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Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor.
“Great Pyrenees dogs watch over Navajo-Churro sheep … outside Toadlena, New Mexico. … The sheep flourish in the harsh environment,” according to the Monitor.

I like that the Christian Science Monitor has so many stories about the Navajo Nation and other indigenous peoples. Although I’m not a Christian Scientist, I’ve always been impressed by the objective reporting at the Monitor and its steady coverage of underreported topics.

Reporter Henry Gass wrote recently from New Mexico about the resurgence of sheep farming on Navajo land.

“Irene Bennalley steps out into the fierce afternoon sunlight wearing jeans and a maroon sweater, her long gray hair knotted in a braid. Brandishing a long white stick as her crook, she picks her way across her parched desert farm toward the sheep pen. Answering their bleats with firm instructions in Navajo, she shepherds them out onto the dry, dusty range.

“She doesn’t know exactly how many Navajo-Churro sheep she has, but she ballparks it at around 100 head.

It’s bad luck to keep exact counts of your livestock, her father taught her. Don’t boast about your animals, he would say, or they’ll start dropping.

“Out here, ranchers like Ms. Bennalley can’t afford to lose animals. The winters are cold and hard, and the summers are hot and relentless. Water is scarce and feed is expensive. It’s the main reason she has come to love the breed, known colloquially as churros, that she’d grown up only hearing about in stories.

“The Navajo, who refer to themselves as Diné, have long been a pastoral society. Sheep are prominent in their creation myths, and after Spanish colonists first brought the churro sheep to the Southwest, the hardy, adaptable breed became, over centuries, the heart of a self-sufficient economy and vibrant Diné culture.

“But the days of sheep camps and flocks roaming the arid plains and valleys here are long gone. On two separate occasions the churro came close to full extermination. From over 1 million head at one time, by 1977 there were fewer than 500 left in the world.

“Efforts have been gaining momentum in recent years to rebuild the breed and return flocks to the Navajo Nation. Decades of painstaking, sometimes dangerous, work by a handful of committed ranchers and animal scientists have helped restore the population to over 8,000. 

“Now, people on the Navajo Nation are working to bring flocks back to the reservation, to try and fill the economic and cultural void left by their near extinction. 

“ ‘We’re back in a place of reevaluating how we live,’ says Alta Piechowski, whose family has been involved in restoring the Navajo-Churro for decades.

“ ‘When you’re walking the land [with the sheep], there’s a different kind of healing,’ she adds. ‘It heals your heart, and when it heals your heart you’re going to want other people’s hearts to be healed too.’ …

“An ‘unimproved’ breed – meaning one that hasn’t been selectively bred for market – churros are long and lean. … They are resistant to most diseases, and have adapted over the centuries to thrive in the dry, low-forage climate of the Southwest.

“For the Navajo people, the churro were something of a panacea. They provided a healthy and sustainable source of food and income; their many-colored fleece are ideal for weaving iconic Navajo blankets. And culturally, sheep have always been prominent in Navajo spiritual traditions. One of the six sacred mountains that bound the Navajo Nation, Dibé Nitsaa, translates to Big Sheep Mountain.

“But for the best part of a century, Navajo-Churro have been hard to find on the reservation. 

“The official term used by the U.S. government in the 1930s was ‘livestock reduction.’ The Midwest was in the grips of the Dust Bowl, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, led by commissioner John Collier, concluded that too many livestock were causing land to erode and deteriorate.

“The policy resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of churros, often on the reservation, and sometimes on the properties of their owners. And it came after the Navajo people had spent over 70 years steadily rebuilding their churro herds. …

“Nearly a century since the stock reduction, the collective memory is still raw. Ms. Bennalley speaks mournfully of what she calls ‘the John Collier days.’ For a long time no one spoke of it at all.

” ‘Some people never really got out of losing their sheep that way,’ says Ms. Bennalley. ‘My family, my dad, nobody really talked about it, because it wasn’t something to be proud of.’ …

“ ‘That connection to the sheep is the connection to the land, which is the connection to the culture, which is the connection to the spirituality of the Diné people,’ says Dr. Piechowski, a career psychologist for reservation schools.

“ ‘If you exterminate the sheep, you’re pretty much eliminating [those] connections,’ she adds. …

“The churro never disappeared from the reservation, but the few that remained stayed hidden in some of the reservation’s most remote corners – so remote that the man who first led efforts to bring the churro from the brink of extinction almost died trying.”

Read more about that at the Monitor, here. Lovely photos. No firewall.

