Lands lost. Navajo exile in the Arizona desert

`The land, it is my heart and my mind and my inner spirit. It is to go through to the grandchildren. There is no place else we should go, because we were placed here by the Creator.' -Adzan Bedonie, a Navajo facing relocation

ADZAN BEDONIE sits on the earth floor of her hogan, spinning wool. Tradition tells her that Spider Woman taught Navajos how to weave, so they'd never be cold. And assuredly, Mrs. Bedonie is a traditional Navajo, speaking only Navajo, bound to Navajo beliefs as strongly as priests and pastors are tied to theirs. She lives in her one-room hogan - circular in form, constructed from wood and patched with cardboard - with hooks and shelves for belongings and a steel drum stove for heat. There's no running water, no electricity.

But from her hogan door, Bedonie sees the world she wants to see: a land where the sun dances on the ground, stomping out the moisture, turning it to tans and browns. She hears what she wants to hear: the giggles of wind in pinons and junipers. And she reads what she wants to read: the calligraphy of clouds, foretelling rain.

Bedonie watches as an interpreter, photographer, and reporter enter her hogan, and she mistakes them for relocation officials, bringing tidings of her eviction. Since 1977, Bedonie has lived with the despair of impending relocation. So when outsiders travel to this remote corner via potholed paths that pass for roads, what else can it mean? Automatically, she searches for her census card, proof of tribal identity. She offers it, along with her protest plea: ``The land, it is my heart and my mind and my inner spirit. It is to go through to the grandchildren. There is no place else we should go, because we were placed here by the Creator,'' the interpreter translates.

Clearly, Bedonie lives earth's rhythms, not the pace of expressways. And she's not an isolated case. She's among more than 11,000 Navajos and about 90 Hopis caught up in forced relocation from their land. In 1974, Congress passed Public Law 93-531, authorizing the partitioning of 1.8 million acres, land disputed for more than a century. The 50-50 land split was a victory of Hopi property rights over Navajo human rights.

By sheer number, Navajos were hit harder. To date, about 4,900 Navajos have been permanently relocated. Another 4,800 are in interim quarters (either off reservation or with relatives on reservation), pending their final move. And 1,500, like Bedonie, are still waiting. So far, 55 Hopis have been moved, with 36 to go. Life estates were provided for the elderly like Bedonie. But she didn't apply, because ``in our traditional beliefs, we're not supposed to talk about death - in any way,'' says one of her granddaughters, who preferred not to be named.

``Judges and members of Congress - as highly educated and mobile individuals - are probably almost totally unaware of the impact of forced relocation on poorly educated people of low mobility,'' says Thayer Scudder, a consultant on community relocations to international organizations, including the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

``Forced relocation of communities of Navajo, who have strong ties to the land - the only homes that they have ever known - is about the worst thing you can do to a people short of killing them,'' says Dr. Scudder, a professor of anthropology at the California Institute of Technology and an expert on third-world relocations.

``After 12 years of experience, virtually everyone agrees that the massive Relocation Program has proven to be disastrous,'' Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) told Congress last year. ``More attention should have been given to the fact that the Navajos have extremely strong religious and cultural ties to the land on which they live, and that severing those ties cuts them away from all that they believe in, both culturally and spiritually.''

Although both the Hopi and Navajo cultures cling to nature's bosom, they're as different as sand and snow. About 9,000 Hopis live on their 1.5 million-acre reservation, surrounded by Navajo territory. For centuries, they've clustered in compact villages high on tabletop mesas, cultivating their crops and grazing livestock on parched reservation lands below.

In contrast, Navajos, who are principally herders, fan out over their land with their flocks and herds. But they're not nomads. They live permanently in circular hogans, often establishing dwellings in higher altitudes for summer grazing and others in the valley for winter. Villages aren't their style, although extended families live in proximity, forming core groups that share and cooperate. About 200,000 Navajos live on 16 million semi-arid acres, where one sheep annually requires 20 acres for survival. (In Ohio's greenbelt, one acre provides forage for six ewes from April to September.)

`I was raised among the sheep. The only thing we know is our land and livestock,'' says Bedonie's son, Jimmy Zee, who will be relocated along with his family. ``They [the Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Commission] give us a house and an acre of land, but that's not enough for the sheep. It pierces the heart. Sheep are for your well-being, for your teaching of the children how to care.''

Mr. Zee already lost most of his sheep in the federal government's livestock reduction program of the mid-'70s, necessitated by overgrazing. Zee explains that his holdings were cut from 150 sheep to 28; 20 cattle to 9; 30 horses to 8. Navajos depend upon their sheep for food, wool, barter, and credit at trading posts. Zee, the fourth generation to inhabit this land, knows that when he's relocated to his one acre, his livestock life style is over. And then? Zee isn't sure, since he has no job skills.

ANGLOS frequently view Navajos' relocation benefits as a cornucopia of opportunity, a bonanza that includes moving expenses, purchase of the family's old dwelling, and a paid-for moderate house on an acre relocation site. But the Navajos who choose relocation sites on reservation border towns don't always hang onto these benefits, because the rules of life's game are changed. They must switch from a barter to a cash economy; from Navajo cooperation with flocks and crops to the competition of the job market; and from sharing of bounty with family and friends to saving funds for bills, taxes, and rainy days.

Indeed, looking through windows to the white world is far different from actually living in it. Relocatee Tom Begay can attest to that. ``I got a house here in Winslow [a border town],'' he explains. Then he tells about his visit to a car dealer. ``The dealer, he says to me, `I'll give you a car and a truck,' and he put a lien on my house. I wasn't working then; couldn't make payments,'' says Mr. Begay, who wound up losing the house and vehicles. He now works in construction, living part time at the work site and part time with his relocated sister, Alice Gonnie.

Inured to losing his possessions, Begay is also resigned to the fact that his sister's relocation home floods throughout when it rains. But there's one thing he can't accept: ``The family was split up. Now we all only see each other about once or twice a year.''

Relocation has not only cut into the cohesiveness of Navajo families, but it's also nibbling away at cultural fibers. Chee and Ramona Greyhair were relocated to an acre reservation site in 1979. Ramona ``cried for years,'' says Mr. Greyhair. ``She left her grandmother and mother [buried] up there on Hopi land.''

Because the Navajos are a matrilineal society, land is generally passed down through the woman's side of the family. When a Navajo baby is born, it's traditional to bury the umbilical cord, creating a bond - sacred and eternal - between child and land. Hopis now possess Mrs. Greyhair's land where her umbilical cord is buried, a tragedy for a traditional Navajo. Her work is gone, too. Since the couples' stock has been reduced to two sheep and six goats, Mrs. Greyhair doesn't weave rugs anymore, only a sash belt now and then.

With weathered hand, Greyhair draws a rectangular diagram in the dry earth, explaining that when his prefab house arrived, he tried to tell workers how to place the home - with the front door facing east. ``Right there,'' he says, pointing to the diagram. ``Our prayers go to the east. Part of our religion. In the morning, our prayers must go to the east,'' so house and hogan doors should face that direction. But Greyhair didn't succeed with the workmen. His door faces south - to him, an egregious error.

The relocation commission is attempting to make amends. ``But they're going to cut it here,'' says Greyhair, outlining an imaginary door on an outside wall. The door-to-be will lead into the garage. ``That's not the same,'' he says. ``Not the same at all.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Lands lost. Navajo exile in the Arizona desert
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today