and not the Interior Department should make that decision.

Another aspect of the hearings was an indication that when it came right down to it, the Navajo people fared a lot better financially by having the money deposited in the banks in Buffalo.

Tribal officials were told that the Buffalo banks were chosen because they were the only banks in the country offering 5.5 percent interest at the time.

The hearings also revealed that the Navajo Tribal Council had passed a resolution asking that wherever the Navajo funds was invested they should get more than four percent interest.

Government officials also stated at the hearing that before a decision was made to put the money in the Buffalo banks, the Interior Department was willing to listen to the advice of tribal leaders but no one showed up.

It turned out that the tribe’s comptroller and treasurer were invited to come to Washington, D.C. to give advice but they sent their regrets, saying they could not make it at that time.

Since it was costing the tribe $2,000 a day to keep the money in banks that had lower interest rates, Udall said he made the decision as trustee to take them out of those banks and place them in the one with the highest interest rate in the country.

That apparently settled the question for the time being but not for very long. A month later tribal officials were again questioning Udall on another of his investment decisions.

And finally, the tribe was continuing to get reports that as the Vietnam war heated up, the number of Navajos enlisted in the military – primarily the army and the marines, increased.

Although no figures were given, tribal officials were told that the number of Navajo men graduating from high school in June of 1966 and joining the military was the highest in history.

The reason why there were no figures, said recruiting agents, was because the enlistment forms did not ask about tribal membership but instead, the military was using statements by recruiting agents in Gallup, Farmington, and Flagstaff for their report.

Since there was no draft at this time, the military was sending its recruiters to high schools on and near the Navajo Reservation to talk to high school seniors about a possible military career.

They would sometimes bring with them, according to one article that was printed later, a Navajo veteran who would be responsible for telling stories about how wonderful military life was and how it would change their lives.

Apparently, the plan worked and Navajos by the hundreds would sign up each year for military service.


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