The shooting of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (known as Tortuguita) on 18 January by Atlanta police has garnered international headlines as the first killing of an environmental activist by police in the US. This may or may not be true. But Terán’s shooting (we now know he was shot at least 13 times) was not the first killing of a forest activist in the US. I have profiled two previous deaths: redwood forest defender David Chain and Diné (Navajo) activist LeRoy Jackson.
The Navajo environmentalist Leroy Jackson had been missing for eight days when an anonymous tip led New Mexico state police to a white van, its windows concealed by towels and blankets, parked at a rest stop atop the Brazos Cliffs south of Chama, New Mexico. The doors were locked; a putrid odor emanated from inside.
Patrolman Ted Ulibari broke the driver’s door window and looked inside. In the back seat, under a thick wool blanket, he found the sprawled body of Leroy Jackson. He had been dead for days.
Jackson was the charismatic leader of Dine CARE, an environmental group of traditionalists on the big Navajo reservation. He was also my friend. Jackson was on his way from Taos to Washington, DC, where he planned to confront the Clinton administration over logging in the old-growth ponderosa pine forests in the Chuska Mountains, a mysterious and beautiful blue range that rises out of the high desert in northern Arizona and New Mexico. The Chuskas are a sacred place for the Navajo and Hopi, an earthly anchor of their complex cosmology.
Only days before Jackson disappeared, he had spoken out against the logging plans at a public hearing in Window Rock, Arizona. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had just requested an exemption from the Endangered Species Act, which would allow the Navajo Forest Products Industries to clearcut the old-growth forest habitat of the Mexican spotted owl, a threatened species, in the Chuska Mountains near Jackson’s home.
In the exemption request to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the BIA had arrogantly claimed that because owls are “symbols of death” to some Navajo, the extirpation of the bird from reservation lands could be legally justified on religious and cultural grounds. During the hearing, Jackson eviscerated the Bureau for promoting a racist ruse to sanction the destruction of sacred forestlands.
More critically, Jackson hinted publicly at possible corrupt practices by the tribal logging company and officials at the BIA. He urged the Navajo Nation to return to its traditional respect for the land and to support practices that preserved local jobs and forests.
Jackson’s remarks were greeted with angry gestures and threats of violence from loggers and millworkers. He received threats from Navajo Forest Products Industries (NFPI) executives and from employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Leroy and his wife Adella, a nurse, were rudely awakened by late-night phone calls threatening to burn down their home. Jackson dismissed them at the time, but these and other threats led many of Jackson’s closest friends to conclude that he was assassinated because of his environmental activism.
Although initial reports indicated that blood, possibly in large quantities, was found at the scene, state police later said that there were no obvious signs of foul play. A cursory autopsy ruled out most natural causes of death, including stroke, heart attack, and carbon monoxide poisoning. The results of a toxicology report showed trace quantities of marijuana and methadone in Jackson’s blood and tissue. Even though Jackson was not a known drug user, the police swiftly dismissed his mysterious death as a drug overdose.
Jackson’s friends claimed that the investigation into his death was cursory at best and pointed to irregularities and possible cover-ups. For example, the police refused to look into several credible reports that Jackson’s van had not been parked at the Brazos overlook during the preceding week. The police also failed to photograph the crime scene or dust the van for fingerprints. For nearly a week, police left the van outside in a Chama parking lot before towing it to the crime lab in Santa Fe.
Although the New Mexico state police told Jackson’s wife, Adella Begay, that only a small amount of blood was found on a pillow near Jackson’s body, a source who was at the scene shortly after the van was discovered said the interior “looked staged. His body was posed and there was blood on the carpets and the seats.”
Responding to a request from Jackson’s friends, Bill Richardson, then the congressman representing northern New Mexico, sent a letter to the director of the FBI asking the agency to investigate the circumstances surrounding Jackson’s death. In his letter, Richardson noted the recent threats Jackson had received for his environmental activism and suggested that, “a major crime may have been committed.” Ultimately, the FBI declined to launch an inquiry, citing that the state police had concluded that Jackson had overdosed on methadone.
At Jackson’s burial, his friends vowed to continue the search for his killer and to intensify the fight to protect the old forests on the Navajo reservation. “Those who killed Leroy thought they could silence him,” said Earl Tulley, a traditionalist Navajo who co-founded Dine CARE with Jackson. “But they only made his cause stronger than when he was alive.”
I met Leroy Jackson three times and talked to him often on the phone. We were friends. Kindred spirits. His voice radiated a rare combination of power, eloquence, and humility.
Leroy Jackson cared about his culture and the Navajo people as much as those forests on the slopes of the Chuskas. Indeed, for Jackson, the future of the Navajo forests was inseparably tied to the future of the Navajo people and their religion. That’s what motivated his struggle.
The last time I spoke to Jackson was about two months before his death. He described in sharp detail plans by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Navajo Forest Products Industries to clearcut much of the last remaining old-growth ponderosa pine forest on the Big Reservation.
Jackson was angry, but not discouraged. He explained that his new alliance of traditionalist Navajo leaders and energetic young activists was growing in strength and power on the reservation. He believed that Dine CARE was on the verge of dramatically reshaping logging practices on Navajo lands.
“They are going after the heart of the old forest in the sacred mountains,” Jackson told me. “But they will not get it. There is a new respect for the old ways.”
Ultimately, Jackson was aiming to change something much broader and more fundamental than simply the layout of a timber sale. Like other traditionalists, Jackson understood that outside forces, including the BIA, uranium and coal companies, oil and gas corporations, and the timber firms, had assiduously corrupted the Navajo tribal council. Under the banner of jobs, sovereignty, and future prosperity, these forces had begun stripping the reservation of its natural resources and cultural and spiritual heritage. This path had put millions in the pockets of the corporations, a few tribal leaders and some officials at the BIA, but had left the reservation itself impoverished: economically, ecologically, and culturally.
In response, Jackson and his companions were seeking a return to traditional Navajo values of the land and its use. This was dangerous ground and Jackson knew it. He told me about weekly death threats and about how loggers had hung him in effigy from their trucks the previous summer.
I remember telling him to be cautious. Yes, most hardcore environmentalists get threatened and we treat the threats almost as badges of honor—something to laugh and brag about, but not lose much sleep over. But I warned him that in the Southwest it’s different. There, the threats have a history of being backed up by violence.
I wasn’t telling Jackson anything that he didn’t already know intimately. One of the last times we spoke he told me that he believed he would probably die in the fight to save the Chuskas.
* * *
Leroy Jackson was buried under ancient ponderosa pines high in the Chuska Mountains, the way to the burial site marked by pink ribbons. Some were tied to trees and shrubs, others to root-wads and slash left by the extensive clearcutting, testimonial to the Chuska’s ignoble claim as the most intensely logged range in the Southwest.
Under a soft wind, looking out over the blue mountains, etched in the autumnal hue of aspens turning gold, the Navajo traditionalist John Redhouse spoke about Leroy’s life: “Leroy was no different from the other Dine warriors and patriots who gave their lives. He took a vow to protect the male deity represented by the Chuskas and to preserve balance and harmony for the Navajo people. He saw that the Navajo tribe has not shared this vision, that they have pursued the white man’s values. We will continue his struggle. It is a struggle for our destiny and our future.”
A version of this story originally appeared in Born Under a Bad Sky.