Navajo holds her ground

Leaving land means losing a part of herself, she says

February 05, 2006|By SEAN REILY | SEAN REILY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOPI RESERVATION, Ariz. -- A rifle hangs under Pauline Whitesinger's mud-packed timber ceiling. It's placed within easy reach so she can scare off the coyotes that threaten her sheep. But there have been times when she's imagined other uses.

"Maybe we should have set up firearms at our doorways so we could defend our homes," she said in her native Navajo language, as translated by her nephew Danny Blackgoat.

Whitesinger lives like her ancestors did, in an eight-sided, juniper hogan - without electricity or running water - in the reaches of Big Mountain, Ariz.

Whitesinger is one of the last Navajo remaining on this land after the largest forced migration in the U.S. since the Japanese-American internment during World War II.

In 1974, Congress drew a boundary through what had been a 1.8-million-acre joint-use area between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. While an estimated 100 Hopi were told to move from what had become the Navajo side of the boundary, more than 12,000 Navajo were ordered off the Hopi side.

Sponsors of the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974 stated its purpose at the time as a return to the Hopi Tribe of ancestral land that was occupied by the Navajo more than a century before.

Critics said it was no coincidence that beneath the land lay some of the largest untouched coal deposits in North America, and that the Navajo needed to be moved to allow the mining.

In traditional Navajo belief, land cannot belong to a person. Instead, persons belong to the land on which they were born. If Navajo stray too far from that land, they lose themselves and their sense of purpose and direction.

So when a representative from the then-created Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation "came to ask me to sign up for the relocation benefits and move," recalled Whitesinger, "I didn't bother with that person at all."

Many Navajo called the relocation the "Second Long Walk," comparing it to the infamous Long Walk in 1864, when the U.S government rounded up the tribe and marched them to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, a trail on which many died.

Whitesinger and the other Navajo who refused to move became known as "resistors." All construction, including repairs to existing structures, was forbidden.

Reductions were placed on livestock, often limiting their numbers to fewer than it would take to support a family. Regulations limited the collection of firewood. Water wells were capped, and blades were removed from the windmills that pumped the water.

Today, where there once had been more than 12,000 Navajo, only eight "resistor" families remain, with 22 adults.

But for three decades, Whitesinger has kept powerful forces at bay.

"I know where I belong," she said in her native Navajo. "I know if I relocate I will die of loneliness."

No coal has been mined here. No more than a handful of Hopi have tried moving here. And the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation is planning to close in the next couple of years.

Sean Reily writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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