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Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff.
Ida Joe tries out her new sink with running water, which the nonprofit DigDeep installed in her home in Smith Lake, New Mexico. About 30% of those living on the Navajo [Diné] reservation do not have indoor plumbing or running water.

In Navajo Country, water is precious, and running water is sometimes nonexistent. Golly. I shouldn’t complain. Renovations at our house have left us without hot water since May 18, but at least we have cold water and friends with showers. Some Navajos [Diné, as they call themselves] trek periodically to the nearest town and rent a hotel room to take a shower!

Henry Gass, a writer at the Christian Science Monitor, reported the story from Smith Lake, New Mexico. “Ida Joe flinches a little as the tap sputters, then spurts water into the sink. Cautiously, tentatively, she pushes her hand under the faucet. She feels the water soak her skin and run through her fingers – first cold, then hot. After a few seconds, she starts to laugh.

“Outside the one-room house she shares with her two daughters and granddaughter, a cold breeze rolls across the dusty, arid plains of the Navajo Nation. A few hundred yards away, wild horses drink from a small, briny lake.

“Ms. Joe has lived on the Navajo Nation for all of her nearly 50 years. This late February day is her first with running water in her home. Until now, her family would drive to Thoreau, 10 minutes away, or Gallup, 45 minutes away, to buy gallon jugs of water.

They would drive to town to do laundry, and rent a hotel room for the day to use the shower. …

“Water is sacred on the Navajo Nation, and scarce. About 30% of the roughly 173,000 population lack running water, according to a report from the U.S. Water Alliance and DigDeep, an international nonprofit with Navajo employees who have been installing running water systems in homes on the reservation since 2014. The size of the reservation, the large distances between homes, scarce natural water sources, jurisdictional issues, and contamination from industries like uranium mines have all contributed to restricting access to running water here for generations.

“But according to those working to improve water access on the reservation, the COVID-19 pandemic has heralded a bittersweet turning point. … The pandemic drew widespread attention to the fact that many Navajo didn’t have enough water to thoroughly wash their hands, which was core advice of health experts at the time. … New coalitions have formed, funding has increased, and innovations from organizations like DigDeep have helped expand water access here more than ever before.

“ ‘This has been a silver lining for us,’ says Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. …

“A pickup truck, a trailer towing a backhoe, and a gleaming white water truck nicknamed ‘Big Ernie’ make up the DigDeep convoy. …

“The region has been in various forms of drought for over 20 years, and is currently experiencing severe and extreme drought. … There are also problems with water quality. Arsenic and uranium, both left over from a century of mining on the reservation. …

“Meanwhile, piping water onto the reservation is challenging because of how spread out the population is. Some areas are a checkerboard of public and private land, presenting right-of-way issues. On top of that, funding has typically been limited, according to Capt. David Harvey, deputy director of the Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction at the federal government’s Indian Health Service. …

“Through the CARES Act – a pandemic relief funding package passed by Congress in March 2020 – the Navajo Nation received over $5 million specifically for increasing water access on the reservation. …

“The [DigDeep] crew were here 18 months ago to install one of their foremost pandemic-era innovations: a ‘suitcase’ – a 4-cubic-foot box filled with a water pump, heater, filter, expansion tank, and battery installed outside homes to provide tap water from a 1,200-gallon underground tank. …

“During the pandemic, 100 of these suitcase systems have been installed by DigDeep crews on Navajo lands, at no cost to residents.

‘People [were being told], “Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.” But how can they do that if they don’t have running water?’ says Cindy Howe, the project manager for DigDeep’s New Mexico office. …

“Ms. Joe and her family wait in their car while Kenneth Chavez and Brian Johnson assemble the sink and Erving Spencer maneuvers the backhoe. …

“Ms. Joe likes living here, she says. She feels safe, and she wants to raise her kids and grandkids here.

“ ‘It’s one of the most important things that I would probably want to do before I go,’ she says, ‘teaching them the foundation of our culture.’ …

“As they finish their work at Ms. Joe’s house, ‘Big Ernie’ refills the 1,200-gallon tank that now supplies her indoor sink. …

“Lacking water ‘is just normal for a lot of people,’ says Ms. Howe of DigDeep. Her grandparents would melt snow for water. Her parents hauled water throughout her childhood as well – always on Sundays, so she could have a bath before school on Monday.

“ ‘It was really heartbreaking to see,’ she says. ‘Fifty-five years later, it’s still happening. We’re all helping each other [but] there’s still a lot of people that don’t have any water.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Randall Hyman.
The Christian Science Monitor: “Activist Nicole Horseherder, who heads a nonprofit that seeks to protect water supplies on the reservation, stands on a ridge near Black Mesa in northern Arizona, the site of past disputes over coal mining.”

