Defending the Sacred
Elmer Long ‘07
Defending the Sacred
“By the simple and beautiful virtue of being Native American, with the blood of mountain and bird motivation, we still have to soldiers in our homeland.”
Life on the reservation is not easy and it was never supposed to be. From time immemorial, the ancestors experienced conflicts with neighboring tribes when the Utes and Spanish Conquistadors would enter Navajo territory to raid livestock and even take Navajo women and children as slaves. The Navajo, however, never succumbed to being constant victims; they had warriors. Up to the time of the encroaching United States government, the Diné (the People) had warriors and leaders who were spokespersons for the people. Putting weapons aside, they defended the people with words.
When the Diné were sent to Ft. Sumner on the infamous “Long Walk” in 1863 and 1864, Chief Manuelito served as one of the greatest Navajo leaders. Following the signing of the 1868 treaty, naakidi nááshíchó’ (my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother) walked that treacherous trail back towards the Four Corners of New Mexico where my family came to settle in Chííhagéé’díí’ (Place where Red Sand is Dug Out). From there, my relatives, aunts, and uncles would later come to encounter the Boarding School officials who hunted Diné children while herding sheep and stole them away to boarding schools miles away from their home.
As a child, I attended T’óháálį (Place where Water Comes Out), the boarding school where my mother, aunts, and uncles battled the torment of loneliness and the isolation of being separated from shimásání (my grandmother). It was the same place where my relatives experienced the rapid change in Navajo lifestyle and tradition during the early 1900s. For my aunts and uncles, resisting boarding school assimilation and termination of Indian mentality meant toughening one’s exterior and recognizing perseverance; perseverance of language, culture, and identity. These battles are as ever present today as they were in the past. Only this time I find myself returning to my home, Chííhagéé’díí’, to preserve my identity and to undertake my role as a ‘protector’ of my homeland.
Since naakidi nááshíchó’settled here after the Long Walk, Chííhagéé’díí’ has changed a significant amount. The red sand that was used a sun block during sheep camps is no longer used by sheepherders but the name continues through the nomenclature of the Navajo clan system. I am Tł’ááshchíí’í (Red Cheeks); a clan name that is carried from the time my forefathers applied red clay to their faces to prevent being sunburned while they shepherded in the scorching heat. To this day, I have yet to come across anything significantly red since light brown sand now covers a majority of our home area in Burnham (An anglo name given to Chííhagéé’díí’ after a trader established a trading post in the area and could not pronounce “Chee-ha-gei-di”).
The land is bare but the view is stunning. A look to the left and a look to the right contain miles collapsed into my field of vision. To the East is the Chaco National Park; an area that predates any other human settlement in North America. To the west is the Chuska Mountains where Navajos fled during the United States government’s “kill the Indian, save the man” attempt. To the north and south are areas where my great grandmother’s family had built stone structured homes in various areas. Although there is a substantial amount of history too long for pages, I know that I am directly connected to these ancient ones.
A walk around the Burnham area often carries with it a longing to know who they were on a personal level and a longing to protect what is left of them now. Although the landscape may have changed a significant amount, the ancient ones were still here first.
And so my grandmother remembers: “Alk’idáá,” she speaks with her eyes close, “álts’ísíyéedąą, t’óó wáadzigo ákó dootl’iizh nit’éé. Dibé bíghaan doo nidi béé da hózin da nitéé. K’ád éí ałtso ádáast’įįd. Ádin. Níléí shįį, k’ọtsoh dáhwíílcho” (A Long time ago when I was younger, this area used to be so green. You couldn’t even see the backs of the sheep when they were grazing. But now, it’s not like that anymore. Nothing. I would think that it’s those power plants sitting over there that ruined everything.)
It is true.
As we watch the blue sky soften into a deep purple and talk over Folgers coffee in front of her stone built home, it became apparent to me that power plants were destroying the landscape. In the distance, smoke stacks can be seen spewing tons of toxic emissions into the atmosphere per day and the repercussions of it were seen in the lack of vegetation and the tumble weeds that blow across Chííhagéé’díí’.
