This site contains the archives of my travel blogs from 2010-2016.

I'm now blogging via Medium. For other life updates, including opportunities or requests to collaborate, visit my personal website.




Friday, June 12, 2009

Day 7 - Navajo Nation

This marks the end of our first week on the road. So far, we’ve visited Memphis, Little Rock, San Antonio, El Paso, Roswell, and the Navajo Nation.

My preconceived notion of each city’s contribution to the American identity has been proved incredibly wrong.

As we drove out towards Navajoland this morning—20 miles from our driver’s hotel in Gallup, NM—I anticipated teepees, leather chaps, sweat houses, and women weaving

baskets. I was concerned about how the day would go. The serious hayfever I thought I had grown out of years ago came back with a vengeance a few weeks ago when I went into a bad case of anaphylactic shock—swelling of the whites of the eyes up over the pupils, intense sinus pain, constricted airways, heightened sensitivity to light and noise, among other symptoms.

So as much as I wanted to participate in sheepherding and other activities with the group, all I could foresee was several hours, possibly days, of misery in my near future.

Our first stop was the rest stop at exit 396 on I-40. Lee Silversmith, a full-blooded Navajo who currently resides with his family on the reservation, had graciously offered to act as our tour guide to Navajo history and culture for the day. His land starts from directly behind the rest stop, so it was a logical place to meet. Lee gave us a brief overview of the Navajo people—all information that was new to me—and then took us to his home where his parents had prepared delicious Navajo Tacos for lunch.

The traditional Navajo home is an 8-sided hogan (ho-gone). Their nation’s boundaries are delineated by four sacred mountains located in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado; according to traditional folklore the Navajos were conceived in the heart of these four mountains. It was quite an experience to sit in pews around the Silversmith’s hogan-turned-church and listen to “Grandma and Grandpa Navajo” (as I affectionately call them) tell their life story.

As opposed to the Northwest Indians I’m familiar with that rely on salmon for their medicine and food, the Southwest Indians are an agricultural pastoral society; sheepherding, raising horses, and planting crops such as corn are an integral part of traditional Navajo life. It was refreshing to learn that the Navajos were one of the last tribes to embrace the gaming industry; it wasn’t until just recently that they built their first casino—which, by the way, “is doing great,” Lee said, “despite the economic downturn.”

I was very touched by the warm welcome we received from all the Navajos we met. Lee had arranged for us to meet with some of the staff at the Navajo President’s office, so we headed out to government headquarters at Window Rock (pictured below at left) after lunch. The Federal Grant Writer/Progam Manager gave a phenomenal presentation for at least an hour; I could hardly believe what I was hearing.

The Navajo nation is made up of 110 communities throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Besides being divided into districts (at three levels) by the Navajo government, they also have to deal with the U.S. Federal Government and individual state governments. They have a working relationship with the Federal govt. on a nation to nation basis, but any authority that Congress gives to the state then has be dealt with on a state level. Never mind that this is an unnecessarily complex system; it is especially cumbersome when it comes to issues such as education and health care.

For example, for the past 50 years many Navajo children have been separated from their parents and sent off to boarding schools around the country. At boarding schools they were heavily discouraged from speaking Diné (Navajo language), in fact, if caught speaking Diné—or accused of speaking it by another student—they would be punished with a spanking, mouth washed out with soap, and extra chores. Upon returning to the reservation students seemed disconnected from their families, communities, and Navajo heritage.

In 1975 the Navajo people were finally given a say in their children’s education and were allowed to construct schools on the reservation. However, Navajoland consists of 27,000 miles and reaches into three states. Since public schools are primarily state-run, the Navajo Nation has to deal with three sets of requirements, three curricula, three standardized test methods, etc., when running their schools. By incorporating Navajo language, culture, and history classes into the curricula, the Navajos began to make some headway in preparing their children and young adults to be productive citizens in the Navajo community. Ensuring that students felt comfortable and connected with their communities helps ensure that they will do well in school and then stay to help make the reservation a better place for everyone; it helps minimize the number of students who decide to move off to the big city because they don’t “fit in” on the reservation as a result of their strictly western education.

So here they are, finally making some progress, when the people of Arizona vote in the bill that makes English the official language of the state and instates the infamous “English-only” reform that makes English the only language of education in public schools. Now they’re back at square one: after devoting time and money to developing a curriculum targeting Navajo children, this curriculum is prohibited from being taught. Of course, if they established private schools they could teach whatever they want, right?

