Navajos call on telephone service Communications: A small Navajo village in Arizona is finally getting phone service. How else would they connect their computers to the rest of the world?

Sun Journal

November 28, 1996|By Gwen Florio | Gwen Florio,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

FOREST LAKE, Ariz. -- Just a few years before the nation crosses that bridge into the 21st century, this village of 40 hogans and prefab homes is catching up with the present.

It is getting telephones.

Because the computers need them.

The computers are needed for the village's children, who often must stay home when winter storms close the road to the school, 60 miles away in Kayenta. When that happens, they fall behind in their homework.

As a remedy, the community sought a combination of grants to get computers so the students could get on the information highway when the gravel road is closed.

While phone service will be a godsend for those who have struggled when disaster struck, and for teen-agers who lag behind at school when winter storms close the roads, the arrival of such technology is not completely embraced.

A day before Navajo officials from around the reservation came to dedicate a new computer and communications tower, Victoria Begay talked about life as she has known it atop Black Mesa. "People talk face to face here," says Begay, 48, who grew up here and returns on weekends to care for her 85-year-old mother, Silver Headband's Daughter Begay. "We visit," she says. "Our kids play together outside instead of staying inside by themselves, talking on the phone."

Education is paramount. "Chief Manolito told us that the only way we can empower ourselves is by learning," says Amos Johnson, president of the Forest Lake chapter of the Navajo Nation, referring to the leader who signed a treaty with Washington in 1868.

"Today, after many generations, we continue that tradition," he said, speaking at groundbreaking ceremonies for the 120-foot communications tower that will make the telephone service -- and the computer link -- possible. The $1.6 million project is paid by grants from the federal government, Peabody Western Coal Co., which has a mine near here, and Navajo Communications Co., which provides reservation phone service.

"Even in the West, where we have long stretches of horizon to deal with, it's pretty unusual not to have service," says Jim Roof, a spokesman for the Phoenix office of US West telephone company.

The dozen or so telephone companies that serve Arizona have hooked up most communities. But once in a while, US West will provide radio service to ranches so remote that the distance would make the cost of phone lines prohibitive.

"Even the Hualapai reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon has had phone service for years," Roof says, recalling that helicopters and mules were used for that particular installation.

But lots of people come to the Grand Canyon, where the familiar blue-and-white pay-phone shelter greets hikers at many trailheads. Hardly anybody comes to Forest Lake, in the heart of the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona.

Most of the traffic heads out of town: north to Kayenta, for school and grocery shopping; 70 miles southwest to Chinle, which has the nearest hospital; or even to Phoenix, more than 200 miles south, for work during the week.

Residents who have coped with those distances their whole lives say phone hookups can't start soon enough.

Every time Silver Headband's Daughter Begay is ill, she has to ask someone for a ride to the hamlet of Pinon, about 16 miles south, where the priest lets her use a church telephone to call the doctor.

In extreme emergencies, a rancher about five miles away has a two-way radio that people can use, says Eddie White, who owns the sparsely stocked U-Pass convenience store that is Forest Lake's only emporium.

Both options become chancy in the winter, when the gravel road, which skirts some precipitous cliffs, to Pinon or Kayenta becomes a slick sea of mud, then freezes over. In such times, people will use the road only in the direst emergencies. People drive to Pinon only at the risk of running off the road.

Winters are perhaps hardest on Forest Lake's children. On the best days, they face a grueling, 90-minute ride to school -- each way. On bad days, they're stuck at home, sometimes for more than a week.

"It was hard on them, and hard on me," says Victoria Begay, who has a grown son and two school-age children. "As a parent, I was getting up early to get their breakfast, then feeding them dinner just before bedtime. And I was always worrying about the roads, and my kids on those bad roads."

Their children's schooling was interrupted so frequently that Begay and her husband, Alvin, moved five years ago to the reservation headquarters at Window Rock, where they teach school.

Not long ago, she and her family came to Forest Lake to get her mother's home ready for winter. While her husband repaired household items, and her son made sure the woodstove had a two-week supply of logs, Begay translated from Navajo as her mother discussed the changes coming to town.

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