KAYENTA, Ariz. — In a dimly-lit home off a tangle of dirt roads on the Navajo Nation, 80-year-old Simon Crank sits on his living room couch, recalling the days when executives from a coal company in St. Louis, Mo., would visit, bringing sweets as gifts, promising jobs. Under a shady tree, they offered steady work at union wages in a place where most families could hope for nothing more lucrative than rug weaving.
The room where Crank speaks 49 years later is heated with a pellet-burning fireplace because a doctor has forbidden the elderly man to burn wood. After a lifetime working in Peabody Energy’s coal mines, his lungs can’t tolerate the smoke. Crank now drives hundreds of miles a month, seeking medical care at hospitals in Flagstaff, Ariz. and Colorado.
“We were never told. We saw the income coming in, but the hazards – we never knew we were going to experience this,” he said, laying his hand on the oxygen tank that connects to his nostrils via a narrow tube.
Most U.S. history textbooks acknowledge the devastation of America’s indigenous peoples, the forced relocations and exploitation that left tribes corralled on remote reservations, mired in poverty. Few point out that the exploitation continues today.
On the sprawling Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation it surrounds, Peabody Western Coal Company routinely uproots families, locals say, in order to extract – by strip mining – 7.8 million tons of coal a year, coal that provides cheap electricity for much of the residential and business development in the Southwest. On Navajo and Hopi lands, however, thousands of poor families live without power or running water.
In a region where economic opportunities are scarce, Peabody offers many people hope for a brighter future. But grassroots groups believe the costs have been too high.
Like many of his relatives, almost all of whom have worked in the mines, Crank has been diagnosed with black lung. He gazes at pictures of his children – an entire wall of the Cranks’ home is hung with their portraits – and wonders if the steady pay was worth it. His 32-year-old grandson often asks the same.
“My dad says yes – for the children – so they can have a better life, go to school, hold an iPad in their hands,” he said. It is an endorsement offered in a pained tone, eyes downcast.