What lies beneath

There's more than copper under the shallow sands of Beesh Hageed

By CIndy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

COPPERMINE CHAPTER, Ariz., January 17, 2013

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H igh above Echo Cliffs, on the broad backbone of Western Navajo, perches a land of giant vistas and buried treasure.

For decades, men dug copper out of its sandy earth. More importantly, rain that hits this high plateau never reaches the nearby canyon of the Colorado...instead, it soaks into a 2,000-foot-deep layer of sandstone, which filters it into the Navajo Aquifer...whence it emerges, cold and pristine, from a series of deep wells pumped by windmills.

The spectacular ridges that fall away from this rooftop chapter are named for other things that lie beneath its shallow layer of sandy soil. In the limestone caves of Porcupine Mesa, if you scrape away the floor, you may find the charred and chewed bones of ancient porcupines whose plump bodies sustained the local people through a particularly cold and snowy winter.

On Many Ghosts Hill, the bones are human...victims of a long-ago battle with the Paiutes, or was it the Spanish? If you dare to go there on a moonless night, jiní, you can still hear their dying moans.

As for Monkey Ridge, therein lies a tale. And also a tail.

The president of this intriguing chapter looks a bit like he himself was carved out of its rock. Floyd Stevens has the square, chiseled face of a petroglyph come to life. But, like his chapter, there is more to Stevens than meets the eye. He is soft-spoken, college-educated, eminently genteel, and, judging from the number of obscure historical sources he quotes with abandon, one of the best-read men in Northern Arizona.

More importantly for our purposes, Stevens has the dirt on his chapter. And he knows where all the bodies are buried in it.

Better days

These days, Stevens says, you can define Coppermine by what it doesn't have: "No stores, no trading post, no laundry, no convenience stores, no gas stations," and just one highway: about 20 miles of U.S. 89 passes through the northwestern edge.

But for many years, Coppermine was a hopping place.

People have been staking small mining claims here since the 1880s, but the large open-pit mine from which the chapter takes its name was run by the Coconino Copper and Chemical Co. According to the chapter's Web site, the company "used some immense and unique steam-powered half-tracks to pull the ore wagons to Flagstaff for processing."

The mine employed up to 90 people at one time, Stevens recalled, and changed the economy from livestock-based to cash. It closed in 1968 and has been reclaimed by Abandoned Mine Lands, along with the smaller holes.

The old stone trading post was started in 1931 to serve the miners and local Navajos. It went through three owners before Thell and Anna Jean Black of Holbrook, Ariz. bought it in the 1970s.

Even for a trading post, it was a hard place to live, recalled their daughter, LaVena DeSpain of Holbrook, who lived there for three years in her early 20s after her parents split up and her mother needed help running the place.

"We had to haul water from Page to fill the cistern," she recalled. "Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth on that dirt road. I don't think we ever did fill that thing up."

The mail, too, came from Page, and the groceries from Flagstaff. The traders had to meet the delivery truck in Gap and drive the groceries back to Coppermine on the treacherous dirt road.

Will pavement come?

According to DeSpain, the topic of paving sand-blown Navajo Route 20 came up more than once at the chapter house, "but the Navajos voted it down," she said. "They didn't want a thoroughfare through their homes, with cars killing their sheep."

Stevens' recollection, however, is that the BIA had fully funded the paving of N-20, and started from Page, when the Bennett Freeze was established.

"They paved to the Bennett Freeze line," he said, "and then they stopped."

The money went instead to pave a road to Leupp, and to this day the Copperminers believe the BIA owes them some pavement. Stevens would like to see it before the end of this, his second term.

"Once the pavement comes," he says, "everything else will follow."

In the meantime, however, the chapter has been pursuing everything else, or at least running water and electricity.

A new water line is in the works, courtesy of the Indian Health Service, and some 134 homes are connected to the power grid...something the locals thought would happen when the Navajo Generating Station was built in the 1950s, but didn't until decades later.

The chapter has installed solar panels on some 45 homes too remote to connect to the grid, and needs to work on getting infrastructure top the 42 families in the former Bennett Freeze, which claimed the lower third of the chapter.

Stevens would like to bring back the trading post as a museum, a plan that brought an enthusiastic blessing from DeSpain.

"That'd be great!" she said in a telephone interview. "I hear it's getting pretty run-down since my mom gave it up (in 1988)."

Herein lies the tail

And what, you ask, of the intriguingly named Monkey Ridge?

Well, it seems that back when the NGS was being built, there was a grader operator living in Coppermine who had a pet monkey.

Every day, as he drove his grader to work, he'd leave the monkey in a tree outside the trading post, where it entertained Stevens and the other local youngsters.

"If you made a face at it," recalled Stevens, "it would make one back at you. If you teased it too much, it would pull down its little pants and moon you."

The monkey delighted the children until one day during the monsoon season, when there was a freak hailstorm, the tropical creature literally caught its death of cold.

The grader operator was heartbroken.

"He buried it just like a person," Stevens recalled. "He wrapped it in a rug, and bought little jewelry for it to be buried in."

Then he hired two local men to dig it a grave on what is now called Monkey Ridge.

The hapless pet, alas, did not rest in peace.

"As I heard it," said Stevens, "the two grave-diggers got drunk one night and woke up with a terrible hangover. They didn't have any money for liquor, so they dug up the monkey and pawned his jewelry in Page."

Ah, well. The old Navajo name for this place, "Beesh haageed," "Digging up Metal," has proved accurate in more ways than one.

Coppermine at a Glance

Name — the Navajo name, "Beesh Haageed," or "Digging out Metal," is pretty much the same as the English name. The chapter is named for a copper mine that functioned until 1968.

Land area — 240,000 acres, about a third of which is in the former Bennett Freeze.

Geographical features — the chapter sits atop the immense sandstone wall of Echo Cliffs. "We have about five feet of soil on top of 2,000 feet of bedrock," says Chapter President Floyd Stevens. An interesting feature is that the area does not drain into the Colorado Basin. It collects in the low areas and seeps into the ground.

Elevation — 5,000 to 7,200 feet

History — People were living in the Coppermine area long before the mine. Oral history tells of groups of Navajos who joined with nearby bands of Paiutes and Apaches to avoid the Long Walk. "Some of them went all the way to the Chiricahuas," Stevens said. There is also evidence of Anasazi settlement.

Problems — Isolation (the chapter house is six miles from the paved portion of N-20, the road to Page), lack of economic development because of the Bennett Freeze, feral horses

Assets — N-20 is near the top of the BIA's list for improvement, and a new water line is on its way. The chapter would also like to participate in the upcoming lease renegotiation for Navajo Generating Station. "We're the ones that suffer the health effects from the pollution," Stevens said. "It seems like we should get some benefits."

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