Cornfields community tackles top priorities of infrastructure, creating businesses

By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times

CORNFIELDS, Ariz., January 24, 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 19th in the series.

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G rowing up, there were many cornfields," reminisced Fran Noble, lifelong Cornfields resident and current administrator with Annie Wauneka Life Care, Inc about her home chapter.

"Everybody there had a cornfield," she continued. "When I was young I just remember the cornfields along the wash and the corn was so high. My grandma had her own cornfield right near her house and my mom plants to this day, there used to be water in the wash all the time, now you drive by and it's just bushes now."

The lush cornfields from which Cornfields Chapter gets its name are no longer present.

A persistent and thorough drought, along with the changing lifestyles of the people, have seen to that, but the name and memories of its past are easily recalled by locals.

That agricultural heritage is best represented by the giant mural, which takes up an entire wall on the inside of the chapter house depicting the tall corn of Noble's childhood, as well as watermelons, squash and water flowing freely.

"Cornfields is a place to harvest," Noble continued, "in the soil there, anything can grow. Where I used to live at my grandma's right across the wash we used to have peaches back there.

"When it would rain, in the wash, the peaches would be flowing in the water right by our house."

Today there are still 80 acres the chapter set aside for farming, but no one takes advantage. The Little Colorado River Wash used to flow regularly near the chapter, but the heavy snows of the winter and lack of rainfall during the summer, have effectively turned it off.

Jimmy Taliman, a chapter official for 18 years and the current vice-president, explained that Cornfields got its name soon after the Bureau of Indian Affairs showed up.

"Way back, some time before I was born, that's when the BIA said, 'Here's the tools and start working together," the 74-year-old recalled. "That's how Cornfields got its name. The BIA told the people to start planting.

"There was no corn before that, just rabbitbrush. After the BIA came they start cleaning up and cleared it out and told them this is where your corn is going to be."

The Rabbitbrush community

At that time the area was named after the area's most prominent plant, rabbitbrush - a thick green bush that blossoms yellow in the spring and summer.

"People were there well before the Long Walk," Taliman continued about the history of the area. "Some from Cornfields tried to hide in the San Francisco Peaks. Some escaped to Big Mountain or Canyon de Chelly, but upon their return they were given a certain amount of sheep and an area to graze."

Many fixtures of life in Cornfields are now gone.

The Day School, which Taliman and Cecelia White, a lifelong Cornfields resident and retired social worker for the Navajo Nation, both recalled either walking to or riding to on horseback.

The Sunrise Trading Post is a broken down shell along the highway about five miles from the chapter house. The Presbyterian Church near the chapter is no longer active, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has moved to a permanent home in Ganado, some 20 miles from Cornfields.

Cornfields is far from deteriorating or fading into the distant past, however.

A small, yet busy chapter

Their tiny, but tireless chapter manager Elizabeth Johnson wouldn't allow that.

"For a small chapter we are really busy," said Johnson. "We work with our community too. We try to help them realize their potential. We try to get them involved. We actually try to accomplish our goals of providing for the people."

Indeed, Cornfields chapter offers a variety of services to their residents and surrounding chapters. The chapter buys and sells truckloads of hay and firewood.

They have a barn with over 600 bales, and a shed with dozens of truckloads of wood. It also has renovated and added on to the Head Start center.

The chapter sells drinking water and livestock water, had a cell phone tower completed in 2009, will have your trash hauled away for a small fee, has three modern computers and a printer freely available, and a free Wi-Fi signal you can use while washing your clothes at the chapter's Laundromat.

The basics however, weren't the top priority for Johnson.

Top priorities

Infrastructure was and the chapter is making big strides there as well.

Johnson estimates only 40 percent of Cornfields residents had electricity four years ago. Today the number is nearly 70 percent. A project, in conjunction with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, allowed installation of over 20 miles of power lines to Cornfields' most northern residents on top of the mesa at the base of Navajo Route 15.

It was completed in 2011 and brought electricity to 33 homes.

The chapter received more funding in July to bring electricity in two phases to 29 more homes with construction to begin next month. The pile of poles is already stacked near the chapter house.

Next on the priority list is business.

Taliman explained the way of life in Cornfields is changing. Youth want jobs, and not to be sheepherders either, he said, and the chapter is doing what it can to provide.

Taliman's vision for business includes a gas station and auto parts store. He also hopes for a hotel and restaurant to attract tourists and allow the nearby Ganado Pavilion to host weekend-long tournaments.

He has worked to help withdraw land for all these possible ventures.

The chapter received its Local Governance Act Certification under Johnson's careful watch in 2010. Chapter officials are actively looking to develop business along that 18-mile strip of N-15.

They have negotiated a contract with a Phoenix consulting firm to help them, but it's been a year since the Navajo Nation has formally approved it.

"The central government really needs to let us go," Johnson said about feeling held back in the attempts to develop the local economy.

He added with a laugh, "But at the same time the Gallup Independent makes it sound like there's a lot of chapters abusing their funds. I don't know how much of that is going on but it's not going on here."

Johnson opened up a large folder and pointed to just one tab inside it, at least an inch thick. It was the chapter's monthly financial report, completed by Johnson's account tech, required by the tribe each month. That's over a foot of paperwork each year for financial reporting alone.

Group home largest business

Currently, The Annie Wauneka Life Care, Inc. is the chapter's biggest business. AWLC is a group home where adults with developmental disabilities receive services 24/7. There are only five other sites like it on the Navajo Nation, and none located right next to a chapter house.

The Cornfields location has been in operation since 1999 until the facility was torn down in October 2011 in order to build a brand new facility.

"The new building is 66 percent complete," explained Noble. "Construction stopped now because the contractor hired by NHA (Navajo Housing Authority) ran out of money, so it is temporarily on freeze. It was supposed to be finished May of 2012."

The residents of the Cornfields facility are currently being served in the NHA housing near the Cornfields chapter, while waiting on completion.

"NHA used to have monthly meetings with us on activities about construction progress," Noble continued. "But since this happened the meetings ceased. That's where we're at – limbo, just doing a lot of prayers."

Regardless of the obstacles, changing times and changing weather Cornfields carries on for its people.

Cecelia White volunteers for three different chapter organizations now that she's retired from social work.

She's actively involved in obtaining funding for a large multi-purpose building that will house a senior center and youth center. Funding was promised from a non-profit called "World Harvest", but has yet to come. She is undaunted, however.

"I really wish they could have seen what we have now – the improvements that we've made," said White of the elders she knew as a girl. "We are more advanced than other chapters. We try to provide services to people in other areas, expand our laundry and showers.

"People from surrounding areas come to get hay and water. We're not stingy. We're trying to help out. That's one reason I'm proud to say I'm from here."

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