Aspiring to greatness

Over the years, Church Rock has boomed and busted. Could it rise again?

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHURCH ROCK, N.M., January 3, 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 16th in the series.)

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O f all the Eastern Navajo chapters, Church Rock may have the highest potential for development.

It has a high, relatively densely packed population (1,983 according to the 2010 census, although chapter officials estimate it might be 1,000 more than that).

It's adjacent to Interstate 40, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and the town of Gallup.

Red Rock Park, which hosts the annual Inter-Tribal Ceremonial, is located within the chapter, as is Pyramid Peak, a popular hiking spot.

And — although the topic is still something of an open sore around these parts — it's rich in uranium.

One Church Rock resident who wouldn't mind seeing the return of uranium mining — at least the in-situ leach mining being proposed by Hydro Resources Inc. — is Chapter President Johnnie Henry.

"People are going to jump on me for saying this," Henry predicted, "but I believe it, so I'm going to say it: We need uranium mining to come back."

Henry has as much reason to hate uranium mining as anybody. A former uranium miner, he saw many of his colleagues come down with respiratory ailments. And he's old enough to remember the morning of July 16, 1979, when a dam burst at a tailing pond in Church Rock, sending more than 1,100 tons of radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco.

The uranium legacy, Henry said, gives Church Rock residents plenty of reason to educate themselves and make sure they take a careful look at any company that sticks its foot back in the door.

"This uranium isn't something to play with," Henry said.

At the same time, "We're tired of walking around begging for money," he said. "We want to stand on our own two feet. We've been looking backward our whole lives. Time to look ahead."

Henry also believes companies like HRI are the best hope for cleaning up the mess left by the last wave of uranium mining in the 1970s.

"We can sit around and wait for the government to do it," he said. "We're a Superfund site, and they've just barely started. Or we can work with these companies that want to come in. They know about dealing with uranium. They've already said they'll help us clean it up."

While the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining in 2005, a federal appellate court in 2010 upheld HRI's right to mine on private land within the Navajo Nation.

However, last July HRI agreed to consent to Navajo Nation jurisdiction as part of a settlement of a 2011 trespassing charge. The future of its uranium claims is still unclear, but Henry says he believes a majority of Churchrock Chapter members support HRI's plan, which the company says would create about 65 jobs.

"There are people who want us to go back to horse-and-buggy days," he said, "but most of them are not part of this chapter."

Eggs in different baskets

But unlike in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when Church Rock hitched its horse exclusively to the uranium buggy and was left holding the reins after the crash of the 1980s, Henry wants to develop a diversified economy for Church Rock. The chapter is negotiating with an amusement park company, he revealed, and wants to create a permanent marketplace for its many artisans so they won't have to sell in Gallup.

"Church Rock is an axle of development," Henry declared. "There's no reason we shouldn't have our own shopping center, our own gas station, laundry, community center...that's what we're looking at, to be a real, thriving community instead of someplace where everybody just goes to Gallup."

Chapter Secretary Louise Jim and Accounts Maintenance Specialist Deeanna Washee said they're on board with Henry's vision and are working hard to get the chapter's ducks in a row for certification.

"We actually have several businesses located on our chapter," Jim said, "but we can't tax them because we're not certified."

The chapter has also been diligently pursuing state, county and tribal funds for infrastructure projects, and is in the process of developing a water line that could have an equestrian and walking trail along the right-of-way.

Unlike many chapters, "Our population is increasing and we work hard to get services to everybody," Jim said.

Church Rock is also looking forward to getting its share of revenue from Fire Rock Casino, which opened in 2008.

"We were promised five percent (of the revenues)," Jim said, "but we haven't seen it yet."

The casino hasn't brought the range of social ills some predicted, but it has brought safety issues.

"People walk across the road to get to the casino, and get hit," Washee explained. "We've been asking for street lights and caution signs."

A police substation would also be nice, Jim added, and a fire station.

Showing the beauty

It's easy, noted Henry's daughter, Albuquerque filmmaker Melissa Henry, to focus on what Church Rock doesn't have.

"It's a place with a lot of problems, some things that aren't very pleasant," she conceded, "but there are also very beautiful things."

Melissa's two most recent short films, "Horse You See" and "Run Red Walk," were filmed in her home chapter and include landmarks like Pyramid Peak.

"I wanted to show the natural things that make our community shine," she said.

Even for her present project, an animated short titled "A History of Navajo Wool: As Told by Baa Baa," "I've been out there looking at rock layers," Melissa said. "I want to match the paint (in the animated scenes) to the colors in the rock."

Her dad believes the natural beauty of the chapter could draw hikers, equestrians and backpackers, and would like to eventually establish a whole network of trails.

Beautification is definitely part of the elder Henry's platform as well.

On the drawing board for this coming year is a senior citizens center, courtesy of the New Mexico Area Institute on Aging, so the seniors don't have to lunch in the chapter house.

The chapter house, too, is about 50 years old and due for renovation or replacement, and Johnnie Henry, who was recently re-elected, said he'd like to make the chapter's crumbling roads a priority for his next term.

Church Rock is also closely eyeing the negotiations between the tribe and Zuni Pueblo over Fort Wingate on the other side of I-40. The federal government wants to return the property to the tribes, but they must first hammer out a way to divide the land.

(Johnnie Henry, whose chapter stands to inherit a good chunk of the old Army depot, is a bit dismissive of Zuni's claims to the property. "If you ask any of the Navajo families who used to live out there," he says, "they never saw a Zuni.")

So there's a lot going on under the stone steeple of Church Rock, which the locals prefer to call Tsé Ii'ahi (Standing Rock). Does the new year herald a new era for the people under the rock?

There's no clock on the steeple of stone, but time will tell.

Churchrock Chapter a Glance

Name — The iconic rock formation behind the town resembles a church steeple, but the locals call it Tsé Ii' ahi ("Standing Rock"). The Navajo name for this area, Kin Litsoh Sinili ("Group of Yellow Houses") refers to housing built for workers at Fort Wingate during World War II. An older name for the settlement at the foot of the sandstone cliffs is Tsé Daats' T'ehzi ("Fire Rocks" or "Cooking Rocks"). A rock layer in the cliff was quarried for stones that did not crack under high heat, so they could be used for cooking. The Navajo Nation's first casino borrowed the name.

History — The valley of the Rio Puerco has seen human habitation for about 5,000 years, but the modern town of Church Rock had its origins as a bedroom community for the Army depot at Ft. Wingate, which employed hundreds of Navajos to build munitions bunkers and later to destroy surplus ammunition.

Population — 1,983 at the 2010 Census, although chapter officials estimate it closer to 2,900, pointing out there are more than 1,600 registered voters

Land area — 57,827 acres

Assets — Adjacent to the town of Gallup, Interstate 40, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. The chapter includes a state park, several sites associated with traditional ceremonies and Pyramid Peak, a popular hiking destination.

Issues — Flooding in the low-lying portions of the chapter is a perennial problem. Uranium mines shut down in the 1980s but underwent little or no remediation, leaving piles of radioactive dust that blow around in the wind. The U.S. EPA recently cleaned up an area where homes are located. Increased traffic since Fire Rock Casino was built has resulted in several tragic auto-pedestrian accidents.

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