Life on the detour
Kaibeto finds itself suddenly on the beaten track
By Cindy Yurth
KAIBETO, Ariz., June 6, 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 38th in the series.)
(Times photo – Krista Allen)
F rom Spencer Fowler's food stand, you can watch a steady stream of traffic making its way through the middle of the flea market.
Glossy luxury cars alternate with jacked-up SUVs. Speedboats on trailers float incongruously through the desert, leaving wakes of dust instead of water.
It's an ill wind that blows nobody good, and the same could be said of landslides. The February slide that took out a chunk of U.S. 89 has left N21 through Kaibeto the shortest route to Page and Lake Powell, at least if you don't have four-wheel-drive. And the BIA, with help from the Navajo Engineering Construction Authority, is finally slapping some pavement on the problematic 10-mile stretch that floods every year, leaving residents spinning their wheels in slippery red clay.
The pavement is welcome here, but the traffic is not. The latest local pastime is grousing about it. For some reason, it has not occurred to all these people sitting here selling stuff that they could throw a net across this steady stream of tourists.
Nobody has even employed the second-grade lemonade stand trick of putting up a sign.
"Flea market today!" it could say. "Authentic Navajo food and crafts!"
Occasionally, tourists do stop, Fowler says - "the more adventurous ones." "They don't usually try the mutton," he says. "They stick with the Navajo burgers and Navajo tacos."
Mutton is an acquired taste, certainly, but today Fowler is slinging some savory squash-and-corn stew that would appeal even to delicate bilagáana tastebuds. Yet, across the street, an Anglo couple hunkers in the shade of a cottonwood, miserably munching on something out of a cooler.
Fowler does not approach them with a sample of his delicious, reasonably priced wares, and nobody is informing them that if they would but stroll through the flea market, they would find the same pots and necklaces they are about to pay three times as much for in Page.
The Flight of Corbell
Perhaps it's this lackadaisical attitude toward business that drove off Peter Corbell.
To hear the townsfolk tell it, the legendary chapter manager could do everything but walk on water. Alas, he allegedly stormed off in a huff a few weeks ago, unable to get his fellow Kaibetoans to catch his vision for the chapter. Nobody has heard from him since.
"Peter Corbell did so much for this chapter," sighs Chapter Secretary-Treasurer Yolanda Ellis, shaking her head. "We already miss him."
Part of Corbell's legacy is the youth center he created out of a defunct Laundromat, with donated books, furniture, computers and and games. Ellis thinks it explains why there's so little graffiti in the chapter: the youth have a place to go and feel cared for.
After spending the day in this beautiful chapter of soaring white mesas, candy-striped rock pillars and shady washes, however, you can sympathize with the locals wanting to keep it to themselves. This is a place with a long history as a bedroom community.
Today, many Kaibetoans commute 45 miles to work at the Navajo Generating Station or the coal mine that feeds it (you won't find too many environmentalists around here clamoring to shut it down). Before that, the men of Kaibeto helped build Glen Canyon Dam, gritting their teeth and trying not to think about the fact that the canyon that hid their ancestors from Kit Carson would soon be under 100 feet of water.
While the Kaibetoans' business sense may be questionable, their work ethic is not. The red sand yards of the NHA developments are freshly raked and weeded, with flowers planted in the front and vegetables in back.
"We're really into gardening here," says Navajo Times reporter Krista Allen, who hails from this enviable place. "Maybe it's because we had to grow our own food while we were hiding from the Long Walk."
Eluding the Long Walk is a source of pride in these parts, but Adolf June, former Council delegate and chapter president and the town's resident historian, cautions against putting too much credence in that old chestnut.
The Tourist Dilemma
"Some people did go," he says. "We have stories both about hiding out and about the Long Walk itself."
June has written a detailed history of Kaibeto, and is currently working on a book of "poem-stories" illustrated with his own photographs.
He can tell you all about local history - the discovery of the K'ai bii To, the spring filled with willows that first attracted people to this spot in the 1840s; the fact that Kaibeto was once a thriving regional headquarters for the BIA; the trading post started by the Richardson brothers and now run by the Pattersons; the Mormon pioneers who crossed through here on their way to found Tuba City; the strong leaders produced here like former Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye (now the chapter president) and Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler.
But, at 70, June is hardly stuck in the past. He's in the Corbell camp and would like to see the chapter develop.
"Antelope Canyon (in LeChee Chapter) is thriving," he says. "We have scenery like that here. We could have plenty of tourism."
So why don't they?
"Every time somebody brings it up," June says, "people say, 'We don't want a bunch of bilagáanas roaming around out there! What if they're carrying rifles?'"
It could be obstructionism. Or is it genetic memory? After all, a healthy fear of rifle-toting bilagáanas is what saved this band of Navajos 150 years ago.
Kaibeto at a Glance
Population - about 4,000
Land area - 234,795 acres
History - According to oral histories gathered by Adolf June, the community was founded in the 1840s by a man known as Keshkoli ("Injured Foot"). It was he who named K'ai bii To ("Willows within the Water"), a beautiful spring that still flows, although not as heavily, today. Many people from this area escaped the Long Walk by hiding out in the canyon of the Colorado River now flooded by Lake Powell. Although Kaibeto was awfully remote before U.S. 98 was completed in the 1970s, it was on the route of the Mormon pioneers and has continuously had both a trading post and a school since shortly after the turn of the previous century.
Assets - Gorgeous scenery, a nice youth center, and, hopefully by this time next year, an independent living center for mobile seniors - which will be the first of its kind on the reservation. A committee comprised of chapter officials, health and geriatrics professionals, the Navajo Housing Authority and community members is steering the planning.
Problems - Illegal dumping. The chapter recently started charging for the use of the transfer station, which triggered a retaliatory measure called the "Free our Trash" campaign - but the chapter officials are having none of it. "We are encouraging people to report it when they see people dumping," said Secretary-Treasurer Yolanda Ellis, "and we will turn them over to the Navajo EPA." They are, however, trying to work with the fee protestors by considering adding more bins and weekend hours
Famous sons and daughters - Former Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye (now the chapter president), Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler