Katherine Smith, Iconic Navajo Land Defender And Matriarch, Dies

April 03, 2017
Courtesy of Marykatherine Smith
Katherine Smith was best known for standing up to the federal government in the 1970s when it forced thousands of Navajo people to move off their land.

Billowing clouds rolled in and out over Big Mountain bringing wind, rain, snow and sun when Katherine Smith said goodbye to the land she loved and defended.

“In our beliefs when a death occurs, the weather will tell you how blessed they were, the prosperty,” said daughter Marykatherine Smith. “We see rain, wind and snow as prosperity so she was very blessed.”

From a distance Big Mountain appears small but its importance to the Navajo and Hopi people is great. For centuries Navajo families like Smith’s shared the ancestral land with Hopi. 

Big Mountain is considered sacred by many. Smith’s granddaughter, Davina Smith Spotted Elk, said Big Mountain is where her grandmother and great grand parents have buried their umbilical cords, a Navajo tradition that ties them to that place from birth.

“As she clearly put it, ‘my umbilical cord was buried here at Big Mountain and when I pass on this is where I will be,’” Davina Smith Spotted Elk said. “That was always powerful in my mind you stand up for what you feel is important to you and I’ve always try to do that wherever I go.”

In the early 1900s, the U.S. Geological Survey discovered the land in northern Arizona to be rich with coal, gas and uranium. As years passed and the population in western states exploded, they looked to the Navajo and Hopi lands as the solution to the sudden demand for energy. 

Decades later Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act to settle a dispute over land ownership. But Katherine Smith and many others believe it was all done to mine the coal. Under the law the federal government redefined the Hopi boundary and took control of 1.8 million acres. The Bureau of Indian Affairs forced as many as 6,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi to relocate. 

The federal government hired Navajo workers to build a fence at the new boundary. When they came to Big Mountain, they were met with Katherine Smith and her shotgun. 

“They just kind of laughed at her and mocked her,” Marykatherine Smith said. “And she said, ‘I’m asking you nicely you need to stop this work.’ So they continued mocking her and she backed up and she said, ‘that was a warning’ and she shot the gun up in the air. And that’s when the workers jumped off their equipment and ran.”

Activist Amanda Blackhorse, a friend of the family, said this image of Smith has always stayed with her. 

“It showed me women are strong and can be leaders,” Blackhorse said. “And within our tribe women have traditionally taken on that role defending family and land. She is a hero. She is one of the reasons why I’ve taken the path I have taken and I know she’s done that for so many people.”

When the fence was built in 1979 and the coal mine developed, Smith participated in several protests. At one all-women demonstration along the new fence, police showed up.

“And they started beating women with batons,” Marykatherine Smith said. “And she happened to be able to catch the baton coming at her and yanked it away from the police and took it.”

Today that baton along with Katherine’s shotgun are framed on the wall of her stone cabin on Big Mountain. Next to the gun hang several animal pelts. She trapped badgers, coyotes, bobcats, even mountain lions. 

Smith raised a dozen children. She sent them away to Indian boarding schools because she believed they would receive a better education than what was offered on the reservation. 

For 20 years, Smith traveled to the University of Northern Colorado twice a year to teach. The university gave her an honorary doctorate degree, one of her most prized possessions. 

Documents indicate Smith was 98 when she died on March 29. But community members believe she was much older. Years ago, Smith told her daughter she wanted to live to be 100.

“January, all of a sudden I heard her say, ‘I’m 100 years old,’” Marykatherine Smith said. “I’m like, ‘No, don’t say that. Let’s stay with 98.’ But that was her way of saying it’s time.”

In her final days she celebrated the news of the Navajo Generating Station’s plans to shut down in 2019 several years ahead of schedule. 

“She kept saying, ‘I never sold out,’” Marykatherine Smith said. “'I stayed here. I fought for this land. I am here. I’m going to stay here. And I was born here. I outlived all the senators and lawmakers that passed laws against me.’”

In the 1988 documentary "Heart of Big Mountain," Smith said, “I was born from Big Mountain. That’s my mother. So all of my life I will always be thinking of this place. My spirit will be here forever.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the spelling of Davina Smith Spotted Elk.