The simple lesson of piñon pickingBy Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times
April 16, 2013
In an annual trek from their hogan north of Fort Defiance to nearby hills full of trees with the season's crop, grandpa always asked permission from the local land users to pick in their area.
The family – grandpa, grandma and the children – picked from morning to evening. When grandpa decided they had enough, he thanked the local family by giving them a sack. He took the rest to the trading post in Fort Defiance where he exchanged them for groceries, other necessities and – most significant to my mother – pairs of shoes for the children.
In those days, anything, like an orange or an apple, was a treat, she said, and new shoes were special.
The wisdom and practicality of our maternal grandpa, Ashii Benally, helped his family survive difficult economic times as the entire country emerged from the Great Depression. He was practical about everything, from planting and cultivating corn, squash and hay to caring for his animals in a way that earned their devotion.
One particular year – mom did not say which – there was a big snow and it was so deep that livestock were stranded. Grandpa, as he did each year, had stockpiled hay for the winter.
Hearing that livestock owners in the area needed feed for their animals, he invited the community to take a share. Wagons were lined up at his barn, mom said, and each left with a load.
Like any Navajo homestead, grandpa always had a good supply of wood piled a short distance from the hogan. Most of the family's food came from their garden and grandpa's fields next to Black Creek. A well was located three-quarters of a mile to the northwest at the foot of the hills that build up to the Defiance Plateau and the flat land of timber where Sawmill is today.
I remember visiting the hogan at a young age one winter. Inside the snug hogan a fire crackled. In a wide, flat, screened box next to the fire, anywhere from 10 to 20 chicken chicks chirped and milled about.
Those chicks, like the piñons, corn, squash and hay, were investments grandpa made for the benefit of the family. The sheep, goats, horses and chickens were also investments for the family in the tradition of the old ways that have served the people since time began.
Today, with the whirlwind of events within and around us, the need for stewardship is stronger than ever.
In Washington, the values and principles that gave the United States a strong foundation are being ignored in favor of partisan politics. The result is gridlock, pandemonium on the front pages of newspapers and mindless chatter on the Internet.
For the Navajo Nation, where are the wise patriarchs? Where is the strength and vision of the matriarchs as our elected leaders ponder major questions and issues?
Earlier this year, a staffer at the Navajo Times, where I served as editor from 2000 to 2012, said an official in one of the Window Rock offices commented that he didn't know I "felt that way," referring to opinion columns I have written for the Times that have been critical of or poked fun at our elected leaders.
His comment is disingenuous because ever since I joined the Times in 1980 there was always friction and tension between the newspaper and the folks on the hill in Window Rock.
Past leaders and councils usually disagreed with what we published, they disliked the context, huffed with anger, wanted us to focus only on "positive" news and some wayward types even talked about selling the Navajo people's newspaper, as if that would produce the kind of news coverage they wanted.
The Navajo Times, like Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, Diné College, Navajo Technical College, the other tribal enterprises, our water and coal, and our youth and all the other people, are among the piñons of today. Each is a resource worthy of wise stewardship.
Whether you like the casinos or not, they have seen some success even though Fire Rock's appears to be built on the backs of the Navajo people. Every first of the month, Navajos fill the place.
When you observe these crowds, you can't help but think that many are using government assistance to gamble rather than for groceries or other purposes for which the funds were intended. Should steps be taken to curb this or does it fall under the category of individual choice?
Regarding stewardship, are the proper courses of action being devised to deal with the conundrums of power plants, mining, water rights and jobs?
The memory of grandpa bringing his bags of piñons to the trading post to acquire goods to help his family recalls a simpler time of humility and purpose, practicality, foresight and compassion.
With so many major questions facing the Navajo Nation family, a return to such values and principles should form the basis for all our future decisions.