MONTEZUMA CREEK It's just after sunrise, and in the pink of a new day, an oil pump is already doing its slow, rhythmic work. It is one of four wells on Mary Johnson's land, not far from where the old woman's home sits on a mesa at the northernmost tip of the massive Navajo Nation.
Like the huge pieces of equipment that dot the landscape, Johnson is up and moving at dawn every day before the sun gets beastly hot to tend chickens and chores on this sacred Indian land where she was raised. One of the day's concerns is water. The natural springs on her land are ruined, and groundwater is 6,000 feet down, so someone has to make the 50-mile trip to fill tanks in town and haul them back.
Maybe someday water will be carried across this land, but for now only oil makes its way over barren ground in a web of pipes and tubes. In the early morning quiet, you can hear them humming and vibrating.
It seems many of Johnson's 81 years have been spent watching the flow of these two fluid resources on the 160 acres given to her family generations ago. Watching each has caused her grief. Water is the reason her ancestors settled where they did, and it is gone now. Oil is the cause of a yearslong battle over payment for the resource pumped and transported across her land.
"It has always been a fight," Johnson, who speaks only Navajo, says through a translator. "No one is representing us."
In the past 50 years, oil companies have made billions off the oil in Montezuma Creek's Aneth field. Because of questionable conditions on old royalty agreements, lack of payment on others and environmental concerns, Johnson and her family have been in conflict half her life.
"All those years, they were never honest with her," said her daughter, Susie Philemon. She is furious at the oil companies."I hope to God they suck out every last drop of the oil so they can get the hell out of here."
Johnson was one of 13 children born in a hogan that still stands just down the rise. One day in late summer she takes a visitor there. Through a translator the soft-spoken woman says there used to be three fresh springs within a short walk of the hogan.
"We would take a bucket and get water," she said. Her hands dance like the gurgling spring she is describing. "It bubbled up right here. It was warm in the winter, and there was good vegetation for the animals."
She tended corn, watermelon and squash near the spring.
But the oil wells went in about a quarter-mile away, and the pipelines to carry the resource crossed through the area, heating up and buzzing and clicking.
"All that vegetation is burned now," Johnson said. "Once I went to the spring and there was a film on the top of it. That's how they destroyed our drinking water. All the springs are gone now."
The worth of the land and the impact of pulling oil from the ground here in Indian Country is something the Johnson family knows is difficult to understand. "My ancestors settled here because of the water. There was a flow in the creek and it was just beautiful. Now it is totally destroyed."
There is no fresh water, the natural springs are decimated and the companies have left the trashy remnants of their projects behind. Indeed, down a rutted dirt road, a tangle of rusted pipes lines the roadway."These oil companies came and destroyed the most important thing in life, the water and the land," Johnson said. "They just took the oil out of the ground, and they don't come back to help clean up."
Johnson's homesite is thousands of miles and a world away from Washington, D.C., where a battle continues over billions of dollars owed to American Indian landowners like Johnson because of gross government mismanagement of their trust accounts.
One Montana Indian woman has spent a decade trying to rectify the issue in a class action lawsuit named in her honor.
Lawyers for Eloise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, say Indian landowners are owed at least $100 billion in royalties tied to farming, grazing, mining, logging and other activities on tribal lands. Johnson is one of about 500,000 plaintiffs.
Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe of Montana, operates a working cattle ranch with her husband and is active in local agriculture and environmental issues.
Ten years ago, she led the lawsuit in an effort to correct a century of problems, and the legal action has dragged on with one delay after another.
"We have to continue fighting for justice and accounting," Cobell said last week from her Montana office. "If we can't win this one, there is something really, really wrong with this country."
Bill McAllister covered Indian issues for the Washington Post for 10 years and now works for Cobell's organization. There are few advocates for American Indians in their concerns over mismanagement by government and oil companies, he said.
"Eloise was one of the first ones to successfully make the government accountable."
During the litigation, lawyers have found corruption, fraud, horrible mismanagement and gaping holes in the accounting system by which Indians were paid for oil on their land, Cobell said.