Up to that moment (the beginning of my internship) sitting with shímásání, I often undervalued Chííhagéé’díí’ because of its bareness and overwhelming loneliness. Lack of running water, no electricity and miles wedged in between us and our nearest neighbors had once made me promise myself that I would do whatever it takes to part from this place and begin anew in Farmington, a nearby city that was plentiful in employment and was experiencing a large population growth; but little did I know that my urge to partake of employment opportunities would be something I would be eventually fighting against.
In the fall of 2004, the need for employment on the Navajo reservation pulled in Sithe Global Energy LLC from Houston, Texas. Sithe believed that the need for employment and electrical power would allow the Navajo Nation to buy into their “Desert Rock Energy Project.” Unsurprisingly, the Navajo Nation caved and allowed its Dine Power Authority (DPA) branch to collaborate with Sithe and initiate its economic development project. The only true conflict that arose out of their project, however, was the fact that the power plant was to be built in Chííhagéé’díí’, my home.
Sitting outside and listening to my grandmother tell her childhood stories about sheepherding and walking miles to fetch water from a nearby wash made me realize that I value every aspect of this place. One can only imagine the shock that I felt when my grandmother verbally acknowledged my position as the future heir of her 144 sq. mile territory—1 ½ acres of which my family currently occupies. Adding more to this shock was the fact that I had a moral obligation to defend this territory from the endangerment of Sithe and DPA’s Desert Rock Energy project. An area that contains my own lineage was left for me to defend and my role as a ‘protector’ was made official.
I am told that many areas have been left untouched by the human hand. Even during the encroachment of the United States government and the influx of anthropologists, my grandfathers and grandmothers made sure that our history was preserved for the ears and sight of my immediate family. Now, Sithe and DPA had the intent to desecrate our historical substance and my family refused to allow any intruders to shatter our identity.
In came Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, a grassroots organization that takes the acronym “Diné C.A.R.E.” Seeking to protect the well-being of Navajos and the environment, Diné CARE is composed mostly of elderly women and, at most, two main people who make up the Diné CARE officials, Lori Goodman and Anna Frazier. Since its inception in the late 1980s, Dine CARE has worked primarily with Navajos throughout the reservation in ‘speaking up’ and demanding environmental justice. What sometimes falls into the lines of “politics” are cases which Diné CARE has respectively demonstrated to be only the voices of concerned Navajo residents who refuse to be categorized as political entities or activists. Because ‘politics’ is a western notion which categorizes people into different entities and almost seeks to divide a body of people by voting procedures, Diné CARE has effectively voiced the concerns of citizens by utilizing traditional methods of organizing.
Cultural strategy, in antiquity, was done in a way that Navajos never appointed ‘leaders’ because it went against the cultural teachings of balance and harmony. There were elders and medicine men who lead people, but it was a duty to which they felt they were needed and a particular point in time.
It is this Navajo concept of leadership that Diné CARE implemented and continues to use when working with the numerous issues facing Navajo country today; no other grassroots organizations have been successful on the reservation because there has been either a failure to implement cultural values or a failure to understand Navajos in its entirety. This is the area to which I believe I was the most powerful asset.
Being a native youth from within the area, most of my time spent with Diné CARE required constant traveling to visit local elders and other community members in making known the health issues surrounding Desert Rock. Because I know my culture, am bilingual, and am deeply involved with my community, Diné CARE willingly opened its doors for me and allowed my grandmothers and myself to stand up against Desert Rock.
The battle against Desert Rock actually had started in 2004; when the Desert Rock energy project was a hush-hush deal between the Navajo Nation and the Sithe Global LLC. It started with informational meetings in Arizona, Colorado, Utah and other areas that were more than a two hour drive from where the power plant would actually be built. Surrounding elderly residents, and even myself, were not be able to make it to those meetings because they were far-removed from the proposed site (not to mention that were never informed). Sithe and the DPA had intended to have Desert Rock approve without any counter attacks from our surrounding residents but, they were wrong. The Desert Rock Energy Project is currently one of the most controversial subjects in the Southwest and arguing against it brought forth our most serious issues: Indian Health and Environmental protection.
