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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: Adria Malcolm/ NYT.
Lieutenant Colonel Susana Corona of the New Mexico National Guard worked as a substitute teacher in a third grade class in Estancia, New Mexico.

When things are bleak, it’s helpful to remember the advice that Fred Rogers’s mother gave him when he was small: “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”

On National Public Radio the other day Ari Shapiro interviewed a woman who had just escaped from Ukraine and came back to the border the next day to help people with translation. And yesterday I learned that Asakiyume — from her home in Massachusetts — was helping translators make their English sound more natural. Perhaps I can also help with that.

Many, many people have also stepped up during the pandemic to meet needs wherever they are. Consider this story about a National Guard lieutenant colonel filling in for an elementary school teacher in New Mexico.

Erica L. Green wrote at the New York Times, “The chorus of small voices ringing from a third grade classroom on a recent morning signaled how far Estancia Elementary School had come in resuming a sense of normalcy after the latest coronavirus surge.

“Students in this small, remote community were enthusiastically engaged in a vocabulary lesson, enunciating words with a ‘bossy r,’ as well as homophones and homonyms, and spelling them on white boards.

“But there was also a sign of how far the district, about an hour outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, still had to go. The teacher moving about the classroom and calling on students to use the words in a sentence was clad in camouflage. ‘My substitute is wearing gear,’ one student responded.

” ‘Yes,’ Lt. Col. Susana Corona replied, beaming. ‘The superintendent allows me to wear my uniform. I’m wearing a pair of boots.’

“[Dozens] of soldiers and airmen and women in the New Mexico National Guard have been deployed to classrooms throughout the state to help with crippling pandemic-related staff shortages. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has also enlisted civilian state employees — herself included — to volunteer as substitute teachers. …

“The presence of New Mexico’s state militia — whose members are trained to help with floods, freezes and fires, as well as combat missions overseas — has largely been embraced by schools as a complicated but critical step toward recovery. Teachers have expressed gratitude for ‘extra bodies,’ as one put it.

Students were mostly unfazed but aware that, as Scarlett Tourville, a third grader in Corona’s class put it, ‘This is not normal.’

“Superintendents were given the choice of whether to have the guardsmen and women wear regular clothes or duty uniforms; most joined Cindy Sims, superintendent of the Estancia Municipal School District, in choosing the uniforms. ‘I wanted the kids to know she was here, to know why she was here,’ Sims said. ‘I wanted them to see strength and community.’ …

“ ‘Trying to have school at a time when everybody’s heart was broken was very difficult,’ Sims said. ‘Our mission is to keep hope alive, and the National Guard is helping us do that.’

“Corona, an intelligence officer in the New Mexico Guard … never envisioned that one of her missions would require being armed with a lesson plan, Wet-Naps and dry-erase markers. But nor did she envision watching her own fourth grader try to learn from a teacher through a screen last year.

“ ‘You always have to be ready when there’s a need,’ she said, ‘when there’s a call to service.’ …

“Coronavirus-related illnesses, quarantines and job-related stress have hit many districts hard. But the country’s education leaders say the pandemic is just accelerating trends that were at least a decade in the making. …

“ ‘Crisis is the word we have to use now,’ said Becky Pringle, the association’s president, describing the enlistment of the guard as a ‘stopgap.’ …

“At Belen High School, in a farming community less than an hour south of Albuquerque, the staffing crunch has been felt acutely. … Principal Eliseo Aguirre said he believed the death of a teacher from COVID-19 had a chilling effect on teacher and substitute applications.

“The arrival of Airman 1st Class Jennifer Marquez last month was a ‘blessing,’ Aguirre said. On a recent Wednesday, she was covering a Spanish class — her third subject in two weeks. …

“Veronica Pería, a freshman at Belen, was happy to see [her]. She said her grades suffered last semester when her teachers were absent and random staff members were popping in and out of her classes, leading to inconsistent instruction. ‘It’s better than watching a video or something,’ she said of having Marquez filling in. ‘It’s good to have someone I can go to and ask for help.’ …

“When the call came from the governor, the New Mexico National Guard’s commander-in-chief, Brig. Gen. Jamison Herrera, knew he would have no trouble recruiting volunteers for Operation Supporting Teachers and Families, or STAF.

