The old outpost

Tonalea's fortunes depend on the road

By Cindy Yurth
Tseyi' Bureau

(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 91st in the series. Some information for this series is taken from the publication "Chapter Images" by Larry Rodgers.)

TONALEA, Ariz., June 19, 2014

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

The Elephant Feet have been a landmark for at least a century. Tonalea Chapter is currently in the process of getting the right-of-way which includes the rock formation from the Arizona Department of Transportation, for possible development as a tourist attraction.

It was 1974, and 12-year-old Franklin Tohannie was herding sheep near his family's home in Tonalea.

As he started to drive his flock homeward, he stopped in his tracks. Across his usual path was a barbwire fence.

"I think I was more confused than my sheep," said Tohannie, now 52.

Unbeknownst to Tohannie and many of the traditional people in remote Tonalea, the U.S. Government had divvied up what used to be the Joint Use Area occupied by both Hopis and Navajos. Many families were suddenly living on Hopi land.

"Ever since then," said Tohannie, Tonalea Chapter's unofficial historian, "Tonalea has been in a traumatized state."

The chapter lost one-third of its land base. "The majority of the population had to relocate," said Tohannie, "either north, to stay in Tonalea, or elsewhere."

The Bennett Freeze was instituted, and over the years, Tohannie said, more and more young people have drifted away rather than live in a place where they couldn't even fix up their houses without the blessing of the Navajo tribe, the Hopi tribe and the BIA.

"I call it a silent genocide," Tohannie said. "A diaspora."


Development in Tonalea pretty much ground to a halt until the Freeze was lifted in 2009. And this was something Tonalea was not used to. Its history is of a progressive, prosperous place -- a way station on the popular migration route first used by the Anasazi, later the Spanish and Navajo, then the Mormons. In 1864, the U.S. cavalry came through looking for Navajos to send on the Long Walk, but many families had gotten word and fled as far away as Marble Canyon to escape, said Tohannie, who is in the process of compiling oral histories of Tonalea's early days into a book.

Tonalea at a Glance

Name - The Navajo name, To' neheliih, or "Water Collecting in a basin," is exactly the same as that of Tolani Lake Chapter. It's just anglicized differently.

Population -- 2,595, according to the 2010 Census. Chapter officials believe the figure is low.

Land area - 153,000 acres. About a third of the chpAter's land base was lost in the partition of the Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area.

Major clans - To Dich'iinii, Tachii'nii, Tl'izi Lani, Tabaaha, Honaghanii

Famous sons - Code Talker King Fowler, former Council Delegate Leslie Deal, who started the custom of riding to Window Rock on horseback for the Council sessions

Assets - frontage on busy U.S. 160, the Elephant Feet, a day school, Head Start, historic 125-year-old trading post

Problems - a condemned chapter house, lack of infrastructure because of the Bennett Freeze, flooding in low-lying areas

In recent times, such notables as Western author Zane Grey, director John Ford and anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn came through here and stayed a while.

Today we know the route as Interstate Highway 160, and it's still busy. When the Times visited Tonalea last Thursday, there was a transcontinental bicycle race whizzing by while tourists in rented travel trailers moseyed between monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.

When travel was slower, it was easy for Tonalea to capture that traffic. Two thriving trading posts plied their wares; the picturesque Red Lake post is still in business, run by a local Navajo. Local weavers came up with the popular "storm" pattern rug, still a favorite with collectors. Red Lake, the depression below the trading post, which fills with water during wet years, was a good place to camp and water livestock.

Today ... not so much. Vendors capitalize on the bizarre roadside rock formation known as the Elephant Feet ... And that's about it. To finally thaw out the Freeze and regain its former prosperity, Tonalea must once again become a place where people pull off the road, and stay long enough to spend some money.

Moving forward

Everyone seems to agree Tonalea is trying its best.

"In spite of everything, I think our chapter is moving forward," mused Betty Tso, the chapter's community services coordinator. "Each set of chapter officials has built on what the previous officials had envisioned years and years ago."

In terms of economic development, the chapter is trying to become the way station it once was. At the intersection of 160 and Navajo Rte. 21, it has developed a nine-acre, six-pad commercial space that is just waiting for tenants. Future plans include a campground in the area of Cow Springs.

The chapter is well on its way to certification, meaning it can collect a local tax and use the money for local projects. Some dreams include a senior living facility and a veterans' building -- but what Tonalea/Red Lake needs most of all is a chapter house.

Making do

Two years ago, Tonalea's 1959 chapter house was condemned for cracks in the walls and foundation. The chapter is currently meeting in its warehouse, basically a huge frame covered with raw insulation. It built a little wooden enclosure to make the cavernous space a bit more manageable, but it is, to say the least, not ideal.

"It's freezing in here in the winter, as you can imagine," Tso said. "In the summer, it's hot. The insulation is torn in spots and we have trouble keeping critters out."

Twice the Navajo Nation Council has approved funding for a new chapter house and twice it has fallen through, most recently when president Ben Shelly vetoed what he considered a raid on the Undesignated, Unreserved Fund.

On June 6, Council took another stab at it, appropriating $19 million from the fund for the chapters, veterans' services and youth employment. This time, sponsor Jonathan Hale (Oak Springs, St. Michael's) worked with Shelly on it first, so it's unlikely to feel the veto pen. But Tso isn't holding her breath.

"The question is, how are they going to divide it up?" she asked. "There's 110 chapters, plus youth and veterans. That really isn't much."

If it turns out the old chapter house is full of asbestos, Tso warned, it could absorb Tonalea's share of the funds just tearing it down and hauling it away.

With so much of the chapter's land tied up in the Bennett Freeze until recently, "We are just barely starting to do infrastructure development," Tso said.

The first project on former Bennett Freeze land would have extended a power line to 19 families near Wildcat Peak ... but seven homes had to be crossed off the list, Tso said, because their roofs were so rotten it was unsafe for the linemen to stand on them while hooking up their power lines.

"You can see what we're up against," sighed Tso. "You can only imagine what it's like for the people living in those homes."

Yet, there's a sense of optimism in the dusty air, perhaps because there are enough people still alive who remember Tonalea's salad days, or perhaps because they've had a succession of good elected officials.

"Our officials have really been willing to help the people, and I think that's still true of the ones we have now," Tohannie said. "We're looking forward all the time.

"We're on a roll."

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