One aspect of my internship, therefore, focused on researching health effects by traveling and collecting resources from local hospitals, Doctors who contributed medical information but wished to remain anonymous, the Environmental Protection Agency, Sierra Club, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and other official entities. With the collected information, power points presentations were made to bring Indian health and environmental protection to the forefront. Constant traveling across the Navajo Nation was needed on a nearly daily basis. Often, traversing across the 27,000 sq. mile reservation met forcing myself to become aware of the third-world country that existed within the boundaries of the United States. Rarely did I acknowledge the desperation of my people and the hurt that seemed to ripple from historical injustices committed by government oppression.
The hurt continued and recovering from it was a complicated mending process. Most elders that I spoke to describe this ‘recovery’ stage as slow but progressive state; that the current condition of the Navajo Nation was a direct derivation of our ‘mourning’ process and, as much as I attempted to deny this claim, our third world situation described perfectly the psychological affects that one feels after experiencing the loss of a loved one. In our case, the loss and continued desecration of Nahasdzá, Mother Earth, and Navajos were still in the mourning period. These long drives across the reservation instilled awareness about the slow evident death of our earth, and like it, public Indian health was in a downward spiral as well.
At times, I felt that we were disappearing. Living within close proximity of some of the most hazardous plants and mines was damaging to our fragile bodies and the elders were vanishing faster than before. The metaphorical monsters from the Navajo oral tradition had become those of asthma, bronchitis, cancer, alcoholism, mental illness, diabetes, etc. And they were the active monsters that derived from the other monsters: power plants, coal mines, and uranium dumps. I had entered into the battle field and the least I could contribute was to make Navajos aware of the very real dangers about such development projects.
Illiteracy, poverty, and lack of English comprehension are too often the stereotypes associated with being Native American and the lack of knowledge about Indian Health among the Navajo population substantiated few of the stereotypes. Free Indian healthcare was promised to most Native Americans by the federal government after U.S. government’s failure to terminate and remove indigenous tribes from their original homelands. From these past injustices, Navajos feel that free Healthcare is receiving from the Government what is owed to them. But from current findings, the issue that was brought to forth is how severely under funded Indian health programs were throughout out the reservation. According to the 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO);
Per capita health care spending for the general U.S. population is about $5,000 each year while spending for IHS beneficiaries is about $1,900 per capita per year. The U.S. government spends twice as much per capita ($3800) on health care for federal prisoners as it spends for Native Americans.
Jokingly, Diné CARE Supervisor, Lori Goodman, states: “That’s why Native Americans want to go to prison…better healthcare!” It is true in fact, there are several Navajos who speak about the luxurious of prison life but when in this situation, Burnham residents were imprisoned in a bubble of toxic emissions and soda ash.
Being that Indian healthcare is severely under funded; I feel that my work in presenting Indian Healthcare was extremely effective since Diné CARE trumped further progress in the Desert Rock project because immediate residents demanded health studies from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation. There were no health records or scientific studies in Healthcare that brings forth the respiratory diseases that were extremely evident among the Burnham residents. To adhere to EXECUTIVE ORDER 12898: FEDERAL ACTIONS TO ADDRESS ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN MINORITY POPULATIONS AND LOW-INCOME POPULATIONS, thereby, Sithe Global and the DPA had no choice but to stop their progress while the Environmental Protection Agency listened to our concerns.
Being that the Burnham community has approximately 240 residents, bringing the community members together to directly address Health issues with the EPA was often difficult since many residents are either working, going to school, or unable to find transportation to traverse 30 miles to the meeting. But that’s life at the grassroots level. In came local artist, Carlan Tapp, from Santa Fe, NM. With Carlan’s help, interviews, videos and photographs were taken of concerned residents, including myself, and were used in our presentations. This proved to be very effective since residents were able to speak openly without being silenced or interrupted; it was a moment of completeness in community and unity in voicing concerns.
