On the fringe of the Rez
Patchworked and pockmarked, Counselor remains tightly knit
By Cindy Yurth
COUNSELOR CHAPTER, N.M., January 31, 2013
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 20th in the series.
(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)
I f you look at a detailed map of the Navajo Nation, Counselor Chapter appears to be sort of dissolving off the eastern edge.
It's such an intricate patchwork of reservation, allotted land, oil leases and BLM holdings that it takes the chapter officials a while to tally up the chapter's land area: 70,771 acres.
In fact, until 2007, when the Navajo Nation bought the entire town of Counselor, N.M., the town — including a trading post, gymnasium, church and a few houses and apartments — was an island of private land in the middle of Counselor chapter.
Of the chapter's thousand or so residents, many are allottees, so there was jubilation when the Cobell settlement checks were cut just in time for Christmas.
A lot of the money, however, ended up in the hands of the Jicarilla Apaches, who operate the Apache Nugget Casino just south of here.
"Some people paid off bills," said Kimberly Ochoa, 23. "The rest went to the casino."
Oh well, the Jicarilla are practically relatives.
"If you know Navajo and you listen real carefully," said Ochoa's mother, Aurelia Largo, "you can understand their entire conversation."
Some of them are actual relatives too. Between intermarriage with the Jicarilla, the Pueblos to the south and the Anglos who came to work the oil fields to the north, not to mention the old Spanish families who settled between Cuba and Albuquerque, it's hard to find a full-blooded Navajo in Counselor.
Ochoa, for example, is Foot Trail People (an adopted Navajo clan) born for bilagaana, but she proudly identifies as Navajo.
Out here, it's not uncommon to find Pueblos attending an Enemy Way or a Diné at the Apache Sun Ceremony, but make no mistake: the individual cultures have remained intact.
According to the locals, you will find some of the best medicine men and most authentic Navajo ceremonies in this area of the rez.
Although Highway 550 connects Counselor to Farmington in the north and Albuquerque to the south, Counselor residents tend to prefer the old-fashioned pursuits, said Charlene Yazzie, a clerk at the Stop N' Go (still referred to by most locals as "the Counselor Post").
"We pick piñons and visit each other," Yazzie said. And this is a place where it's easy to find a man who still knows how to track, shoot and dress an elk.
The wildlife is one thing that keeps Ochoa here while most of her peers have fled to Albuquerque in search of an education or a job.
"In Albuquerque, you hear sirens all night long," Ochoa said. "Out here, it's just birds."
Ochoa loves to take her two little daughters for walks through the piñon and juniper forest, or to the little Mesa behind the chapter house where the peregrine falcons nest in the spring and you hear the occasional piercing cry of an eagle.
She wouldn't mind if there was a bit more development, maybe a full-fledged grocery store so her family wouldn't have to make a monthly trip to Farmington to stock the freezer.
But newly elected Chapter President Harry Willeto said his first priority is infrastructure: completing the power and water projects started by the previous administration and nagging the BIA to pave the roads to Pueblo Pintado and Ojo Encino, where many Counselor parents have their kids in school.
He'd also like to reopen the senior citizens center, which was closed two or three years ago when the building was condemned. Seniors are presently bused to the centers in neighboring Nageezi and Ojo Encino.
Ochoa has faith that the chapter officials are doing their best and development will come in time.
In the meantime, she says, Counselor is the kind of place where the people rely on each other.
"If your house burns down," she said, "all your neighbors will be there the next morning with everything you need. You won't even have to tell them what you need; they'll already know."
Counselor at a Glance
Population -- about 1,000
Land area -- 70,771 acres
Name -- Named after Jim Counselor, who opened the first trading post in 1930. It still exists and is now called the Stop N' Go, and you can see an early photograph of the building inside.
History -- Just south of historic Dinetah, this is one of the earliest Navajo settlements, dating back to at least the 1400s. The Dine in this area have long had contact with other tribes and non-Natives, having made their living raiding and trading with the Pueblos, Jicarilla Apache and later the Spanish colonies to the south. When the government started allotting land here in the 1890s, many Dine applied for and received their own allotments.
Assets -- oil, excellent elk hunting, a close-knit population, Highway 550
Problems -- poverty, unemployment, both Head Start and the senior center recently closed (although the nearby Lybrook School District has opened a pre-school used by many Navajo parents).