This is Season 3 Episode 6 of Grist’s Temperature Check podcast, featuring first person stories of crucial pivot points on the path to climate action. Listen to the full series: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Spotify

“I didn’t worry about the availability of water. I knew that it was the nature of the place that we lived in, that we had springs and seeps and that, later in the year, later in the summer, we would have the monsoons. And these were predictable patterns that we were living with. And there wasn’t a talk about climate change at the time. There wasn’t even any indication of climate change. And so we didn’t see our lives, ourselves in any danger.” 

– Nicole Horseherder

Episode transcript

Nicole is Diné and from the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation in Arizona. As a college kid, she fell in love with linguistics. She left home to get her master’s degree, and when she returned, she planned to teach. But when she found the waters of her region under threat and with the encouragement of her community’s leaders, she found a different mission. 

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Today, Nicole is the executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, or TNA. TNA is a nonprofit she co-founded more than 20 years ago to protect the waters of Black Mesa and empower her people. This is her story. 

My name is Nicole Horseherder and I am Diné and I am the director for an organization called Tó Nizhóní Ání. Tó Nizhóní Ání we interpret that as “sacred water speaks.” Tó is water. Nizhóní means a number of different things depending on the context. Beautiful, harmonious, pristine, good, all those things. Ání is literally third person says. In Diné, we are gender neutral, so we don’t have he and she. So essentially, Tó Nizhóní Ání is “when water speaks.” 

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So I am from the high plateau of Black Mesa, which is in northeast Arizona, and about 30,000 or so Diné and Hopi live on Black Mesa. And we don’t have surface water on Black Mesa, we have groundwater. So all our water is accessed through seeps and springs. 

A seep is when there’s a shallow underground river and either by the movement of the moon, the gravitational pull – that pressure or that pull actually brings the shallow river to the surface for a certain period of time. The way my mom used to describe her childhood is: they would take sheep down into the valley in this particular place at 4 or 5 a.m. in the morning and the water beneath the surface of the earth would come to the surface for about an hour or so, and they would then go up and dig shallow pools so the water could collect and then the sheep would drink. 

So I was raised by my grandmother, and my grandmother has always been a shepherdess. My grandmother has always been a farmer. My grandmother has always been a weaver. And she was never educated in the Western system of schools and she never learned English. And I’m so thankful for that to this day that I had one of the very few grandmothers who was not assimilated and was not touched by colonialism. However, not entirely. People in her time adopted modern tools like shovels and axes, things that just make your life on a farm or a ranch easier. Other than that, she was Diné. Anything that she didn’t feel like was useful to making her life more efficient or more effective she rejected. 

So my day with my grandmother was always pretty early. She would leave the house and I knew she was heading up to the sheep corral. If we intended to go with her, she would always tell us to drink a cup of water. So we would follow her and it was long hours out there with the sheep, but she was always busy. And then usually the day would end by us taking the sheep to the local spring, to the local seep, to the local water pond. And then we would head home. 

We always knew that water was scarce, but we knew from thousands of years of being there, we knew what locations would have water at the various times of year. So I didn’t worry about the availability of water. I knew that it was the nature of the place that we lived in. That we had springs and seeps and that later in the year, later in the summer, we would have the monsoons. These were predictable patterns that we were living with. And there wasn’t a talk about climate change at the time. There wasn’t even any indication of climate change. And so we didn’t see our lives, ourselves in any danger. 

Our practice around water was that we would bring water home from these springs and these wells, and we used it only to drink and only to cook. We never used more than we had to to wash dishes. In fact, when we washed dishes, we would reuse the water for something else. We made it a point to use very little soap and make sure that the water was very hot so that the heat of the water could do most of the work rather than the soap. But the water that we had available to us on Black Mesa was also very different, because I remember going out with the sheep and only drinking one cup of water. And I was fine throughout the day. I mean, yes, at the end of the day, six hours later, I would come home and I would be thirsty and I might have a cup of water or two. But we didn’t drink water like the way people drink water today. And we were healthy, we were fast, we were agile, we had stamina. We could go miles and miles. And so the water quality must have supported us in these ways. 

My first recollection of the coal industry was that I had people in my family working there and that they were good jobs. They were jobs that were allowing people to purchase the things that they needed, like trucks, like farm equipment. You know, if you didn’t have anybody in your immediate family that was working at the mine, your relatives that worked at the mine, you would get some of the benefits of it. 

