Becoming a hub
Taking advantage of its location, Whippoorwill draws public offices
(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 106th in the series. Some information for this series is taken from the publication “Chapter Images” by Larry Rodgers. For the full series, view the Chapter Series Archive here.)
WHIPPOORWILL SPRING, Ariz.
On your way from Chinle to Pinon on the recently repaved N4, you will come across a broad, flat valley surrounded by low, rocky mesas, bisected by a big wash.
The Anasazis settled here, building forts and dwellings on the mesa tops and farming the floodplain below. Later, the migratory Diné discovered it was a great place to graze their sheep during the monsoon, when sheets of runoff flowed down the mesas to water the grass below.
Herds of sheep, cattle and horses still graze here, but today, Whippoorwill Chapter is taking a different economic tack. It wants to become a hub for government offices.
It makes sense: caressed by Blue Gap/Tachee to the north and Low Mountain to the south, this little chapter is also less than an hour from Chinle, Pi–on, Tselani/Cottonwood, Jeddito, Hard Rock, Forest Lake and Black Mesa. It’s at the intersection of two paved roads — N4 and N60. And it has some vacant buildings that can easily be fixed up into office space.
“We’re in a position,” said Community Services Coordinator Edgerton Gene, “to bring services to people who really need them.”
Whippoorwill already has a Regional Business Development Office and is the top pick for an administrative service center under the tribe’s new decentralization plan. It has a Head Start and a new judicial district, and according to Gene is the logical place for the next IHS clinic.
The chapter is angling for certification either at the end of this month or the beginning of October, which will give it more power to negotiate directly with government entities — and, hopefully, some taxable for-profit businesses too.
But for now Whippoorwill, named for a spring halfway up one of the mesas, is still a sleepy place, where the little nighthawks still dive after bugs in the twilight, piercing the calm with their namesake call.
“If you stay,” said Gene, “you will hear them.”
Ironically, this broad valley may have been a kinder place to live for the Anasazi and early Navajo than it is now. Because they didn’t have cars.
“The schools around here don’t do well on standardized tests,” said Gene, “and I’ve always wondered if it’s because the kids miss so much school.”
The deep grey dust of the central plain turns to slippery clay at the merest hint of rain.
“When it starts raining,” Gene said, “the schools send the kids home immediately. Otherwise, they may not make it.”
Another thing that happens is the veins of washes that feed into the large central wash fill up and erode the roads. About 9 years ago, the central wash flooded, washing away the dirt road that crossed it and the four six-foot-wide culverts like they were pieces of macaroni. You can see them still, one of them embedded in the dirt like a miniature quonset hut, used by sheep and goats for shade and shelter.
The road now goes down into the wash and back up, and the locals know not to attempt it when it’s raining.
But slowly but surely, the chapter is taming its treacherous roads with red dog gravel, and along with Low Mountain Chapter, is negotiating with the Hopis an agreement to pave N60 all the way to Polacca.
Lost in partition
Speaking of the Hopis, this is a chapter that lost some land in the Navajo-Hopi Land Partition, or more accurately, Pi–on Chapter lost the land when Whippoorwill was part of the larger chapter, before 1979.
Some of those who moved from the Hopi Partitioned Land were given new homes within the chapter. Five families stayed on Hopi land under an accommodation agreement.
“About 20 percent of our population is relocatees,” Gene said.
While it was a hard time in the community’s history, it was also a time when people labored together to help folks resettle, according to Gene.
And that community spirit is still alive here.
“This really is a place where people help each other,” she said, and she wants the chapter to reflect that.
“I tell the staff, ‘I don’t want anyone to leave this chapter house without being helped,'” she said.
The elders are especially valued here. The area is renowned for its medicine men, both old and young, and some good NAC roadmen.
For a while, Whippoorwill was being lauded for its proactive approach to elder care. It had set aside several acres for an elder group home and individual octagon units for senior housing, developed by a nonprofit called Hoosh Dooh Dii To’ Development Inc. (the Navajo word for Whippoorwill Spring).
Today, the group home sits empty and several of the octagons are vacant and falling into disrepair.
Hoosh Dooh Dii To’ CEO Albert Wartz said the group home was being leased by Toyei Industries until two years ago, when a water pipe burst and damaged the walls. The company is waiting on an allocation from the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation to repair the damage, and also seeking funding to renovate the octagons.
On the plus side, the chapter has allocated and fenced off land for a landfill. About 80 percent of the population has running water and electricity, and the road improvement project is continuing. About 20 houses in the Navajo Housing Authority development are being renovated, and the senior citizens center is thriving, along with the veterans’ organization.
And if you want to get away from all this excitement, there’s always the Hoosh Dooh Dii To’, high on the mesa, echoing with the lonely cry of the whippoorwills.