Climate change turning sacred land against Navajo

A 19-year drought in Navajo Nation is stretching an already struggling people. But the climate change is also highlighting their endurance and ingenuity.

Margaret Hiza-Redsteer/USGS
Shifting sand dunes threaten houses and roads at a Navajo settlement. An increasingly dry climate has accelerated the migration of sand dunes in Navajo Nation.

The land of the Navajo Nation is sacred to its people, bordered by four mountains that are central to the tribe’s identity and beliefs. But this land has been turning increasingly hostile as the regional climate has changed.

While California has been in a much-publicized state of drought for more than four years, Navajo Nation has been enduring drought conditions since 1996.

Snowfall has decreased by two-thirds since 1930, leaving rivers fed by the melting snowpack to run dry. The reservation’s dune fields have increased by 70 percent and begun to move, swallowing roads and surrounding homes. Rainfall has declined to the point that some residents are spending $500 a month to feed their livestock – the traditional pastures are bone dry.

For a community already under economic duress – unemployment rates sit above 50 percent – the added stress presents an existential threat. Looming in the shadow of the 19-year drought are concerns that changes point to a new normal driven by global warming, and that the Navajo are canaries in a global climate coalmine. The cost, they worry, could be livelihoods and cultural traditions that span thousands of years.

“There has always been a continuous temporary migration on and off the reservation due to the lack of jobs,” says Karletta Chief, a professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona. “But as the drought becomes more and more severe I think that that will possibly be amplified.”

Yet the hardships have also become a testament to the Navajo’s ingenuity and endurance.

'Stretched to the limit'

Gloria Tom and her family raise cattle on the reservation and grow corn, squash, and other produce near their home in Window Rock, Ariz. But during the past five years, in particular, the effects of the drought have been “really evident.”

“Last year I didn’t plant any of my fields just because it was so dry,” she adds. “It wasn’t worth putting feed in the ground because we knew we weren’t going to reap any of it.”

Her family also own eight head of cattle, but it has been forced to keep them indoors – feeding them at a cost of about $500 a month – instead of keeping them on grazing lands in the reservation where they could eat and drink for free.

Dr. Chief says her family has started moving its cattle off the reservation.

“There’s just not enough forage to sustain grazing” on the reservation, she says.

The financial impacts of moving cattle off-reservation can be steep, she adds. Families have to pay to haul the cattle off the reservation, and they have to pay monthly rent for the parcels of grazing land. Most families supplement their income by selling woven baskets and other homemade items, but that is barely enough, in many cases.

The extended drought is exacerbating already poor living conditions.

“When you have limited resources and those resources are stretched to the limit, it doesn’t take much for climate change to switch things and make them less tenable than they were,” says Margaret Hiza-Redsteer, a research scientist at the United States Geological Survey.

A dune in the lobby

The changing climate is not only threatening the financial security of Navajo homes, it’s threatening the physical homes themselves. The Navajo have lived among sand dunes for generations, with some of the oldest dunes dating back 70,000 years. But it’s only recently that the dunes have started expanding and migrating – covering roads and encroaching on homes.

The dune field grew by 70 percent between 1992 and 2010, according to Dr. Hiza-Redsteer.

Now the dunes inch across the reservation a few more feet each year. A 2011 study by the USGS founds that sand dunes migrate about 115 feet per year in the southwest portion of the Navajo Nation. Some dunes can move more than three feet in a single windstorm, the study found. On a business trip to Kayenta, Ariz., a few years ago, Ms. Tom recalls arriving at a local motel and finding sand piling into the lobby.

The changing climate isn’t solely to blame for this, she adds. In some areas, overgrazing and illegal grazing has helped strip the dunes of vegetation that anchor them in place. But the landscape is changing at a bewildering pace.

Rose Whitehair can trace her family back 16 generations in the Window Rock area. “Everybody is related to me one way or another in this area,” she says. But she says she’s been able to notice the affects of the drought even in her own lifetime.

“There’s less snow on mountains,” she says. “My grandparents are having to go up to higher, cooler areas to get traditional medicines.”

Snowfall across the Navajo Nation dropped from about 31 inches in 1930 to 11 inches in 2010, according to a United Nations report, and the decline has caused rivers to dry up across the reservation. Instead of being fed a steady diet of melting snow throughout the year, they now either run intermittently for a few months a year, or don’t run at all. The ripple effect can lead to water shortages in communities when wells and pipes break.

Deep connection to the land

Yet the Navajo are still hesitant to leave. The population has declined marginally in the past few years, and Navajo often move off the reservation for jobs and education – both Tom and Chief went to university off the reservation. Tom, who is now head of the Navajo Department of Fish and Wildlife, says she had to come back. Her worry is that Navajo will continue to leave but decide not to return.

“We could be using our money elsewhere [but] we choose to put it into our livestock because it’s important to us, and it’s a practice that started with relatives that are no longer here,” says Tom.

“There are easier ways to make a living: move to a city, find a good job, find a good house,” she adds. “That’s what we’re competing with, is that convenient way of life."

Still, both Tom and Chief said the situation would have to get much worse for most Navajo to consider leaving the reservation permanently. While farming and raising cattle in the Navajo Nation can get expensive, Tom says, “it’s [something] we choose to impose upon ourselves.”

And Ms. Whitehair – director of the Navajo Department of Emergency Management – says she has seen some Navajo communities taking action, including building terraces into the sides of hills to help capture rainwater both for farming and to help replenish underground aquifers.

“I was pretty excited to hear about that,” she adds. “Not only are they able to replenish aquifers but they can help replenish the land.”

Communities both inside the Navajo Nation and outside need to follow suit, she adds.

“Instead of everyone complaining about sand dunes, do something about it,” she says.

The Navajo connection to their land is so strong many bury a newborn’s umbilical cord in the earth nearby. Chief says it would take especially severe conditions to sever that lifelong connection.

“Every day an individual wakes up praying, thankful to be living within the four sacred mountains,” says Chief. “I think that connection is resilient through time and space and climate.”

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