Thanksgiving on the reservation: Group provides support
to Navajos and Hopis in preparation for winter
By Stephen Baxter -- Santa
Cruz Sentinel, NOVEMBER 24, 2010
ROCKY RIDGE, Ariz. - More pickups rumbled
along the dusty dirt roads of the Navajo Nation and
Hopi Indian Reservation this week to deliver food and
firewood to residents. More logs were split and stacked
in front of homes, and more roofs were fixed to keep
out the windblown snow of the high-desert winter.
A group of about 70 volunteers and activists
from around the country participated in an annual Thanksgiving
week gathering here called Black Mesa Indigenous Support,
including 18 young people from Santa Cruz.
"A really solid group came together,"
said Cat Philips an organizer of the Santa Cruz contingent.
The trip aimed to help the Navajos prepare
for winter because many of them live without electricity
and running water. Many also face relocation because
of a land dispute that stems from the 1970s.
Because there is no power in many of
the residents' one-room traditional homes, or ho'ogans,
70-year-old men chop wood during snowstorms to fuel
their wood stoves. Elderly women herd sheep - crucial
in providing wool and meat - all day in icy winds.
In this year's annual November caravan
to Arizona, Santa Cruz supporters spent the week trying
to make life a little bit easier for the native families
- and they also showed support for the Navajos who refuse
to move off what is now Hopi land.
There are about 300,000 Navajo in the
Navajo Nation territory in Northern Arizona - on a piece
of land roughly the size of West Virginia. Many Navajos
have electricity, water and propane gas, but dozens
of Navajo families who live on Hopi Partition Land have
When the boundaries of Hopi and Navajo
land were redrawn by federal authorities in the 1970s,
Navajos who lived on Hopi land were told to relocate.
Many families complied; others refused.
Some Navajo resisters said the federal
government divided the land to pit the two tribes against
Since then, some of the Navajo resisters
on Hopi land - who include men and women in their 70s
and 80s - have been threatened by the Hopi rangers to
relocate, supporters said.
Hopi leaders have said the relocation
is justified because it is their land and they disapprove
of the support event of this week.
As it stands, the traditional Navajo
homes have no property boundaries. Some authorities
have offered to build new houses for the people if they
agree to conditions like a three-acre boundary and a
limited number of sheep to herd. They also might get
water or electricity in the deal.
Many people transport giant tanks of
water by pickup.
"It's a luxury to be able to take
a shower or have a running faucet," said Marie,
a Navajo who lives on Hopi Partition Land. She asked
that her last name not be used because she feared retribution.
Still, she indicated that all Navajos
are not necessarily yearning for water and electricity
- they simply want to practice their traditional way
of life on their land and not be harassed to relocate.
They want to herd as many sheep as they want and live
without artificial land boundaries.
"I call it a 'land-based' lifestyle,"
Marie told a group of supporters.
Five Santa Cruz supporters this week
helped out at the home of an elderly mother and daughter
who live more than 20 miles from the paved road on top
of a ridge. The group herded sheep, chopped firewood
and helped move wool the family uses to make woven Navajo
Many of the supporters, and the Santa
Cruz group there, stayed in a traditional ho'ogan with
a wood stove in the center. Other supporters from other
areas camped in below-freezing temperatures at a host
site and met for gatherings every morning and evening.
Natalie Nugent, a second-year student
at UC Santa Cruz, said she was grateful for the opportunity
to travel to the reservation. She helped herd sheep.
Because the Navajo have had to deal
with large coal mining operations nearby, Nugent said
she thinks the Navajo's lack of electricity is unjust.
For decades, coal from those mines have helped power
cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix - yet the power
does not reach many of the homes that are closest to
Nugent said she thinks more people would
be interested in the issues Navajos face if they knew
more about it, and she hoped to spread the word when
she returned to Santa Cruz.
"These are real people and they
are definitely affected by us," Nugent said.
At the home of Navajos Tim and Belinda
Johnson, many supporters gathered and separated donations
into boxes of produce and other supplies that were delivered
to families this week. Cords of chopped wood and boxes
of food were distributed and packed into pickups and
driven to homes through a network of unmarked dirt roads.
The goods went to about 100 Navajo and
Hopi families in need, regardless of whether they signed
land agreements or are resisting land relocation.
Young families came from Oregon, and
men and women in their 20s came from as places like
Colorado, Oakland and as far as New Hampshire.
Some supporters stayed at natives' homes
and made repairs, others packed food boxes or chopped
dead trees and hauled wood to homes.
Many supporters have been coming for
years and know the unmarked, dirt back roads, which
is a good thing, because Navajo elders have frowned
on making maps to homes for fear they might end up in
the authorities' hands.
It is not uncommon to see a group of
supporters huddled around someone drawing a map on the
ground with a knife. The maps describe landmarks like
distinctive trees and tires on posts and help supporters
drive to remote homes.
Once everyone understood the map, they
would scratch it out with their boots. Some of the supporters
said they had been chased by Hopi rangers who said they
were trespassing as they delivered supplies to families.
Louise Benally, another Navajo living
on Hopi Partition Land, had a group of supporters from
Colorado work on her roof during Thanksgiving week.
She hoped to make improvements on her
ho'ogan during the week, and she wished authorities
would leave her alone.
"They punish us for wanting to
live like Native Americans," she said.