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"A Night on the Navajo Nation Reservation"


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Ten minutes to sundown. The sky glowed golden in the west and purple in the east; shadows blanketed the valley. With the exception of the occasional goat ambling along the dusty, unpaved road, the only life for miles around appeared to be me, Daphne, and Blue Bertha (our beloved 1981 Honda Civic hatchback). We had grown accustomed to driving through such remote landscapes, but as the sun disappeared behind a cliff of craggy rock, I started to worry. Night would soon fall over the vast Navajo Nation, as would the temperature. We were searching for Chilchinbito, a village so tiny it wasn't even on our map. We had been told that a family by the name of Cowboy might let us sleep on their floor there -- but they had neither an address nor a telephone. And so, we were relying on faith -- blind faith. Faith that the Cowboys would be home; faith they would share their homes and hearth with a couple of weary, unwashed trekkers. If not, we would be stuck in the middle of the Arizona desert with only the goats, Bertha and each other for company.

Some Navajo live in traditional hogans
At last, we spotted a small community of half a dozen mobile homes and some traditional Navajo settlements called hogans, which were constructed of logs and packed dirt. The soothing sound of a single wooden flute drifted out of the open window of one of the mobile homes. We parked beside it. A woman wearing a turquoise shirt decorated with Indian motifs curiously peeked out the doorway. After a quick round of introductions, we asked about the Cowboys. Anita didn't know where they lived, but when she learned we needed a place to stay for the night, she immediately offered her own living room floor. Overjoyed, we followed her inside. There, an 80-year-old woman sat behind a loom, weaving a beautiful saddlebag patterned with black and white diamonds, and a 40-year-old man called Jimmy played the flute. For the rest of the evening, this family shared their stories with us and asked for a few of our own. They seemed as pleased to have us in their home as we were to be there. I marveled at the opportunity to catch a quick but intimate glimpse of Navajo family life. Who would have thought it possible, given our tragic history?

Jimmy shows off his dream catching plant holder
In the mid-1800s, U.S. Cavalry troops burned Navajo villages, destroyed their crops and orchards, and drove them into the canyons until they either surrendered or starved to death. Thousands of Indians were then forced to march to Fort Sumner in the infamous "Long Walk" in which hundreds of Navajos perished. As far as Anita, Jimmy, and their mother were concerned, I was a descendent of the white settlers who pushed them off their ancestral lands and corralled them onto reservations. Yet they accepted me with open arms.

Ironically, the Navajos are considered to be one of the "luckier" tribes. With some 170,000 members, their tribe is the largest in the USA (approximately one in seven Native Americans in the USA is a Navajo). Moreover, at 27,000 square miles, their reservation -- which they call "Navajo Nation"-- is also the biggest. It encompasses breathtaking landscapes such as the red buttes and mesas of Monument Valley, a landmark and tourist attraction that has become a considerable source of income for the tribe.

Daphne and I encountered a great deal of pride and optimism during our short stay in Navajo Nation. As Leroy Teeasyatoh, a guide at Monument Valley, put it: "I grew up hearing that living on the reservation was a hardship... but I think it all depends on the way we look at it. It is up to us and our culture to get by. This is my habitat; this is a place where I can rehabilitate myself. It is my home. You can't take me to Alaska. This is where I am from."

Leroy Teeasyatoh describes life in Monument Valley
We heard a similar sentiment from another tribe we visited -- the Timbisha Shoshone of Death Valley. For centuries, the Shoshone peacefully lived in the mountains and valleys of California, hunting and gathering food and making baskets. Like the Navajo, their fate changed forever with the arrival of European-American settlers. Among the first were a pack of gold-rushers who entered the desert in December of 1849 with hopes of finding a shortcut to the wealth. They didn't. One actually died in the oppressive heat as the families struggled to find a way out of the salty valley floor. This gave rise to the ominous name "Death Valley," but it didn't halt the waves of miners who came to the valley in search of gold, silver and copper a few decades later. In more recent years, tourists have come to explore the stunning landscape. Unfortunately, the Shoshone have not benefited from the influx of visitors to their land, as have the Navajo. When Death Valley became a national monument in the 1930s, the Timbisha were promptly relocated to a different section of the valley, where employment opportunities included making handicrafts for tourists or doing laundry for park service employees. Understandably, many chose to leave instead. Those who remained lived in adobe homes that lacked indoor plumbing or electricity. To make matters worse, the National Park Service sometimes bulldozed their homes when they vacated them in the summertime to gather beans up in the mountains. These humiliating hardships made it nearly impossible for the Shoshone to uphold their traditional lifestyle. Today, only 50 Timbisha Shoshone remain in Death Valley.
Home of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe of Death Valley, California]
Fortunately, their future is looking brighter. The Shoshone became a federally recognized Indian tribe in 1983 and got funding to renovate their homes as well as build new ones, install electricity, pave their roads, and improve their water distribution system. They still lack a steady land base, but that just might change -- and you can help! The Shoshone have drafted a bill in Congress that would grant them 300 acres of land in Death Valley plus an additional 7,200 outside the park. This means they could finally build their own homes and revenue-generating tourist attractions such as restaurants and museums. If that happened, perhaps the Shoshone who moved out of the valley would return. They could rebuild their nation, just as the Navajo did! This bill has already passed through the Senate and is currently in Committee in the House of Representatives. By writing a letter to your legislator and those listed below, you could impact the lives of Shoshone and end 150 years of pain. Ask the following to support legislation that would grant the Shoshone a land base:

Senator Daniel K. Inouye
Hart Office Building - 722
2nd and C Street, NE
Washington, DC 20510

Congressman Jerry Lewis
2112 Rayburn House Building
Independence Ave & S Capitol St. NW
Washington, DC 20515

Senator Dianne Feinstein
Hart Office Building - 331
2nd & C Street, NE
Washington, DC 20510

You have the power to change lives with the stroke of your pen! Help the Timbisha Shoshone rewrite their own history! Get involved! And please, stay in touch.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Becky - Gators and brown goo can't keep the Trekkers from the swamps of the south
Daphne - Death Valley sans air conditioning and big hair in Las Vegas
Neda - Twisters, cyclones, and tornadoes, oh my! Chasing wacky weather in Toto-land
Nick - Searching for a hint of nature at the "Bridge of God"
Teddy - Plumbing the depths of Yellowstone Park
Team - Pangaea? Isn't that some kind of weird pasta?
Team - Rockin' and rollin' down to the core!