From the documentaries, the Desert Rock project proved to be a time that other indigenous people could come together and demand environmental justice with us. There were native people from California and the East Coast who contributed a significant amount of input since their tribes had also seen issues of environmental injustice/racism. Much too often, Native American tribes are often targeted for their lack of ability to stand up and demand what is rightfully so. Whether it be inadequate pricing on coal and water, or the fraudulent signing of land leases, indigenous people needed to band together and I felt that this summer was the time there could be a real sense of pride in unity and pride within my self. We were making a real effort to implement change and that change trumped all the negativities associated with being Native. I was proud to be Native because of our genuine effort to move forward.
This spirit was often hard to convey to my mentor, whom I had been meeting throughout the summer. Like most people outside the Native bubble (She was from New Hampshire), my mentor was sometimes unaware of the happenings taking place in a neighboring state but she was altogether an open ear to all. Our discussions were lively and there was never a moment of silence. She was a very accomplished Doctor with her own practice in Durango, Colorado and I did my best to educate her about indigenous people and the issues happening a few miles from her home. My first meeting with her was actually a group dinner with two other Dartmouth alums and as soon as I described to them my position with my people, an alum commented, “Wow, I almost feel inadequate with my life.”
Indeed, this is what I felt my main goal was for the summer: How does one make oneself adequate to another person and to community? How do I begin to convey my responsibility as ‘innate’ rather than by choice? How do I continually contribute to humanity after Dartmouth?
With the reservation being filled with high school dropouts, gangsters, and teenage parents, where did I fit in? The answer is I don’t. From the beginning, my elders had called forth my calling as a leader and a humanitarian; I somehow filled that hole without even realizing it. I didn’t need to fit into a niche, I just belonged. With that as my reasoning, the only thing for me to do was to give myself back to those to who possessed me: my people. I didn’t belong to myself and that was that.
Perhaps this thinking stemmed from my own Christian belief. As a child, I had often been taught to live my life as an ‘open book.’ Oddly enough, the ‘open book’ concept was apparent in Parker Palmer’s “Let Your Life Speak.” Perhaps a favorite chapter of mine was Palmer’s chapter on “To Seek God, Look Down.” My sincerity for community and concern for others seemed to have stemmed right from this chapter because, over the years, I had been taught to be humble…even through humiliation. By being extremely ground and living my life openly for others, there was a constant liberation on my part and it was from which I felt that I was being the most genuine. I felt effective and influential to others. Either cultural or not, it is a place to which I would encourage other youth who become involved with Diné CARE.
I often talked to my colleagues about how they found their meaning in life and asked if they were happy with the timeline of their lives; they all agreed that they were doing the right thing. Even in the progress of Desert Rock, Diné CARE and myself were the ‘outsiders’ trying to stand up for what is right. We were people humbled at the grassroots level and we were often humiliated by energy officials who quickly associated us with being illiterate and ready to cave to their sugar-coated promises. We didn’t fit in and we knew that; but, we knew it was for the right reasons.
Protecting the ancient dwellings and sacred sites of the proposed Desert Rock site was an obligatory role for me. Through the Navajo philosophy of K’é (Respect), I had a traditional role of respecting my elders, the land, and embracing my leadership role. Whatever contribution I made to the Doodá (No) Desert Rock process, I was embraced by my community.
My internship, therefore, was not an internship. It was a genuine contribution to humanity in the most cultural form. I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the contributors who made my work with Diné CARE possible and to furthermore state the fact that I placed a valuable tick mark in a long timeline that extends and continues to unfold within the confines of the Navajo reservation and within the lives of the Diné in my community. I am not the same since I believe I have found my role in life. Ahé’hee (Thank You).