Land of giants and eagles

Indian Wells is an oversized sculpture garden

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

INDIAN WELLS, Ariz., April 16, 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 34th in the series.)

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(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

TOP: map

SECOND FROM TOP: Gorilla Head and Twin Peak are just two of the iconic rock formations that guard Indian Wells Chapter. They are part of the Hopi Buttes Volcanic Field, and are old volcanic plugs. While they definitely give this chapter some character, the igneous rock also leaches toxic heavy metals into the water table, rendering some of the windmill-powered wells unsafe to drink from.

A gorilla that dwarfs King Kong scowls at the traffic flowing down Navajo Route 6. In the background are the humps of a sleeping dromedary. Drive toward Holbrook at a certain time of day, and you will notice a giant Santa Claus keeping track of whether passersby are naughty or nice.

Out here, says Indian Wells native Dorothy Denetclaw, "We see things into the rocks."

The huge grayish-black rock sculptures are actually maars and diatremes (basically leftovers of a volcanic event) of the Hopi Buttes Volcanic Field. They define this oft-overlooked chapter as much as the "Indian wells," a series of springs and shallow wells with colorful names like "Poking Springs," "Dogwater" and "The Late Crazy Man's Spring."

According to Denetclaw's family's oral history, Navajos started settling here in the 1880s, a splinter group of Ganado Mucho's band who was overpopulating the area around Cornfields and decided to strike out on their own. But it was already a major overland route for the U.S. military. The old stone building by the Bitahochee Trading Post was an Army depot during the Civil War, and according to Denetclaw, the gas company once dug up the skeleton of a Spanish conquistador, still fully clad in his armor - revealing that this was a war path much earlier still.

(A treasure may lie buried in one of the washes as well; local legend has it a band of Navajos ambushed the Army supply caravan one year, stealing the food and livestock and stashing the payroll cash, figuring it was valuable but not knowing what to do with it.)

Even before the conquistadors, the Anasazi were here. They left ruins of what were perhaps fortresses or lookout towers on the tops of nearly every butte. According to Denetclaw, one of the ruins is surrounded by a puzzling layer of sand, as though the Ancient Ones had hauled it up the steep hill for the desert version of a lawn. Even in the 1000s, apparently, there were Joneses to keep up with.

Reclaiming history

But the modern community of Indian Wells sprang up around a trading post started at the old depot by John Theodore Thysing, a Prussian who enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry in 1873 as a cigar maker and was discharged five years later.

Quite a bit is known about Thysing, thanks to Redwing Nez, who is trying to restore the old post, and Egon Koch, a German journalist who met Nez when he was traveling through the reservation. The men became interested in Thysing's little military-issue tombstone behind the post, and thanks to meticulous German record-keeping, have managed to piece together much of his life, starting with his birth in Westphalia.

Nez has obtained the business-site lease to the place, and is slowly but surely raising money to restore the old post. He envisions it as a combination coffee shop/visitors' center/community center, with a corner devoted to the old Prussian.

Nez, who literally stood in front of the bulldozers when the tribe tried to tear down Bitahochee during the hantavirus scare of the 1990s, is continually amazed he can't get more support for the venture from the community.

"This is history!" he gushes as he gives a reporter a tour. "Our history!"

The 53-year-old recalls sitting on the steps of the post as a child, licking an ice cream cone.

An artist of some renown, Nez has set up his studio in the post's old wool shed, and is in the process of getting electricity to the main building so he can start working on it in earnest.

Nez has set up a foundation with a board of directors whose ancestors helped build the post. To learn more about Bitahochee and Nez's efforts, visit

The post has become something of a bone of contention within the community. While some people think the chapter should be throwing money at the project instead of just passing resolutions in support of it, others would like to tear it down and build a modern gas station and convenience store on the prime real estate at the crossroads of N15 and N6 - which, according to Claudia Jackson, is about to get a whole lot more prime with the advent of Twin Arrows Casino to the southeast.

Jackson, a member of the Community Land Use Planning Committee and an aide to Council delegate Elmer P. Begay, is bullish on Indian Wells. The chapter has withdrawn 25 acres at the intersection for commercial activity, hoping to lure other businesses to join the Baldwin Gravel Pit and an out-of-the-way gas station and convenience store on the road to White Cone.

Other kinds of development

While commercial development may be lagging, other kinds of community development are coming along fine in this small and tight-knit chapter.

The chapter has partnered with neighboring southwestern chapters, the Navajo Nation Police Department, the Office of Youth Development, the Navajo Housing Authority and the Winslow Indian Health Center to create a "Summer Jam" program similar to one in Chinle, with a variety of fun and educational activities.