Sure, sounds great. But remember….the Federal Government owns the land (they recently put the Dept. of the Interior in charge of Indian reservations, along with National Parks and such) so no property taxes can be collected from the people living on it. And where does funding for schools come from? Property taxes.

Another big issue: development and the "Bennett Freeze Box." The Hopi and Navajo tribes were in a dispute, for a long time, about territorial boundaries. Everyone recognized that this was a dispute between governments, not between the people. Nonetheless, citizens of both tribes were banned from development until the dispute was settled. For forty years no one could make any changes to any building, no matter how old it was or what condition it was in.

So, say your kids are playing baseball in the front yard and a stray ball flies in a busts a window in your hogan. You absolutely may not fix it. Say you live in your great-great-grandmother's 150-year-old hogan, if a door falls off, the roof leaks, a rogue sheep busts a hole in the side--no matter what--you can not do a thing to improve your living conditions. This ban was recently lifted, although I'm not quite sure of the date or even the details of the treaty.

Having just created an International Entrepreneurship major for myself, I was especially interested in this next subject: the process of starting a business. According to the Navajo Program Manager, starting a business in the U.S. includes about 3-5 steps and is possible to do in one day. To start a business on Navajo land the process is bumped up to 52 steps and can take anywhere from 5-15 years. Is that not ridiculous?

The unemployment rate for years has hovered at 55%. There are 320,000 Navajos on the reservation; the average annual income per family is $8,300--well below the poverty level in America.


In 1863 the U.S. Cavalry took the the Navajos from their homeland, moved them to Oklahoma--a centralized location--and made them live there alongside Native Americans from all over the country. Many of them, knowing the in's and out's of the canyon, successfully hid from the cavalry, but many more were forced to go on The Longest Walk to Oklahoma. Transplanting the Navajos became costly and U.S. taxpayers started to protest the tax raises needed to complete the Navajos' relocation. Eventually the Navajos were allowed to return to their home, but only after signing a treaty in 1868 that gave the U.S. government the right to do away with the reservation at any time.

Then, in the 1870's zinc, copper, lead, asbestos, and coal were discovered in what is now the Grand Canyon and the homeland of the Navajos and four other Native American tribes. Although many of these natural resources proved too difficult and costly to extract from the canyon, coal in the nearby, less mountainous region seemed to be a lucrative pursuit. The government proceeded to mine this coal--employing many Native Americans to do the work--and paid only pitiful amounts for what they took. It was recently uncovered that, in one coal contract, the Navajos were only receiving 15 cents for every ton of coal that was taken from them. If they were to have been given fair market value for the coal they would be one of the richest peoples in North America.


During the Cold War Navajos were offered jobs mining uranium. In doing this they were subjected to radiation; Navajo men came home every day with uranium in their clothing and on their bodies. They brought this toxic element into their one-room hogans where their wives and children underwent radiation as well. To this day Navajos are dying because of the effects of the radiation and a large number of Navajo children continue to be born with birth defects.


In one area of the reservation there was a large train crash years ago in which toxic substances were spilled and soaked into the ground. It was given back to the Navajos after being deemed too dangerous a place for Americans to live or work. However, Navajos were encouraged to build homes in this place, raise their livestock there, and eat the crops they grew in the toxic soil.


It seems that the U.S. government has done everything short of genocide to rid themselves of these people. And yet their spirits are not broken. These are a strong people--in body, mind, and in spirit. And though I spent but a day in their company, I have learned so much about perseverance, hope, respect for the land and its resources, and trust in God through them. Throughout generations of nothing but hardship, they hold onto a joy and a hope that surpasses all of my understanding.

After setting out to bring the sheep in for the night, we arrived at the place on the other side of the canyon where we thought they should be, only to find that they had, in fact, found their way home on their own. Lee led us, weaving in and around groves of cacti, up a rocky mesa to a beautiful layer of red sandstone rock where we took some memorable group photos and just spent time talking and laughing.

We learned to identify a few plants, such as the famous Navajo tea they had served us at lunch, and then started to head back down. As we reached one of the last vistas we spotted--not sheep--but a small herd of the Silversmith's horses. The mares, foal, and stallion have miles and miles of grassland at their disposal. With only the canyon walls to keep them close to home, they live basically as free agents. It was beautiful to watch these unbridled, unharnessed creatures roam the canyon floor as they wished. They looked happy and healthy--I could tell they were happy and healthy from a half-mile off.