I’m grateful for the environmental leadership of indigenous people. They were environmentalists centuries before anyone used that word, and I think that paying attention to them will help us learn how to protect our planet.

Randall Hyman reports at the Christian Science Monitor about Navajo women who instinctively understand the importance of the natural world and their community’s place in it — and who don’t give up.

“One who has a master’s degree in linguistics,” Hyman says, “has made green energy a crusade on a reservation where coal, gas, and uranium have reigned supreme for decades, leaving tainted groundwater in their wake.

“Another returned to the Navajo reservation from Chicago to find that fracking had marred large sections of her native land – something she now works to stop in one of the largest methane hot spots in the United States. 

“A third was so distraught by the lack of ballot access on the reservation that she organized getting voters to the polls on horseback – her version of saddle-up democracy. 

“Two others have immersed themselves in politics directly – one as the youngest member of the Arizona State Legislature and the other as one of three women on the 24-member Navajo Nation Council. …

“Their efforts come at a particularly fraught time. Last year, from the vermilion sands bordering the Grand Canyon to the oil-rich scrublands east of Chaco Canyon, the Navajo Nation was hit by a perfect storm – a convergence of soaring pandemic deaths, dwindling energy revenues, and rising unemployment. Amid the chaos, Native women stepped up in what some see as an unprecedented wave. While one COVID-19 relief group raised $18 million in a matter of months, other women redoubled efforts to dismantle policies that have left Navajo (Diné) people vulnerable. 

“ ‘I think that you’re actually seeing a return to the way that Diné society has always been,’ says Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání (Sacred Water Speaks), an organization pushing for new energy policies and water protection across the Navajo Nation. ‘Women are coming forward and saying, “I am a leader too. I can make these decisions. I can make better decisions.” ‘ …

“Underneath all the narratives is another factor – the dominant presence of women in Navajo society, where taking charge is rooted in a matrilineal culture. 

“ ‘When you see the destruction in your community, you realize you have to do something,’ says Wendy Greyeyes, assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. ‘So, women are empowered. A lot of that harks back to our own creation stories. Changing Woman was a very powerful deity who reflected thinking about the longevity of our existence, of the Diné people. This ideology is baked into our DNA as Navajo women – our need to care and nurture and protect our communities, our families.’ …

“A year ago, on a chilly December morning, Nicole Horseherder marked an explosive turning point in her long battle against coal mining. Standing on a slope overlooking the towering smokestacks of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona, Ms. Horseherder set her cellphone on livestream and gazed at the 775-foot monoliths glowing in the sunrise a mile away.

“The stacks had been a landmark of the high desert for nearly half a century, symbols of fleeting prosperity and persistent pollution. The power plant serviced major cities of the Southwest and ran the huge Colorado River pumps supplying much of their water, but was among the top 10 carbon emitters in the United States. At precisely 8:30 a.m., a thunderous rumble shattered the clear morning and clouds of smoke mushroomed as 1,500 pounds of dynamite collapsed the stacks. …

“When I caught up with her last August on the Second Mesa of the Hopi reservation deep within the encircling borders of the Navajo reservation, [Horseherder] recalled her journey’s start. Driving to an overlook, she pointed north toward distant Big Mountain. For her, it stirred painful memories. 

“Ownership of the hardscrabble land surrounding Big Mountain, called Black Mesa, had long been an unresolved intertribal treaty issue. It remained in limbo until the 1950s and ’60s, when a Utah lawyer named John Boyden persuaded a minority of Hopi litigants to take it to court.

“True to its name, Black Mesa is underlain by rich coal seams. It is also sacred to the Navajos and Hopis, many of whom opposed outsiders tapping their minerals. But the lawsuit prevailed, eventually forcing the removal of some 10,000 Navajo residents while dividing mineral rights equally between the tribes. Boyden subsequently leased land and mineral rights for Peabody coal company. A half-century of coal mining and environmental controversy ensued. 

“Ms. Horseherder’s epiphany came when she returned home from Vancouver, British Columbia, with a master’s degree in the 1990s and discovered that her dream of leading a pastoral life had turned to dust. The springs that her family’s livestock depended on had run dry. ‘My whole attention and focus shifted,’ says Ms. Horseherder. ‘It became, “How am I going to protect the place where I live – how am I going to bring the water back? And where did the water go in the first place? ” ‘

“Ms. Horseherder became a vocal activist and founded Tó Nizhóní Ání, or Sacred Water Speaks. At the time, Peabody was pumping billions of gallons of water from deep aquifers, mixing it with pulverized coal, and sending the slurry through 273 miles of pipeline to a Nevada power plant. It assured tribal officials that the technology was safe, and many supported the operation because coal mining was a pillar of the Navajo and Hopi economies for nearly 50 years, providing tax revenues and well-paying jobs. 

