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'The Blessing' Documentary Tells The Story Of Coal Mining On The Navajo Nation Through One Man's Eyes

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Peabody Energy is a mining conglomerate based in St. Louis. In 1964, they began digging a coal deposit in Black Mesa, a region considered sacred by the Native American communities on the Navajo Nation. 

Peabody employed an entirely Native American workforce to operate the mine. But for residents of the Navajo Nation, this brought bittersweet results: While the mine provided needed jobs for an economically-challenged population, the work demanded the destruction of sacred lands.

Filmmakers Jordan Fein and Hunter Robert Baker met one of these miners, Lawrence, who shared a story of tribal pride and familial responsibilities and the conflicts he’s faced mining Navajo lands.

Fein and Hunter took a film crew to Black Mesa and turned Lawrence’s story into the documentary " The Blessing." 

LAWRENCE: Our Navajo coal lights up the whole Southwest. Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. Our culture teaches us to respect the mountain. At the same time, we're digging right at the heart of Mother Earth. I walk in two worlds.

GOLDSTEIN: "The Blessing" airs this evening at 8 on Arizona PBS' World Channel as part of the America Reframed series. And filmmakers Jordan Fein and Hunter Robert Baker join me now. Hunter, opening up to filmmakers is not an easy thing to do, especially in the personal way Lawrence does it. Why did he want to work with you and tell his story?

HUNTER ROBERT BAKER: He had just separated from his wife a few years previous. He was living as a single dad, taking care of a group of children, and he was trying to figure out what was next for him in the future, for himself and for his family. And so when we arrived, he had told us that for years before he had been challenged with this idea that he sort of is a man that walks in two worlds. On one side of his life, He's a a coal miner. On the other side of his life, he is a deeply spiritual Navajo man. And so every day that he gets up and goes to work, he deals with this deep spiritual conflict as related to his job. So when we enter his life, he had been doing this for 35 years. And what was different at that point was that the coal industry was starting to decline. And in his home life, he was having to be the single father role.

And so, when you watch the film, you get this opportunity to see Lawrence sort of traversing the last couple of years of his youngest daughter's high school life and this bond that's created through a series of events that bring them ultimately together, but also Lawrence and his work life as a Native American coal miner. You get to see him sort of overcoming that obstacle of what that means for his spirituality. And that was something that was really important for him to share with us. And so part of us entering into his life was that he now had someone that could help him in sharing that.

GOLDSTEIN: That conflict that comes about of trying to financially support a family and a community, but also realizing sacred sites we're talking about — and that is just this this conflict that so many have, but we don't get a chance to hear it. And yet with Lawrence, the focus that you put in the film allows us to learn more about that. Is there a feeling that the conflict is is more typical than we've actually been able to share? Is Lawrence someone who was just able to bring it about and express it in a way that really made us connect with him more?

JORDAN FEIN: Well, when I think when most folks turn on the light switch in their home, they don't really consider that, hundreds or thousands of miles away, there could be a person who goes to work and is placed in a position that is incredibly complicated: to be deeply spiritual, to see the land through this way. And the reckoning with the idea that this is a sacrifice that I have to make to provide for the people I love. And I think that's the part that most people, when they come to the film, they relate to. Everyone makes a sacrifice in some way for the person that they love in their lives — their family, their friends or otherwise. And I think that's the universality of our film. And ultimately, I think the things that most people latch on to.

And so is Lawrence typical? I think he's extraordinary. I think his story is extraordinary. It's why we built this relationship and ultimately spent so much time taking care of what was important in the story, because it was perhaps a very extreme way of looking at something that many of us deal with on a day-to-day basis.

GOLDSTEIN: Can we talk more about his conflict in trying to deal with these things himself and then also passing along to the next generation and not passing it along in some sort of matter-of-fact way? Because he certainly doesn't do that. But how does what he's experiencing with his position and his culture, how does that affect the next generation for him and his family?

BAKER: Lawrence is obviously a very deeply spiritual man, but he's also a man that's been hardened by years of blue-collar work — being a coal miner, having to get up every day and do a tremendous, difficult job that's had a residual effect on his health and his well-being. And I think that when Lawrence gets up every day, there's there's two things that are very important to him. The first thing is that his own spirituality is carried forward and is sort of upheld. And the second is that of his family. Lawrence, next to nothing in his life values his family and sort of the betterment of his children.

So while we were with him, our experience was that Lawrence wants the best for his children, but the best comes at sort of a tough love sort of way. Lawrence is very hard on his kids, and you can see in the film and there's there's no hiding it that he has expectations for what he wants his kids to do and how he wants them to move forward in their lives. And it's all grounded in the best possible intentions, right? But that's not always the way that kids interpret it. It's not always the way that you're growing up and your parents have expectations for you and you're trying to figure out what does that mean.

So in the film, you get to see Lawrence impress upon his kids his spirituality and what his expectations are for the next generation. And that's what he wants them to carry on this language, these traditions, these songs, these prayers. And I think that what you see is that his kids do really care about that in the end, is that they want that, too. And while they may want to be modern children and they may want to have lives that are off and maybe on the reservation and they might want to do things that are different than the way that he grew up, overwhelmingly, they want to make their dad proud, and they want to keep those traditions moving forward for the next generation, which is them and their children.

GOLDSTEIN: Jordan, you mentioned the fact that this film has been nearly five years in the making, around five years in the making. Can you guys give me an idea of, based on what Lawrence was going through, did you guys notice a change in him?

FEIN: Spending hours with people who don't know you well, who are asking you all kinds of questions, who are curious about who you are and how you look at the world, I think starts tapping into something that we all wish for, which is to be heard, to be seen, to feel like our experiences are important and deserve to be validated. And I think that's maybe a core human desire. And it was clear that by the end of our filming relationship — we're still very, very close with the family and everyone who we met along the way, spending time on the Navajo Nation — that the family had healed a lot as a process of doing the filming aspect of this film and then ultimately going out and sharing it with the world.

GOLDSTEIN: Jordan Fein and Hunter Robert Baker are the filmmakers behind "The Blessing," which airs tonight on Arizona PBS' World Network as part of the America Reframed series. Guys, thanks so much for the time.

FEIN: Thank you, Steve.

BAKER: Thank you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can watch the full documentary on the WORLD Channel's website

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.