“Many guardsmen and women had already seen how the pandemic affects students up close, having delivered meals to those at risk of going hungry when schools closed. …

“Although some members have advanced degrees or certifications that could translate to the classroom — a welder is teaching shop class in one district, for example — Herrera, a former teacher, impressed upon his team they were there to accomplish one goal.

“ ‘We are there to support the learning objectives of the teacher, because we certainly know we can’t fill their shoes,’ he said.”

More at the Times, here.

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Photo: Ann Hermes/CSM.
Leigh White and Walter Adams, behavioral health specialists, respond to a 911 call about a homeless encampment in Albuquerque. They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety department, an ambitious experiment in policing, according to the
Christian Science Monitor.

Is there another way to do policing that actually accomplishes the goal of keeping people safe? That is the question communities have been asking themselves since the demonstrations and riots of 2020. The epicenter of that upheaval, Minneapolis, just voted against doing away with the police department altogether since no clear alternative had been proposed. Now let’s take a look at a small-scale experiment in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Henry Gass has the story at the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s early October, and perhaps the busiest week of the year in New Mexico’s largest city. … Walter Adams and Leigh White are on patrol. Their white car, stamped with ‘Community Safety’ decals, is headed for a neighborhood once known as the ‘war zone.’

“Mr. Adams and Ms. White aren’t carrying guns, though. Instead, they are armed with a trunk full of water bottles, Cheez-Its, and Chewy bars. … Before long, the first dispatch flashes over the computer screen. They have to head west.

“A few minutes later, they’re standing outside two tents pitched in the trees near a church. People walking or jogging along a nearby trail glance over.

“ ‘Someone called 911 and said there was a fire,’ says Ms. White. A man inside the tent curses back at her.

“ ‘We know better than that,’ he says. He’s been homeless for seven years, he tells them. ‘That’s what people do, call the cops,’ he adds. ‘It’s [bull].’

“ ‘We’re not here for that,’ replies Mr. Adams. ‘What happens is police get a call, and they send us.’

“Ms. White and Mr. Adams, in fact, aren’t police. What they do is not normal emergency response work nor normal police work. It’s something of a hybrid of the two – part of an experiment that Albuquerque is hoping will change public safety in America. 

‘We’re not quite sure if [everything] is going to work,’ says Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of ACS. ‘But if we don’t get this going, [if we] try to overanalyze, we’ll never get anywhere.’

“They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) department. Launched in August, the agency is intended to complement the city’s police and fire departments by having teams of behavioral health specialists patrol and respond to low-level, nonviolent 911 calls. 

“While it is modeled after programs in a few other cities, ACS is the first stand-alone department of its kind in the country. The initiative is still nascent – Mr. Adams and Ms. White are one of just two responder teams at the moment. But authorities here hope it will defuse the kinds of tensions between police and residents that have surfaced in cities across the country and help reinvent 911 emergency response systems, which many believe have become antiquated.

“ ‘What Albuquerque is doing is really exciting and innovative,’ says Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Task Force on Policing at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Police chiefs ‘almost universally say we’d love to offload these calls to other people. We need these types of models to be developed and implemented, so we can learn from them.’

“On this stop, the program makes its small mark. Mr. Adams tells the homeless man about resources available at HopeWorks, a local nonprofit. The man says he’s been there before, but never upstairs, where many of the services are.

“ ‘As long as you show commitment, they’ll help you,’ says Mr. Adams. The man says he’ll go. …

“From 2010 to 2014, members of the Albuquerque Police Department shot and killed 27 people. One of them, in March 2014, was James Boyd, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia. … The police entered into a court-approved agreement with DOJ that October, which the department has been operating under ever since. 