So, I went to the University of Arizona for undergrad, and I studied in the department of agriculture. But as I was getting done with my undergrad degree, I had to take some electives and I took a linguistics class. I fell in love with linguistics. I said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?” You know, everybody tells you to be a teacher or an accountant or something like that. No one tells you to go into linguistics. This is the thing for me. 

Your language is the key to the way you look at the world. It’s the way that you see people and things and events. It’s the key to how you solve problems and how you work through issues. It is who you are.

I started looking around for graduate school programs for linguistics. Got an offer from the University of British Columbia, and I walked away from there three years later with a master’s degree in linguistics. 

Before I left to school, obviously we weren’t thinking about water the way we were thinking about it when I returned. My grandmother left us with a lot of space that we could utilize as we wished, and I chose to rebuild in a place where she had had her winter home. My mind went to: there was a spring here and there was a spring over here. So then I went to go check on them and I found that one of the springs was dry and one of the springs the water wasn’t collecting anymore. That’s how the questions came. You know, what happened to the water? 

I came home hoping that I was going to work for a local university, a local community college, and perhaps get into teaching Diné language. I’m a fluent speaker of Diné, but I never got that opportunity. Some of the local leadership in my community wanted me to go and do community organizing, and I was coordinating community workshops and educational sessions and meetings to help combat mostly substance abuse and other social issues. Our community is terribly impacted by adverse federal policy, one of which is relocation. This is all done at the hands of Congress. So getting the position as a community coordinator definitely put me face to face with all of the federal demons in my community. 

I had this job and I was making some money and I was trying to figure out where I’m going to build my home. And then there was this other problem of where’s the water? That’s how it all came together.

Right at that same time, Vernon Masayesva, who was the former chairman of the Hopi tribe, came to us and said look, I had a study done on Black Mesa about the N aquifer. Now the N aquifer is the hydrologic system beneath Black Mesa. It is the water system of Black Mesa. He came to us with some of the people who worked on the study and they came and presented and, lo and behold, there was the answer. That our aquifers were being depleted and depressurized because of the coal mining company, and that’s why we weren’t seeing the springs and the seeps anymore. They were basically using approximately three million gallons a day. 

The way the elders described it is if the water is not close enough to the surface, there is not a strong enough interface between the earth and the sky. And that energy that is created by the water, either in the ground or in the clouds, that energy is not strong enough to create that continuous cycle of water. And it makes so much sense. Here was the science and the traditional wisdom and knowledge coming together and two ways of explaining the same thing. 

So then we had to organize and figure out what are we going to do about this. That’s how this work started. I left my job as the community coordinator and formed the organization Tó Nizhóní Ání under the direction of these same leaders that told me to take this coordinator position on and said we need somebody to do this work and we think that person should be you. That’s how I ended up working for Tó Nizhóní Ání and for my community. 

We started TNA in 2000, and the co-founders are Marshall Johnson and Valencia Edgewater. And Marshall Johnson is my husband.

I organized the community around the official process that was already in place, and that is each community has what’s called a chapter, which is like a town hall. These are places where the community meets to take a position on something or to pass a certain resolution, because the nation works on a resolution basis. 

Our first campaign was to reach all 110 chapters and have them pass this resolution in favor of our position, and that is to petition the Secretary of Interior to end the pumping of the N aquifer, to get the coal mine company off of the water source, off of the groundwater. We were trying to get all the communities across the Navajo Nation to support us. At the same time, we were working with tribal leadership to hear this issue and to take a stand. And while we were running a local campaign educating local communities, we were also running a tribal campaign. 

Every morning at 8:00 on the local radio station, the Navajo radio station KTNN, and they would announce chapter meetings, and my husband would run out to the car because we didn’t have a radio in the house. He would turn on the car and sit in the vehicle and listen to that portion of the announcements, and he would quickly write down all the chapter meetings and the times and the days. And then he would bring it back inside and then he would show it to me and then he would say, “We can make it to this one and we could make it to this one. And then if we get done over here, we can make it to this one, so we can do two meetings in one day possibly.” That kind of thing. So we would figure out where we’re going that day. That’s how we did – and that’s how we did our meetings. 

