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Douglas Mesa elder finds warmth in new home

Navajo Times | Sharon Chischilly
Lena Salt, 82, smiles in the middle of her old makeshift-shack Tuesday afternoon north of Monument Valley in Utah. Salt lived in a family-made hut for the past year after her mobile home burned down in a fire with an unknown cause.

DOUGLAS MESA, Utah

Miles away from the Monument Valley highway, tucked inside the Douglas Mesa community, lives 82-year-old Lena Salt. The road to her home is paved with asphalt most of the way. However, the road turns to dirt that collects onto tires like stickers.

Salt lived in a makeshift shack for the past year after her mobile home burned down in a fire with an unknown cause. CEO of Utah Navajo Health System, Mike Jensen, constructed the new home with the help of his workers who worked on the house during their time.

Construction outside the home was completed Dec. 19, according to Byron Clark, COO of Utah Navajo Health System. Salt moved into her home the next day.

Salt is Táchii’nii and born for Honágháahnii. Her cheii is Tódích’íi’nii and her nálí is Tłízíłání.

Basics for new home

While most of the construction is nearly completed inside her home, Salt needs to have her electricity hooked up so she can cook with her new electric stove. In addition, Salt’s compostable toilet, powered by electricity and not water, has yet to arrive at her homestead for her to use. Salt uses an outhouse approximately 40 feet away from her new home.

The road to Salt’s home is winding and smooth as the road is paved with asphalt for part of the way and a dirt road for the rest of the way. Dust puffs into the air as the black tires lay themselves onto the road every few seconds.

After the turnoff to her home, her house comes into view straightaway. The peach-colored paint of her home blends in with the peach color of the dirt in front of her house. The door is decorated with two outside lights, one with a red and white-checkered Christmas bow.

Inside her home, the aroma of burning wood envelops the atmosphere, and the fire’s warmth spreads throughout the house. Salt sits on her futon covered with several Native-designed blankets, sitting upright without her back touching the couch cushion directly behind her.

Additionally, the house is surrounded by new items to make Salt more comfortable and make the empty building more of a home. The floor is stained red with bricks across the bottom of the house. In the corners sit a radio, a kitchen table, and an electric stove that has yet to be hooked up.

Finding warmth

A translator collected the following information:

Since the finishing of the inside of her home, Salt has been living in it, spending her nights warm next to her new firewood stove. She says the stove and the house are an improvement from her old one.

When she lived in her shack, she would have to wake up to place more firewood inside her stove constantly, and she was never fully warm.

However, Salt now enjoys the comforts of a home and does crafts, such as making sweaters and other activities. According to Salt, her family visits her very often, and she communicates with them via cell phone.

When she looks back at the old home, she remembers all the cold nights she spent inside it. She remembers when she had to wake up frequently to put pieces of wood into her stove and when she had to use five blankets to find any trace of warmth.

She tries not to think about the old home and wants to focus on the future and the potential of her home.

“It was not cold on my first night,” Salt said. “It was actually hot. At my old home, it was really cold, but here in my new home, it’s really hot. Sometimes, when it was too cold, I would stay at my nearby neighbor’s house for a couple of nights.”

She says that most nights, she has to open the windows because it gets too hot in her home.

Salt used to work at the local school before the pandemic as a mentor for the children there. She would work as a teacher aide and help instruct the children, teaching them more about the Navajo culture.

She would hitchhike or take the bus when she went to work in the mornings. Often, Salt would arrive at school before the other staff with vehicles and prepare coffee for them.

The coffee would fully brew before all of the other staff would arrive.

With the teacher, Salt would teach the children about their clans, how to speak the Navajo language, and the different customs of the culture. However, after a few years, funding decreased for this program, and Salt and the other helpers were laid off due to the loss of funding.

“My role at the school was to mentor the young kids, and I would inspire them to speak the Navajo Language,” Salt said. “I would also teach the young children not to act out or be defiant to their teachers.”

Since then, Salt has relied on Social Security checks and other aid forms to buy her groceries, such as food and wood, to heat her home.

Additionally, when Salt hitchhikes to get more groceries or her mail from the local post office, she finds that the same people always pick her up. She will get picked up by the time she reaches the turnoff for the highway.

“My neighbors on the north side will not pick me up when they see me. They will not stop even when they see me waving at them,” Salt said. “Because of COVID-19, I think a lot of people are scared to pick me up.”

This is the end of the translation.

Resolution for elders

According to Chapter President Willis Begay, the Oljato Chapter is working on a resolution to help elders like Salt who are experiencing similar situations. Chapter officials will meet to discuss the resolution and similar topics Jan. 20, 2023.

However, the resolution process is slow, as the Oljato Chapter needs to be recertified to help these elders. In addition, the elders need to be registered to vote with the chapter to receive aid.

Additionally, the news of Salt’s home being constructed became controversial for Begay and the other Oljato Chapter officials after a news article about the topic was published in the Navajo Times.

Suddenly, Begay began to receive calls from concerned community members asking why they could not get a house like Salt from the chapter. Begay explained to every caller that the chapter is no longer certified and therefore has no funds to build homes on the Arizona side of the chapter.

However, on the Utah side of the chapter, funding from the Utah Navajo Health System can be used to build homes, which was used to build Salt’s home. Begay says that with the chapter recertified, they will be able to help more people with similar situations to Salt’s.

In addition, the Utah Navajo Health System, according to Manager Logan Monson, provided money for supplies and additionally provided donations such as food, clothing, and wood.


About The Author

Jalen Woody

Jalen Woody is a 2022-23 staff reporting intern for the Navajo Times.

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