“But environmentalists contended that depressurizing the aquifer was lowering the water table. While Ms. Horseherder fought Peabody for years – and others lost scores of animals to stock ponds they said were tainted by slurry – the power plant and related activities were only closed when the economics of the operations no longer worked. Wells never recovered, and impacts endure to this day, critics say. ‘What we’d like to see them do first,’ she says, ‘is fully reclaim those lands that they’ve mined, and reclaim the water as well.’ “

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Adron Gardner/Gallup Independent via AP
Fry bread is available at the Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Window Rock, Ariz., but is no longer part of the Miss Navajo Pageant competition.

It’s interesting how customs that evolve out of oppression can sometimes be so warmly appropriated that they will be missed if discontinued. As tribes like the Navajo start to promote healthier ancestral foods, some feel wistful about the fry bread that families got used to over the years.

Felicia Fonseca writes at the Sante Fe New Mexican, “The Miss Navajo Nation pageant is parting ways with fry bread, the fluffy, golden brown delicacy that’s become a symbol of Native American culture but is rooted in oppression.

“Women vying for the crown [in September] in Window Rock [prepared] traditional Navajo foods instead, like blue corn mush or a cake made at puberty ceremonies.

“Outgoing Miss Navajo Ronda Joe said the tribe’s new ambassador must know the history of those foods and speak about them in Navajo.

“ ‘We need to educate our people to utilize plants as food that are tied to our land, culture and beliefs,’ she wrote in an email. The change aligns with a movement in Indian Country to refocus on traditional foods and reinforce native languages.

“Fry bread was born out of government rations given to Navajos on a forced relocation to Eastern New Mexico in the 1860s. Traditional Navajo breads or cakes would be made of corn and cooked on hot stones or in the ground, not in a cast-iron pan filled with oil.

“Fry bread can be found across the Southwest in Indian tacos, slathered in honey or powdered sugar, or broken off in pieces and used as a spoon for stews. The exact ingredients vary and everyone claims ‘mom’ makes it best.

“Despite being removed from the tribal pageant, fry bread offers lessons in survival, being a contributor and creating something out of nothing, said Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw, Miss Navajo 2006-07. She remembers her mom saying she’d never get married unless she knew how to make bread. …

Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef who focuses on precolonial foods in Minneapolis, Minnesota … praised the switch from fry bread to a traditional food presentation.

“ ‘It encourages and inspires youth to step up and take a challenge of ancestral knowledge and ancestral roots,’ he said. ‘It makes my heart happy to see that.’ ”

More.

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A Native American chef trained in French cuisine has a mission to teach the world about an older, unrecognized culinary tradition that has influenced most of us. Hanna Choi reported the story for National Public Radio.

“When Nephi Craig enrolled in the culinary program at Arizona’s Scottsdale Community College, there was nothing like ‘Native American Cuisine 101’ in the curriculum. Craig identifies as White Mountain Apache and Navajo, and the first mention he can recall of anything remotely related to his background was a class discussion on fry bread, a crispy fried concoction that ‘is really a taste of American colonialism,’ he says …

“Since then, he increasingly came to sense a sort of dismissiveness and sloppiness towards Native Americans and indigenous food ways in the mainstream culinary world.

“Craig grew up immersed in his culture through art, music and ceremony, and food always played a large role. He wanted to find a way to bridge the gap. …

“Upon graduating from culinary school in 2000, Craig launched the Native American Culinary Association. Based in Arizona, NACA is a network of Native chefs — professionals and those just starting out — dedicated to the research, refinement, and development of Native American cuisine. Since 2011, the association has organized a yearly Indigenous Food Symposium, bringing people from different fields together to share and learn about Native foods, agriculture and landscapes.

‘Craig is also the executive chef of The Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort in Whiteriver, Arizona. … Craig’s culinary team there is staffed entirely by cooks and other food workers who identify either with the White Mountain Apache tribe or as Navajo/Dineh.”

In the NPR interview, Craig tells Choi, “I had always been cooking since I was a kid, growing up here on the rez with my mom and my family. We didn’t have a lot of money and so we would bake and sell our goods and I would bag up stuff in sandwich bags and sell them as a little guy.