“Initially, police shootings in the city decreased for several years. But more recently they have begun to rise again. … While all this was going on, New Mexico’s behavioral health system was falling into disarray as well. … Since moving to Albuquerque from the East Coast 20 years ago, Ms. White has watched as the city’s police and mental health care systems have fallen in national rankings – and wondered what she could do. …

“In many cities, calling 911 hasn’t always been the best way to get someone help. Albuquerque’s aim with its new initiative is as much to re-imagine its emergency response system as it is to reform policing. …

“ ‘The default response is to send police to a scene and hope they solve whatever is happening,’ says [Rebecca Neusteter, leader of the Transform911 project at the University of Chicago Health Lab, an initiative aimed at reforming the nation’s emergency response system]. That’s ‘really not in anyone’s interests.’ …

“ ‘By and large [ACS] is a positive move’ for policing in the city, says Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. ‘It holds the promise that perhaps someday we will see fewer armed officers interacting with people in mental health crisis.’ 

“Ms. White and Mr. Adams are having a busy morning. … Mr. Adams and Ms. White grab water bottles and snacks from the trunk. They offer them to the people in the encampments, who eye them with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. Then the behavioral health specialists ask the people if they’re connected to services, or want to be. …

“Mr. Adams approaches them with a disarming ease. He ambles up and greets the individuals like he would a stranger he’s asking for directions. It’s an unruffled approach born of his past. 

“Mr. Adams grew up in a town, Las Vegas, New Mexico, that had widespread gang and drug problems. It also was home to the state’s main psychiatric hospital. To keep him out of trouble, Mr. Adams’ father would have his son accompany him to basketball games at the hospital.

“So, starting in third grade – long before he knew about behavioral disorders – young Walter began socializing with people who were dealing with mental health issues. …

“ ‘You knew those people, you knew their name, you talked to them. So to me, it wasn’t anything new or different.’ ”

Read more about these remarkable people and about the innovative program and the people it serves at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Don J. Usner for Searchlight New Mexico
Art Schaap had a successful dairy farm in Clovis, New Mexico. After he learned that “forever chemicals” from a military base were polluting his cows’ milk, everything changed.

Suzanne has a college friend who writes well-researched investigations into things that go wrong in our world and what people are doing to address them.

In this report at the Huffington Post, Sara Van Note writes about dangerous “forever chemicals” getting into our food supply.

“At Art Schaap’s dairy farm in Clovis, New Mexico, sprinklers draw from deep wells to water green fields of sorghum and corn. Near the milking barn Schaap built almost three decades ago, glossy black-and-white cows lap water from a pipe. Schaap used to ship thousands of gallons of milk each day to milk co-ops and cheese producers, who in turn sold to consumers across the country. But for the last year, he has poured all that milk down the drain.

“In September 2018, Schaap got an unexpected visit from an official with Cannon Air Force Base, which adjoins his Highland Dairy property. The official gave him a letter indicating that tests found his well water was contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals that have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems as well as cancer. The chemicals had migrated into Schaap’s groundwater from foams used in firefighting exercises on the military base.

“Schaap and his family, the letter said, should immediately stop drinking the water. Schaap, 54, is a third-generation dairy farmer [and] has been raising cows and crops here since 1992. Air Force officials told him they’d supply his family with bottled water. But he wondered about his cows.

‘Milk is 90% water,’ he thought. ‘It kind of hit me like a rock,’ he recalled in a recent interview, ‘that my cows are drinking this polluted water.’

“Testing by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture showed that his milk was contaminated at levels 70 times above a federal advisory health limit for PFAS. The compounds are often called ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down and instead accumulate over time in the environment and the bodies of animals and humans.

“When Schaap found out his water was polluted, neither the state Agriculture Department nor the Food and Drug Administration had a protocol for testing milk for PFAS — they developed a test expressly for his milk.

When Schaap sent his first samples to the Agriculture Department for testing, he made the decision to dump his milk in order to avoid selling a potentially contaminated product.

” ‘Schaap has since laid off 35 employees, and his 4,000 cows — not to mention his family’s health and livelihood — are in limbo. …

“Some Clovis dairy farmers have installed filtration systems on their wells, at a cost of about $260,000 per system, with yearly maintenance costs around $50,000. The Schaaps have not — the price is simply too high for the level of contamination in multiple wells, with no guarantee of adequate purification.

