None Dare Call It Murder
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Leroy Jackson had been missing for eight days back in September, 1993, when an anonymous tip was phoned in to the New Mexico State Police that a white van was parked along the Brazos Cliffs, near the town of Chama. When officers arrived they found the windows of the van covered with towels and blankets and the doors locked. Leroy, wrapped in a heavy wool blanket, had been dead for days. Jackson had earlier co-founded DINE CARE, a group of Navaho environmentalists devoted to combating the clear cutting of the forested Chuska Mountains and preserving traditional Native American lifestyles.
From my days as a young teacher over forty years ago, I remember well the magnificent beauty of the Chuska Mountains. I remember the quiet talk of good friends late at night around a smoky campfire of cedar and pinion boughs, a lone coyote serenading the star spangled heavens, huge mule deer, lumbering black bear, pristine alpine lakes swarming with rainbow trout, the mysterious big cat whose tracks in the sandy soil revealed that he had been trailing my backpacking buddy and me on a sunny Southwestern afternoon. Knowing what I do of human greed and chicanery, I should not be surprised that there are those in any society eager to destroy their own birthright, even a place as pristine and beautiful as the Chuskas, in pursuit of the oft-repeated chimera of jobs, security and prosperity.
When Jackson spoke up against plans to clear-cut the Chuskas at a meeting of the tribal legislature in Window Rock, Arizona, even accusing the legislature and the Bureau of Indian Affairs of corruption, he was greeted by hoots and catcalls and death threats. He argued that clear cutting the Chuskas would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act, given that the area was home to the threatened Mexican spotted owl. Subsequently, the BIA insisted that the ESA be suspended in the case of the Chuskas on the grounds that the owl is the harbinger of death in Navaho spirituality and, therefore, should be driven to extinction. Jackson was on his way from Taos, New Mexico, to Washington, D.C. to confront the Clinton administration over plans to log the old growth ponderosa pines out of the Chuskas when he disappeared.
Friends and supporters insisted that the investigation into his death was botched from the beginning. They argued that officials neglected to photograph the crime scene or dust the van for fingerprints. While there were reports of blood at the scene, State Police concluded that there were no signs of foul play, even though a cursory autopsy revealed no natural cause of death. Congressman Bill Richardson (later governor and presidential candidate) wrote the FBI requesting their involvement in the investigation. The Bureau accepted the verdict of the State Police that the death was caused by a drug overdose. The case remains unresolved among Jackson’s friends and supporters.
Leroy Jackson, by his life and example, brought to the forefront the schism that runs through the heart of much of Native America, particularly in his own beloved Southwest. While DINE CARE’s website informs us that clear cutting in the Chuskas has been reformed and regulated and that a vigorous reforestation program is being conducted, yet another battle now pits those who would preserve natural serenity and native cultures against those who would degrade or destroy those things for profit. Most recently, the Navaho Tribal Legislature is proposing the construction of a tramway, restaurant, river walk, resort hotel and RV park on tribal lands along the east rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The addition of an airport has been at least temporarily shelved. Those in opposition to undermining the wilderness character of the canyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, include the National Park Service, the Sierra Club, and traditional Navaho people, people like Leroy Jackson.
Before any action can take place, jurisdictional disputes would need to be resolved with the adjacent Hopi people, the Park Service and the nearby community of Bodaway-Gap. Hikers, environmentalists and backpackers object to the noise and light pollution that would inevitably accompany such a facility, destroying the solitude of the area. Until the matter is resolved, even the magnificent Grand Canyon, like the ponderosas of the Chuskas, is vulnerable to forces that would turn it into an amusement park.
Once, several years back, I shared a campfire in a snowy late winter woods with three Shawnee friends. I remarked that, at the time, I regretted having no Native American antecedents. One friend replied, “It is not in the skin, Brother, it’s in the heart.”
Despite the lure of an estimated $70,000,000 in tourist dollars pouring into tribal coffers, one wonders if a Native American who forfeits his culture and spirituality in favor of commercialism exists in a condition where his “Indian-ness” is to be found only in the skin but no longer in the heart.