"What's wrong with this picture when we have someone who is living in a shack and they have four oil wells pumping on their land?" she asked. "They should be living in a mansion."
But 75 percent of leases weren't recorded properly, according to the lawsuit. Oil money was accumulating in federal accounts, but because federal records weren't clear on who had rights to the money, funds went elsewhere.
The impact has been profound on American Indians, Cobell said.
"We would have had a totally different quality of life," she said. "If this trust was set up properly since 1887, if it had served the beneficiaries that own it, you would have seen a totally different economic condition in Indian communities."
Johnson has been a spokeswoman for the thousands of other American Indians in her circumstances. Johnson remembers a monthly check for $1,200 once, but mostly smaller payouts of $350 or $400 every month. All the while, the oil pumps have been working near her southeastern Utah home.
In 2005, Johnson was in Washington, D.C., with Cobell to testify before Congress about the unfair income she has received for the oil on her land. Last spring she went back to march in support of the lawsuit.
Cobell's efforts drew media attention last week when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted a Bush administration official for "incomprehensible" inaction on a settlement to the case.
McCain, a Republican, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, are both on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Weeks ago, the two met with U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and laid out what McCain called a reasonable solution to the lawsuit.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs have said they may be owed as much as $27.5 billion. The Senate bill proposes settling for $8 billion.
In a committee meeting last week, McCain verbally spanked Bush and federal official Carl Artman, who McCain said should have had adequate time to consider the settlement proposal and respond.
Artman is a nominee to be assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior.
"It's incomprehensible that the administration has not been able to come up with at least a response to what is the product of years of effort on the part of this committee and the interested parties," McCain said.
Administration officials have said they need more time. "I think 11 years is enough time," responded Cobell. "They use any little excuse to stall it out."
The Arizona Republic reported that Artman, a former chief counsel and member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, said resolution of the case is critical.
"The sooner this litigation ends, the sooner we improve our relationship with tribes, and the sooner we increase for Indians and Alaska natives the benefits of that relationship," Artman said.
Hurry up, Cobell said. Hurry up.In 10 years, Cobell has met many of the plaintiffs and sees them regularly at updates held in Indian Country throughout the nation. "The saddest part of it is that I look out into the audiences sometimes and there are elders missing, and you know what's happened," she said. "There are thousands of people like Mary Johnson who have been waiting for justice. It's very emotional."
For Johnson, the Cobell lawsuit is just one piece of the long battle over payment for oil pumped and transported across her land. Half her life has been spent fighting a variety of injustices related to rights of way, mineral leases and royalties on the 160 acres.
Johnson's father died in 1950, which put her mother in a position to negotiate lease and other agreements on the family land. But her mother spoke only Navajo, and Johnson's family alleges she did not have an impartial translator. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs used another resident of Montezuma Creek to witness the agreement, and that man ended up with 25 percent of royalties on oil produced on Johnson's land, her family says.
To this day, according to Johnson's family, the children of that witness get 25 percent of oil pumped from the Aneth Field Unit project on Johnson's land.
Johnson's family is appealing the terms of this contract to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Shell and Texaco oil companies, which both have operated on Johnson's land, never have provided accurate figures about how much oil was pumped there, which makes it impossible for the family to determine exactly what Johnson is owed.
In one recent case, an oil company paid $20 for a 20-year oil pipeline right of way. Johnson's family has tried to negotiate new right-of-way agreements based on how many barrels go through the pipes a day, but there is no way to do that. The BIA does the appraisals and will not release documents to Johnson's family.
Tribal restrictions and complicated government records make it difficult to determine how much oil comes from Johnson's wells.
Officials at Resolute Natural Resources, which operates with Navajo Oil on the northern Aneth oil field, say 10,000 barrels come out of the area every day but that the life of the oil field is coming to an end.
Now oil officials are drilling again. They will shoot carbon dioxide into the old wells again and try to shake out a little more crude. Rights of way for the carbon dioxide will have to be negotiated with Indians again.
Recently, Resolute offered Johnson $128 for a 20-year right of way. No way, her family answered."If they want to poison us," Philemon said. "They have to pay us money to do it."
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