The orphan on the checkerboard

The largest Eastern chapter contemplates its next move

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

HUERFANO, N.M., April 9, 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 32nd in the series.)

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(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

TOP: Map

SECOND FROM TOP: Huerfano Chapter's community services coordinator, Larry Bonney, walks into the lunar landscape of the Bisti Badlands. The area was used as a set in the "Star Wars" trilogy.

I f you were dropped by helicopter onto the Huerfano Chapter compound, you would think this massive chapter had everything it needs ... a spacious youth center with areas for sports and study, a nicely maintained 1990 chapter house, a senior center, a picturesque stone trading post.

But trying to drive around Huerfano, or Hanaa'dli (Water Coming Up) in Navajo, is another matter.

"You definitely need a truck," said Community Services Coordinator Larry Bonney.

Even the road to the chapter house is kidney-jarring.

There's a reason for that. Out here, even a short road can cross up to seven different kinds of land: tribal trust, fee, BLM, allotment, state, private and acreage withdrawn under Executive Order 2198.

A map of the chapter, with the different designations of land represented by different colors, looks like a crazy quilt.

"At least we don't have the railroad or the Forest Service," Bonney quipped.

But the fact of the matter is, any sort of road construction, even paving an existing road, involves a dizzying array of clearances and paperwork. If one landowner protests, there goes the road.

But while it may lack pavement, this rural chapter south of Farmington has something no other chapter does: Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle, "Revolving Mountain," one of the most sacred places on the Navajo Nation.

It was here that, according to tradition, First Man and First Woman discovered the foundling who would become the deity Changing Woman.

In Spanish the mountain is Huerfano, "Orphan," not for the foundling Changing Woman but for the peak's lone status - but don't try to pronounce it in correct Spanish, or nobody here will understand you. Out here it's "HER-fa-no," not "WEHR-fa-no."

Visually, the mountain is not all that impressive. It's more of a low mesa, and these days, it bristles with communication towers. But part of the mesa top is still reserved for those who revere it and come to pray, and can only be accessed with a permit from the BLM.

Huerfano Chapter also boasts the Bisti Wilderness, a maze of sculpted stone spires so otherworldly it was a set for the "Star Wars" movies.

The Bisti (that's Bist-EYE to you if you don't want to be recognized as a tourist) is a draw for adventurous tourists who don't mind parking their cars ... motor vehicles of any kind are not allowed. According to Bonney, the BLM is planning to develop some horseback trails.

Huerfano is the gateway to so many attractions - Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle, historic Dinétah to the north, Bisti to the south, Chaco Canyon to the southwest - that it really needs a roadside visitors' center, and that's exactly what the current administration is looking into, along with a Laundromat and a convenience store, which seem to be on the wish list for every rural chapter.

The chapter does sport 15 churches, two BIE boarding schools, a clinic, and at 90 square miles it's so large it hosts two land boards, two fire stations and two transfer stations.

It also has a lovely three-year-old police substation built by San Juan County that, unfortunately, has never been fully utilized despite pleas from Huerfano and surrounding chapters.

"As of the last meeting we had, the Navajo Nation refused to fund it," Bonney said. (It should be noted Police Capt. Steven Nelson, head of the Navajo Nation Police in Eastern Agency, believes the police are doing their best to staff it; see accompanying story.)

This huge land mass boasts 3,000 people organized into eight communities: Carson, Adobe, Gallegos, Bisti, Huerfano, Otis, Blanco and Jacquez. Huerfano Chapter also oversees some grazing allotments at Hogback.

This is ranching country from way back, but these days a lot of the ranchers have switched from sheep to cattle, or quit altogether to take jobs with Arizona Public Service, BHP Billiton, or the service sector in nearby Farmington.

About 90 percent of Huerfano's population has electrical power, and two water and power line projects are in progress to bring utilities to Bisti and Otis. Homes here tend to be spread out, and it's hard to convince Navajo Tribal Utility Authority or the Indian Health Service to invest in a power or water line that serves so few.

Coversely, however, "we need the infrastructure to attract more people to move back here," Bonney sighed.

Part of the chapter is served by the small Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, whose grid, according to Bonney, is maddeningly susceptible to power surges and blackouts.

"I've gone through three computers this year," he complained.

Rosemary Law, acting general manager at Jemez, said the company is working to correct the problems, some of which are due to outdated transformers at Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School.

"We're working with them to update their equipment," she said, noting the cooperative is a tiny company with "miles and miles" of line to patrol.

Sacred Wind has established broadband Internet and cell phone service, for which, Bonney says, the chapter is eternally grateful as it's attracting both young people and retirees to move back.

Huerfano is one of the few Navajo Nation chapters actually gaining population, although the checkerboarding leads to long waits for a homesite lease.

The chapter is working at getting certified so it can streamline the process.

Another feature of Huerfano the visitor can't help but notice is the proliferation of oil and gas wells. With this abundance of fossil fuel, the chapter should be rich, but not a penny goes to Huerfano itself, Bonney explained. If the wells are on allotted land, the allottees get the royalties; if they're on BLM land, it's the federal government and if they're on tribal land, it's the tribe.

Another way the chapter feels cheated is politically. Although Navajo Nation Council delegate Danny Simpson is originally from Huerfano, the chapter has to share him with seven other chapters since the Council was reduced from 88 members to 24.

"We really feel like we lost our voice," Bonney said. "We'd like to see (the Council) back up to at least 48."

If another Council seat or two are added, Huerfano will be well prepared to field some candidates. With San Juan Community College, Fort Lewis College, Diné College and several branches of state colleges within driving distance, many residents boast college degrees or at least some attendance.

If the chapter can set aside some land for business, Bonney has no doubt some enterprising Huerfanoans will fill the void.

That said, he hopes the chapter doesn't boom too much.

"I grew up in Albuquerque," he said, "but since I've been back here, I can't stay there for more than two days. I miss the peace and quiet."

Huerfano at a glance

Name: Spanish for "orphan," after the lone mesa Navajos know as Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle ("Revolving Mountain"). Navajos know this area as Hanaa'dli, "Water Coming Up," after some springs in a wash. If you want to sound like a local, shorten the name "Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle" to "DZ."

History: This is a very old Navajo settlement, just south of the original Dinétah, where evidence of Navajo habitation dates back to at least 1500 A.D. There is a surprising lack of Anasazi evidence although it's not far from the famous ruins of Chaco Canyon.

Population: About 3,000, distributed among eight communities

Land area: The largest chapter in Eastern Agency at 90 square miles

Attractions: Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle, the Bisti Badlands

Assets: gas and oil, tourist potential along U.S. Highway 550, proximity to Farmington

Problems: Heavily checkerboarded, the chapter includes seven different kinds of land. The local electrical grid is subject to power surges and outages.

Major clans: To'Aheedlíinii, Bit'ahnii, Naashaashí, Tó Dích'íinii, 'Áshiihí, Kin Yaa'áanii, Hooghan Lání, Nakaii Diné.

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