The middle spot
Life in a land of hidden treasures
By Cindy Yurth
CHINLE, December 27, 2012
(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the 15th in the series — and happens to be about the chapter the author calls home.)
Driving through the billows of flesh-colored dust and rows of dilapidated public housing, you would never know that a few miles away waits the grandeur of Canyon de Chelly.
And, although he's never without his medal and his iconic red ball cap, you might never know that the picturesque old Indian with the white ponytail, breakfasting by himself at The Junction restaurant, is our most famous citizen, Code Talker Teddy Draper Sr.
Among the elders of Chinle, 89-year-old Draper has the best memory and spins the best yarns, so although you have to yell into his good ear or write your questions down, he's my go-to guy for Chinle history.
Draper remembers Ch'inlii ("It flows out horizontally," referring to the de Chelly Wash) before there was a Chinle Chapter.
He was born deep in Canyon de Chelly at a place called Big Cave, a large gap in a rock pillar that caught the morning sun and warmed up faster than the surrounding area.
"I was at least six years old before I heard 'Chinle,'" he recalled over breakfast at The Junction. "I didn't even know there was a town on top of the canyon rim."
About 1929, Draper went with his father to a yei bi cheii dance on the canyon rim. It was a cold night with deep snow, and it seemed to take hours to get out of the canyon in their horse-drawn wagon.
"I was all right, because I had my sheepskin wrapped around me," he recalled.
The mood at the ceremony was unusually serious, and Draper remembers a group of men talking in quiet tones.
"My dad came back and said, 'Those men are called naat'aanii, the people who advise us,'" Draper recalled. "They're telling us that we have a government here now. The white people are telling us we have to do certain things with our land, with our livestock."
In Draper's young mind, that was the point at which life changed for the people of the canyon and its rims. Livestock reduction, land permitting, mandatory public education, the establishment of Canyon de Chelly National Monument all took place in short order, disturbing a lifestyle that — other than the four-year hiatus of The Long Walk, which famously started here — hadn't changed all that much since Navajos first settled this area in the 1400s.
And of course, the history of this floodplain, where water can usually be found by digging a few feet even when the wash isn't running, long predates Navajo settlement. The earliest archeological sites in the canyon go back 5,000 years, ranking Canyon de Chelly and its environs among the earliest habitations on what is now the Navajo Nation.
These days, only a handful of people still live in the once-populous canyon, planting corn and squash on the banks of the wash and hoping for a spring flood to water their crops.
The tourist biz
At some point, harvesting money from the steady stream of tourists became much more lucrative, and several hundred people — most descendants of the original canyon families — guide tours into the canyon or sell their crafts at the overlooks. There are three motels, which collectively provide about 100 jobs.
A few years ago, a Navajo Nation tribal park was superimposed upon the national monument. The tribe has started charging fees to maintain Cottonwood Campground, and made improvements to the roads and campsites — but some of the canyon guides, ironically the ones who originally encouraged the tribe to take a more active role, are chafing under the additional layer of bureaucracy.
Although amazingly little has been done to encourage the hundreds of thousands of tourists to come down from the canyon and enjoy the town of Chinle, its residents do benefit in other ways. We have our choice of three sit-down restaurants and four fast-food chains, and thanks to the efforts of some hard-working VISTA volunteers in the 1970s, we have our own IHS hospital and shopping center.
Because of Chinle's central location, we have offices of almost every tribal and BIA program as well. The government is a large employer, and the swanky new Navajo Tribal Utility Authority building ups Chinle's architectural quotient considerably.
Although there are only 4,518 people in Chinle Chapter, children come from all the surrounding smaller chapters to attend school. We have three public elementary schools, a junior high and the largest Native American high school in the country, as well as a small Seventh-Day Adventist school.
The huge new basketball stadium, the Wildcat Den, was completed in 2007 and draws thousands of people for high school basketball tournaments. Its adjacent Aquatic Center contains one of the Navajo Nation's very few swimming pools, as well as a weight room open to the community.
Of course, with the concentration of people comes a concentration of problems. We have issues with bootlegging, crime, gang violence, feral dogs and dust storms of Saudi Arabian proportions that are only getting worse with the drought and overgrazing.
On the horizon
On the drawing board are a large new detention center, a police academy and a school-district-owned library that will be open to the public.
Several private businesses have approached the chapter, but most of the land is held by the older families who don't want to give up their grazing rights, so it's nearly impossible to get a business site lease.
One success story in the works is Naabaahii Baghan, "Warriors' Home," a home for elderly veterans spearheaded by the volunteer All Veterans Auxiliary. AVA recently received a $14 million grant from the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act and hopes to start construction in 2013.
Chinle Chapter was certified in 2010, but has yet to get all the paperwork in to start collecting taxes, according to its new young chapter manager, Walton Yazzie, and his assistant Shannon Davis.
The two have high hopes for newly elected chapter president Andy Ayze and the other officers to finally get the ball rolling.
"Once we've got our corporation set up, we can change some of the rules and start getting idle business site leases into the hands of people who will actually do something with them," Yazzie said.
Davis said she's concentrating on getting the chapter's accounting — which has faced audit sanctions in the past — more organized to comply with the Five Management system of certified chapters.
A Chinle native who won't reveal her age other than to say she's a 2008 Northern Arizona University grad, Davis is bullish on her chapter.
"Chinle's awesome," she declared. "You have a grocery store, a Post Office, everything you need to make your life comfortable, but you can still live the reservation lifestyle. You can take care of your animals and have a hogan.
"To me, it's the middle spot."
Chinle at a Glance
Name — From the Navajo "Ch'inlii," "It flows out horizontally," referring to the de Chelly Wash. "Chelly" is a Spanish spelling of "Tséyi'," Navajo for "Canyon," so when you say "Canyon de Chelly," you're really saying "Canyon of Canyon."
Population — 4,518
Amenities — Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Tribal Park, Three Turkeys Tribal Park, Tséyi' Shopping Center, five public schools, an IHS hospital, three motels with sit-down restaurants
Issues — crime, gang violence, bootlegging, dust storms caused by overgrazing, feral animals
History — one of the earliest human habitations on the Navajo Nation, with artifacts dating back nearly 5,000 years. The Long Walk started here in 1864 after Kit Carson's troops raided the canyon, burning orchards and crops and forcing the people to surrender to the march to Fort Sumner.