UNREAL CITY by Judith Nies


Las Vegas, Black Mesa, and the Fate of the West
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A hard-hitting chronicle of the hidden history behind the creation of Las Vegas, including a large-scale resource grab and a grand plan to drive the Navajo people off their lands, abetted by corruption at the highest levels of government.

Nies (The Girl I Left Behind: A Narrative History of the Sixties, 2008, etc.) chanced on the story in 1982, when she was given press credentials to a conference in Phoenix, Ariz., ostensibly celebrating Hopi arts and culture and featuring Robert Redford, Barry Goldwater and top corporate executives. The author began to have doubts as the story unfolded of a supposed “centuries-old land dispute” between the peaceful Hopi and aggressive Navajo Indians over a jointly occupied 4,000-square-mile reservation in the Black Mesa, a region in the Arizona desert that was located over 21 billion tons of coal. Thousands of Navajo sheepherders were resisting being forcibly relocated from their lands and losing their livelihood. Over time, Nies documented how divide-and-rule politics were being used to screen a major corporate land grab intended to gain access to the massive coal reserves. This led her to the powerful interests behind the Las Vegas gambling empire, which included the Goldwater family. She also investigated the broader water politics of the region, including the current depletion of major water sources such as Lake Mead and the Colorado River—a situation made worse by climate change. “Las Vegas has the highest per capita use of water in the country,” she writes. Coal-powered plants are required to light the casinos and pump in the water for their ostentatious displays and to support the large population of visitors and residents. Nies situates what began as an apparently local issue in a broader context. A seeming dispute between two tribes, she writes, is “actually an example of a global phenomenon in which giant transnational corporations have the power to separate indigenous people from their energy-rich lands with the help of host governments.”

An important, multifaceted page-turner.

Pub Date: April 8th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-56858-748-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Nation Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2014


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