“I’ve been cooking my entire life, all through my adolescence and I had ultimately wanted to do something creative. …

“I had no idea the world that I would be entering in the long classical legacy that is French cuisine. But that’s kind of where I started out, just in childhood, and then realizing just by pure observation that we were left out of this picture of world cuisine even when about 70 percent of foods consumed around the world today were developed and domesticated by Indigenous peoples of the Americas.”

Craig explains more here. Check it out.

Photo: Evan Sung/Nephi Craig
Nephi Craig, executive chef of The Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort in Whiteriver, Arizona.

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Raise your hand if you were taught that one day centuries ago people in Siberia woke up and crossed a land bridge to North America and became the first Native Americans.

That’s OK as far as it goes, but history doesn’t stand still, and new discoveries suggest that before they got to North America, the Siberians stayed over on the bridge for a few thousand years. Who figured out the new chapters? Archaeologists and geneticists. And linguists.

Nicholas Wade writes in the NY Times, “Using a new method for exploring ancient relationships among languages, linguists have found evidence further illuminating the peopling of North America about 14,000 years ago. Their findings follow a recent proposal that the ancestors of Native Americans were marooned for some 15,000 years on a now sunken plain before they reached North America.

“This idea, known as the Beringian standstill hypothesis, has been developed by geneticists and archaeologists over the last seven years. …

“Though often referred to as a bridge, the now sunken region, known as Beringia, was in fact a broad plain. It was also relatively warm, and supported trees such as spruce and birch, as well as grazing animals.

Writing in the journal Science last month, John F. Hoffecker, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, summarized the evidence for thinking the Beringian plain was the refuge for the ancestral Native American population identified by the geneticists. ‘The shrub tundra zone in central Beringia represents the most plausible home for the isolated standstill population,” he and colleagues wrote. …

“Linguists have until now been unable to contribute to this synthesis of genetic and archaeological data. The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, but most linguists have long believed that language trees cannot be reconstructed back further than 8,500 years. …

“But in 2008, Edward Vajda, a linguist at Western Washington University, said he had documented a relationship between Yeniseian, a group of mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia, and Na-Dene.

“The Na-Dene languages are spoken in Alaska and western Canada, with two outliers in the American Southwest, Navajo and Apache.” More here.

This is why it’s important for someone to be interested in studying mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia.

Map: Science, a journal, and the New York Times

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Photo: Ken Shulman/OAG
Players for Naat’aanii, a team created for Navajo youth, practice in Farmington, New Mexico.

Now that Native Americans are playing major league baseball, it seemed like a good time for Bill Littlefield’s Only A Game radio show to do a story about Native American kids getting into the game. Ken Shulman traveled to New Mexico “to meet a Navajo team that uses tribal lore to train quality ballplayers.”

One of the people Shulman interviews is Dineh Benally, a youth baseball coach with teams in Farmington and Albuquerque.

“’Benally learned baseball as a kid on a reservation in Shiprock, where New Mexico borders with Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. The Four Corners was the Navajo ancestral home until 1864, when the tribe was forcibly marched to a desolate reservation 500 miles away.

“ ‘Baseball is about failure,’ Benally said. ‘And I think life is about failure. You’re gonna fail more than you succeed. …’

“Benally’s had his share of hardship. And failure. Growing up on the reservation was fun. But farm chores often kept him off the ball field. And when he did play, there wasn’t much in the way of coaching. Still, the tall right hander was MVP of his all-Navajo high school team. He pitched two years in junior college. Then he got a break: a chance to make the team at New Mexico State University — and to prove that a boy from the rez could play Division I ball. He threw well in tryouts but was cut on the final day. …

“It was tough not making the team. But Benally rallied. He thought about his ancestors on that long walk from Four Corners. And he thought about what he’d learned.

“A few years after graduation, in 1999, he started a youth team, to give Najavo kids the type of training he wishes he’d had growing up. He called the team ‘Naat’aanii,’ a word that … means leader. He scoured the state for native talent, boys born on and off the rez who he could shepherd toward college baseball and maybe even the pros. …

“Naat’aanii is no longer just for native players. Any kid can join if he has talent and desire. But the logo and rhythm and ethos are still Navajo. Dineh Benally wants his players to learn more than how to turn a double play. He wants them to tap into the tribal soul, to find the strength to stick it out when times get tough. Because they will get tough.

“ ‘That’s where they’ll show me if they’re really a true Naat’aanii,’ he said. …  They look at me. They know what I’m talking about.’ ”

More at Only a Game, here.

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