I had a substantial savings account when I first started the work and I used all of it for it. But my husband is an ironworker and would go to work maybe a month or two, three months maybe, and then we would save up a little bit of money, and then we would pour all those resources into our work. And then when we would run out of food, when we would run out of funds, he would go back to work and then people would help us. People gave us gas money. People would buy us food, take us to eat, things like that. 

The communities were very receptive of the information. They were eager to hear it. They were very supportive and wanted to help take a stand. The central government was not as supportive. There was like almost immediate pushback. First of all, you had people who were like what the hell are you talking about? They’re using how much water and where’s it coming from? We had half of our nation’s leadership who didn’t even know that groundwater was being used to support the coal mining industry. So first of all, it was a matter of education. 

And second of all, it was about what’s the corrective action that needs to happen? How do we fix this? We couldn’t agree as to what that course of action should be. We definitely knew what that should be, and that is that we need to end the pumping of the N aquifer. Make the coal mining operators find another source of water at their own expense. And that’s language that was clearly written into the Department of Interior’s obligation to the Navajo Nation. If at any point in time that the Secretary of Interior finds that there’s adverse impact to the water or damage happening, that the Secretary of Interior had the authority to tell the coal mine company to get off the water. And so we were trying to trigger that. And the tribal government, I think, had a hard time with this. It was the strangest thing that I had ever encountered, and that is a tribal government not willing to take a stand for its people and its resources.

There are times when we did get a little bit of funding. So $1,000, $2,000. And what we would do is we would use the money for a time when we would do like, say, direct action. And so Black Mesa is different than other regions of the Navajo Nation in that most people are sheepherders and sheepherders can’t afford to take … they don’t take days off. And so it’s like, how do I get my community members to show up? And they all would say, “You know, I would go, but, you know, somebody’s got to take care of the sheep.” 

And so I would save up the funds for the days in which I knew I needed everyone there. I would go and use the funds to buy hay and I would say, “I’m going to buy you hay for this day, and if you can come to Window Rock with me, or if you can come to wherever, you know, with me on that day, I will buy you hay for that day. And they would be like, “Yeah, I will go if you buy me hay that day. And lunch, you got to buy me lunch too.” And I would be like, “Yes, I can buy you lunch that day as well.” I would go out and we would haul in like a bunch of hay and then we would drop them off at all the houses where we knew that people were going to come and they would let their sheep be penned for the day. That’s how I would get the people to action, is to buy them hay, and that’s what I would use funds for. 

I wanted them to come and show up at the council chambers. I reminded people you’re not doing this for me, you’re doing this for you. You’re doing this for the future generations. You’re doing this for the water that your animals depend on, that you depend on, that all life depends on. You’re here to be that voice for those that can’t speak in the council chambers today. Please show up for me. And they would. 

We had a third campaign going in the California Public Utility Commission, where the owners of the Mohave Generating Station was in a proceeding on the disposition of Mohave Generating Station. When people think of the coal mine at Black Mesa, they usually think of Navajo Generating Station. But Peabody Western Coal Company operated two mines, the Kayenta mine and the Black Mesa mine. And the Black Mason mine supplied coal to the Mohave Generating Station via slurry line. This accounted for the largest portion of the water use at the mine. 

Right about the time when the Navajo Nation Council was getting ready to finally make a decision on our legislation, the CPUC was getting all these local chapter resolutions. The evidence was building against renewing the water and the coal contracts at Mohave Generating Station. And so when Tribal Council finally made this decision, when they passed that resolution, we took that resolution and we handed it over to the CPUC as our final piece of evidence for our testimony, and basically sealed the fate of Mohave Generating Station. 

Working three simultaneous campaigns got us to that place after three years of finally shutting down the groundwater use, the slurry line, which was our biggest concern at that point in time. Probably 90% of the groundwater was just being used as transportation. Clean, pristine water was being used as transportation for coal. It was just the grossest thing you could ever do to drinking water. And that’s how we shut it down. That’s how we stopped it.

I was numb. I had no emotion. I was not happy. I was not angry. I was not sad. I was not overwhelmed. I was nothing. I felt nothing. And it wasn’t until days later that I realized how very important it was. The work was just so intense for so long that I felt nothing.

So the slurry lines shut down in 2005, and then late in 2005, I got a permanent job with the local school district and started working there. I was struggling financially. I had run up both my credit cards. My husband had run up both his credit cards. So I really kind of just focused on my job at the school. Really worked hard to get myself out of debt. I had young children who were struggling because I was struggling. That was my focus for the next two and a half years. 