“The farmers say the contamination is an ‘existential threat’ not only to their livelihoods but to the region’s economic future. …

“The nonprofit Environmental Working Group estimates it has affected over 1,300 locations in 49 states, based on an analysis of state and federal records. That includes more than 400 military sites that used firefighting foam with PFAS compounds, according to the Pentagon. …

“A highly publicized case of PFAS contamination from a DuPont factory in West Virginia became the basis for the new Hollywood film ‘Dark Waters’ starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. But Schaap’s case, which the small nonprofit news outlet Searchlight New Mexico highlighted earlier [in 2019], is only the second known example of dairy contamination. …

“Linda Birnbaum, recently retired as director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said [she’d] like to see a larger array of foods surveyed from multiple communities across the country, and she noted that the tests measured just 16 PFAS compounds, leaving out the potential impact of thousands of more chemicals. …

“Given the uncertainty around federal PFAS limits for drinking water, several states are moving to create their own limits.”  More.

Happy to say my state is working on this issue. I hope yours is, too.

P.S. The above report was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.

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Photo: Joe Suarez for NPR
Las Cruces High School has one napping pod, which students use for 20 minutes when they are tired, stressed or angry.

In my family, we are big believers in naps. Long naps, short naps, any kind of nap. I don’t take a nap every day, but when I’m feeling exhausted for any reason, I find that 15 or 20 minutes of sleep really refreshes me.

Interestingly, 20 minutes is what teachers prescribe for students at Las Cruces High School in New Mexico.

Patti Neighmond reports at National Public Radio, “Studies have shown teenagers actually need between nine and 10 hours of sleep a night. But the vast majority (69 percent) aren’t getting it.

“Enter ‘napping pods.’ They’re essentially egg-shaped lounge chairs that recline, with a circular lid that can be pulled over the chest to shield against light.

“It just sort of envelops you in a really nice darkness, with soft lighting behind you,” says [18-year-old Hannah] Vanderkooy, a frequent user of the pods. She says she typically gets only four to five hours of sleep a night.” She’s a senior and working hard to get good grades and maybe college scholarships.

“There’s soft music playing in the pod and ‘you just feel extremely relaxed,’ she says. …

“A nap can’t substitute for a good night’s sleep, but it certainly can help, says Dr. Nitun Verma, a sleep specialist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“A short nap for a teenager ‘can give a boost to memory and attention during the day, and it can increase school performance,’ he says, adding that in a perfect world, schools would roll back their start times. …

“Several public schools in New Mexico are trying to tackle the problem by providing napping pods for their students.

” ‘We know lack of sleep changes mood and makes you more anxious,’ says family nurse practitioner Linda Summers, who is an associate professor at New Mexico State University’s school of nursing in Las Cruces.

“Summers also works with the nearby Las Cruces High School health center, and has seen firsthand the effects of sleep deprivation on students there. So she decided to apply for a federal health grant to buy the pods, which, at the time, cost $14,000 each. They were installed in four high schools.

“And while the Las Cruces school napping pods were bought to remedy sleep deprivation, Summers says, ‘it also turns out to be good for anger and stress.’

“Even if kids don’t fall asleep, but simply ‘zone out,’ she says, they emerge saying they feel ‘refreshed and calm.’ ” More here.

Summers has conducted a study that has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal, so expect to hear more on this topic anon.

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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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Suzanne’s friend Sara, from Pomona College days, has a nice report on KUMN, the public broadcasting station in Albuquerque. It’s about Health Care for the Homeless — a program serving 7,500 people in the Albuquerque area — and in particular, it’s about a successful art therapy program. The story tends to confirm my observations earlier this week on the “Waste Land” documentary — namely, that art can open up the world for even the most disadvantaged.

Comments may be sent to suzannesmom@lunaandstella.com. I will post them.

Asakiyume comments: I, too, felt the resonance with the entry you had posted earlier about Wasteland. On the one hand, when someone tells me in passing about various unusual services for the homeless–like this one–I sometimes roll my eyes and get all practical minded (art? art? how about a PLACE TO LIVE and a JOB).  And yet, on the other hand, the chance to make art, to be “allowed” (as it were) to be a person who creates, and not merely someone desperate to survive, restores dignity and personhood and also, I’m thinking, a kind of autonomy. So yes: ART!

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