20 minutes later we arrived back at the Silversmiths, getting ready to say our goodbyes and head back to Gallup to grab a quick dinner before class and bed. As we pulled up the drive there were tables and chairs set up in the front yard. Lee came out and announced that Grandma Navajo was cooking again -- she wanted to feed us before we set out. Over dinner Lee talked about his trip last summer; he walked from San Francisco to Washington D.C. with a group that re-enacted The Longest Walk as a memorial to their ancestors and awareness campaign for Native Americans. Tribes across America welcomed them each night and offered food and shelter. It was really neat to see his pictures and hear the stories of the people he met along the way. Lee talked about how close he had become with the band of strangers who walked for three months together and the impact some individuals had had on his life. He said that the Lord has everything happen for a purpose; that we had a purpose for coming to spend the day with him on the reservation. How right he was.

In addition to bringing away numerous life lessons from this day, I started to see a general trend in the people we've met so far on this trip...

The people who have the least are the people who give the most.
It doesn't take riches or fame to make a difference in the world; it takes a joyful heart, a respect for others, and a passion for service. I'm no longer going to wait for a raise or new job before donating to this charity or that church group. I'm no longer going to wait for the semester to be over or for my vacation to end before I volunteer.
I only have a short time on this earth; the time to serve is now.


  1. Wow, Shirah...this is a beautiful piece of writing. Thanks. (Do you know those 52 steps, by the way?) I'm really proud of the care and thought you're putting into your blog. What a record of your journey & thoughts along the way. Have a great time in SLC!

  2. the pics are great! isn't arizona beauuuutiful:)? hope you're having fun, girl!


  3. Can the Navajo Nation use the profits from their casinos to fund their own private schools? - Sheila

  4. Actually, if you look at the U.S. census statistics, unempoloyment is not as terrible as the statistics you were given. 25.1% is the number reported from the census bureau in 2000. There was another census in 2001, but this is pretty close, time-wise.

    Also, the Nation has put together an impressive database of jobs within their territory (and, of course, they may leave the reservation for work as well, correct?). I counted just shy of 200 job postings listing everything from being a cook, prosecutor, environmental engineer,office specialist to counseling famlilies...I wish the U.S. had one of these databases!

    Shirah, I love your open heart and mind, willig to soak up and process the information given to you by various communities, but I recommend taking a hard look at where the information is stemming from. What are their motives? How is the information filtered? After all, we all have filters. Is it possible some of the info given to me may be exagerrated or even false? I hate to be cynical, but there is a ton of misinformation and emotionalism out there, so considering the source is paramount. Just a thought:).

    Also, I would venture to say that there are very few businesses that could be started in just a SINGLE day in the U.S. Nearly impossible with all of the government red tape and rediculous, nonsensical bureaucracy. Also, the Navajo Nation business start-up requirements look very similar to what you or I have to go through to open shop. Leasing, licensing, paperwork, etc.


  5. Dear Anonymous,
    You have many valid points, and I avow that some of them I should have thought more about before drawing a conclusion -- especially thinking about WHO is giving the information and what their motives are.

    The Progam Manager did address the US Census statistics: he said that the Federal government refuses to report the actual 55% unemployment rate and instead reports about 25%. I would guess that it's probably somewhere in between.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. Shirah! I loved this blog, I'm so glad what you ultimately took out of the day was the importance of serving others. Recently a church group from Chico went to The Navajo Nation and helped serve them by helping rebuild and fix up broken down buildings. The group said the people were unbelievable thankful and now I know how much they really needed it.


  7. right. i don't doubt they think the government is lying. basically, it comes down to their word against the u.s. government's word. one side is not telling the truth. i'd venture to say that there are enough checks and balances to the u.s. government that this fairly large conspiracy would have been reported by now. there is enough varying opinion out there that someone would have reported this in outrage.

    just a thought.

  8. Akinitsisahn Richardson-DayJune 29, 2009 at 9:02 PM

    This is a beautiful piece. And the man you spent time with is a beautiful person. I met him on the Longest Walk in DC, but i lost his contact info. If you can tell me how to contact him, he and I would be ever so grateful. Please...do not ignore this request, it is very important to me. Your writing is beautiful and I am glad to have read it.And you were blessed to have spent time with tis person I all a good friend. All my realtions...

    please respond to:


Blog content © 2015 Shirah Eden Foy. Powered by Blogger.