During this time, Nicole stepped away from her work with TNA, but not for long. In 2007, she led another campaign to increase the tax rates on coal. It wasn’t successful, but she says TNA’s work ultimately did help the Navajo Nation win a settlement against the federal government, for its part in depressing those tax rates. In 2012 she says TNA helped defeat a water settlement for the Little Colorado River that would have endangered Black Mesas aquifers. 

In 2014, the owner of the Navajo Generating Station decided that he wanted to push renewal contracts on the Navajo Nation. He wanted the Navajo Nation to sign these renewal contracts for renewed coal and water from Black Mesa to continue to supply the Navajo Generating Station. After a long campaign against these renewal leases, the Navajo Nation finally signed it. I’ve never been so frustrated in my life and never been so disgusted with tribal government. 

In 2017, SRP – Salt River Project – the majority owner and operator of Navajo Generating Station announced, with its co-owners, that it was going to shut down Navajo Generating Station at the end of 2019, which meant that operations would end mid-2017. And the Navajo Nation was in disbelief. They were like, “No, this can’t be true because we signed renewal leases.” And so basically the nation realized that we just got swindled. Well, what happened after that is that companies came forward and said, “I want to buy this coal plant. I want to continue to operate it. There’s still opportunity here to make some money.” And this is where our organization stepped in. 

We’re the ones that led the campaigns to block each potential owner. And we did that with Avenue Capital and Middle River Power. We did direct action in New York, where we just made a lot of noise and made them look really super bad. And they decided, no, we’re not having any of this. We’re going to step away. And then stepped in tribal enterprise NTEC, Navajo Transitional Energy Company, who tried to acquire the coal plant at least three times. And we blocked it each time. 

But that’s where we came in to ensure that a coal plant that was coming down came all the way down and didn’t end up in somebody else’s hands so that we would have to endure the continued use of our groundwater and the continued mining and the continued pollution from the power plant. Because it was one of the biggest power plants in the West and just tremendously toxic for the air. And we were not going to have that. I will take credit for that, but I am not the reason that SRP decided to close. They closed strictly for economic reasons. 

We were just out there on a very cold and freezing day, in fact, watching stacks from the power plant come down. And if there’s anything that I felt, maybe relief.

I became the director of TNA in 2017, when we finally got enough funding to support a full time position. And I made that position my position. It’s a long time coming. I wouldn’t recommend anybody work as a volunteer for 17 years and then finally get paid for it. But this work needs to grow and more of our own people need to do this kind of work. And no one can do it better than we can. 

The main focus of TNA today is to guide transition and how replacement energy is going to happen on the Navajo Nation. As coal-fired power plants are coming down, we need to say what the replacement energy is going to look like. We can’t allow outside corporations to make those decisions for us like they’ve done in the past and create structures that are not good for us, where we’re getting pennies on a dollar while they’re reaping the benefits of it, and the benefits of producing energy is flowing in one direction, and the cost and the burden of producing that energy continues to rest on our shoulders. That’s not mutually beneficial. That’s not the kind of relationships that we need to get ourselves into any more. 

It’ll be many years before the groundwater returns to the seeps and springs. Hydrologists tell us that perhaps 20 years, perhaps more. Some of the springs and seeps might not return. The USGS data shows that there is a slight upturn in the water levels in some of the wells. So that is promising. 

At the end of the day, I don’t want any of our children to say, you know, why didn’t you do something about it when you could? But, more than anything, if you love the life that you live, that your ancestors gave you, then you certainly want to work to protect it and preserve it for the future generations. I would love for my children to be able to taste Navajo aquifer water – how very nourishing the water is. Those are all reasons to do this work. Protecting the life that – not just your own, but the life that sustains you, because you have this understanding that you don’t exist here on your own. You exist here because the soil is good and grows the vegetation and the plants that you need and animals need and birds and every living species on this earth need. And they in turn then somehow support your existence. That’s the way the world works. And why we haven’t figured that out yet, I don’t know. 

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Grist editors: Jess Stahl, Claire Thompson, Josh Kimelman | Design: Mia Torres | Production: Reasonable Volume | Producer: Christine Fennessy | Associate producer: Summer Thomad | Editors: Elise Hu, Rachel Swaby | Sound engineer: Mark Bush