A running club, "Rez Soles," and a cycling club, "Cycling Ma'iis," have been set up to encourage fitness. On July 7, the Ma'iis and anyone else who wants to join in will embark on a ride from Twin Arrows to the Navajo Nation Council Chambers, carrying a proclamation they hope the Council will adopt. It will encourage the Council delegates to set a good example by setting aside one day a year for their lunch to be catered by a Navajo chef who specializes in healthy food made with local ingredients.

In addition to these less tangible improvements, the chapter is working on extending its water and electric lines, and crossing its collective fingers that NTUA will bring it cell service and wireless, two things that our sorely lacking now.

A strong chapter spirit is no surprise at Indian Wells, where, according to Denetclaw, chapter government as we know it started.

Denetclaw, a case worker for the tribe in the early 1980s, was frustrated with the condition of the chapter house.

"It was all cobwebs," she said. "All the chapter houses were like that. People would go there once a month for the meeting, but it's not a place they liked to hang around."

In 1983, Denetclaw went to then-Chairman Peterson Zah with a proposal to give each chapter enough money to hire some employees and clean up their chapter houses. It was the beginning of increasing autonomy on the Navajo Nation.

Fighting for a chair

Indian Wells also was the scene of a showdown between the locals and the Holbrook School Board.

Indian Wells children had been bused to Holbrook for years, but the Navajos had never had any representation on the school board.

"The board was all white, all Mormon and all men," Denetclaw recalled. "Half of them were also on the county commission. They had no idea the kind of things our children were facing out here."

In 1988, a parent, George Clark, sued the school district, and the district - perhaps realizing the fight for Civil Rights had already been fought and won in most of the country and they wouldn't have a leg to stand on if the case reached federal jurisdiction - settled out of court.

Encouraged by having a seat on the school board, the Diné parents did not rest on their laurels. They started agitating for their own school.

Finally, with a push from Arizona State Sen. Jack C. Jackson Sr., Indian Wells Elementary became a reality in 2002.

"It's a very nice school and attracts a lot of students from all over the area," said Claudia Jackson, who thinks she might be a distant relation to Jackson. While many reservation schools are losing enrollment, Indian Wells is bursting at the seams with 500 students at last count.

Fight for flight

But there are fights left to be fought. The current battle is on behalf of some local wildlife.

During the settlement of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, the Navajos were awarded some land in exchange for which the Hopis would be allowed to harvest eaglets for their ceremonies on Navajo land.

The black buttes rising out of Indian Wells are not only picturesque, but prime eagle habitat the Hopis have been harvesting - or, if you ask Denetclaw, "stealing from" - for centuries.

Over the years, this has resulted in clashes with groups of Navajo vigilantes trying to protect the eagle nests. Gathering the eaglets - which are raised to adulthood in captivity and then ritually sacrificed - upsets the local Diné, who believe the birds carry prayers to the Holy People.

In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has set a limit of 40 eaglets total and 18 from the Navajo Nation to be captured by Hopi clan representatives. Last month, it proposed to reduce the number on Navajo land to five. This was immediately protested by the Hopis and last week, negotiations between the two tribes and Fish and Wildlife were held. The feds decided to keep the number at 18 until a study can be done on the impact of ritual harvesting on the eagle population.

However, the cost of such a study - which would have to be done by helicopter - is about $41 million, according to President Ben Shelly's spokesman, Erny Zah, so the Navajos are skeptical it will ever get done.

Nez, who watches the eagles on Eagle Butte from his studio, believes a compromise can be reached.

"Last year, they cleaned out the whole butte," he said, his irritation evident in his voice. "I think they should be limited to one from each nest. Let the eagles raise at least one of their young, so they don't get discouraged."

At this beautiful, historic and cohesive chapter, discouragement is not something anyone should have to feel.

Indian Wells at a Glance

Name - Named for a series of little springs and shallow wells that were collectively known as Indian Wells. The Navajo nam e, Tó Hahadleeh (Dipping Water) is similar and may stem from a dipping barrel kept by an early trader. Bitahochee, the name of the butte behind the trading post, means "Red Running up the Edge," referring to the color of the butte.

Population - 1,287

Major clans - Tótsohnii (the area was first settled by followers of Ganado Mucho, who was of this clan), Kinyáa'aanii, Tl'izilani, Tó'dich'íinii, Tsi'naajinii

Land area - 227,500 acres

Assets - good community spirit, on a fairly major crossroads about to get more major with the advent of Twin Arrows Casino

Problems - heavy metals in the well water, friction between residents and Hopis gathering eaglets for ceremonies

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