The old stagecoach stop

Lake Valley is a place with a history, hoping for a future

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' 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 42nd in the series.)

LAKE VALLEY, N.M., July 4, 2013

After driving miles through some of the most desolate country on the Navajo Nation, the sign for "Lake Valley" conjures images of rippling water and green grass.

No such luck.

All that's left of the lake is a giant sand trap, and the valley is just a lower spot in low, rolling hills almost equally devoid of vegetation.

But the elders remember a much different place, where the lake was glistening and the valley was patchworked with farm fields. There were two thriving trading posts, one of which was known to every high school girl in Eastern Agency as THE place to buy your prom dress, and have your photograph taken in it.

Lake Valley at a Glance

  • Name - A large reservoir once provided irrigation water to the community. In the 1960s, according to Chapter Vice President Edison Tso, a flood destroyed the upstream dams and the lake was silted in and never reclaimed. There was also a radiation scare when overflow from holding ponds at the uranium mines north of Crownpoint were diverted into the washes that fed the reservoir. "After that, people pretty much stopped farming," Tso said.
  • Population - about 400
  • Land area - 84,000 acres
  • Points of interest - Chaco Culture National Historic Park, related ruins, interesting rock formations, eagle nesting areas, a hidden spring, fossil shark's teeth, the historic stone chapter house built by the men of the community in 1953, a BIA school, La Vida Seventh-Day Adventist Mission
  • Major clans - The two clans native to this area are Tsé Nahabilnii (Sleeping Rock) and Dzil Tl'ahnii (Mountain Corner), according to Tso. Other prominent clans include Bit'ahnii, To'Aheedliinii, Táchiinii, Hoghan Lán’ and Honágháanii.
  • History - This is a very old Navajo settlement probably established by people spreading out from historic Dinétah, but before that it had a long history as an Anasazi community. Tso believes it might have been sort of a bedroom community for Chaco. "There are lots and lots of little, tiny ruins," he noted. But Lake Valley really came into its own as a stagecoach stop in the late 1880s, with some of the only good water between Farmington and Crownpoint. It has had at least one trading post continuously since the early 1900s.

Before that, what is now Lake Valley was a much anticipated stagecoach stop between Farmington and Crownpoint, where a hidden spring offered cold, clear water to road-weary passengers and horses alike.

This is a place that has seen better days - and is trying hard to get them back.

Just seven miles from world-famous Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Chapter Vice President Edison Tso envisions a tourist mecca for those who want to stay a little longer and sample some modern Indian hospitality. He points out a wide spot in the canyon where the old road used to run before being replaced by Highway 371 in the 1980s. Perfect for an RV park, he says.

"Those Europeans love to hike," Tso enthused. "There's all kinds of ruins and rock formations they could hike to here. We could take them up on the mesa to look for fossilized shark teeth. Maybe even build a golf course. Why not?"

Why not, indeed? Or, more specifically, why has this former transportation and agricultural mecca sunk to such a sorry, dustblown state?

One might ask, if one is prepared to get an earful from Tso and Community Services Coordinator Milanda Yazzie.

They blame Window Rock. In fact, to hear them talk, Lake Valley Chapter is about ready to secede from the Navajo Nation.

"We ask for a grant from the state or (San Juan) county, and they get it to us in two or three months," Tso said. "Then our nation sits on it for two or three years."

"If we invite Mr. (State Sen. Benny) Shendo or Mrs. (State Rep. Sandra) Jeff out here, they come as soon as they can," echoed Yazzie. "If we invite one of our Navajo Nation government officials, they say, 'You have your chapter meetings on a Sunday? I don't work Sundays.'"

Budget cuts hurt

Window Rock's effort to centralize and streamline government has really hurt the faraway chapters of Eastern Agency, according to Tso and Yazzie. There is no longer, for instance, a nearby office of Emergency Services, and the drought is reaching emergency proportions here, with several windmills broken or dried up.

Cutbacks in the budget for the community health representatives have reduced visits to housebound elders, who comprise much of the population.

"I know they have to cut back," acknowledged Yazzie, "but I think they should cut back on administration and send more money out here. Every Navajo Nation department is overstaffed."

Lake Valley is not throwing up its hands, however. These are matter-of-fact people - a sign in the ladies' room reads simply, "Ladies, clean up after yourselves" - and if they can no longer plow their fields, they plow ahead.

A power line and bathroom addition project is currently in the works, thanks to a community development block grant from the state. And the chapter is working to consolidate and absorb the checkerboarded area where Tso wants to build his tourist oasis.

Then there's La Vida Mission. The Seventh-Day Adventist facility, established in 1962 on 168 acres, has come to the chapter's rescue many times in the past.

There is a clinic there that once flew in doctors from Farmington, and now is staffed by a nurse practitioner. And in these times of drought, La Vida (which means "The Life" in Spanish but is actually named after founder Sthihaver Vida) is sharing its well with the community.

"They're racking up $4,000 electrical bills for the pump," said Tso, who happens to know because he sits on a board that helps manage La Vida, "but they never complain."

Tso is one of only about 20 Navajo SDA members in Lake Valley, but a number of locals have adopted the Adventists' vegetarian diet, noticing that it curbs diabetes symptoms.

"If you go to the IHS," noted Yazzie, "they say, 'You can't eat chips, you can't eat frybread.' We get tired of listening to them. These people tell us what we CAN eat."

"It's a good message for health," agreed Tso.

At odds with the Old Ones

Besides the red tape in Window Rock, another thing Lake Valley tangles with is the Anasazi. Intentionally or not, the Ancient Enemies are hindering modern progress.

"If you so much as dig a foundation, you hit a ruin," said Tso. "We're not supposed to step on them, but out here you can't help it."

Archeological clearances are, according to Tso, "a big headache."

The way Tso sees it, the least the Ancient Ones can do is help attract tourists. Two impressive ruins, Kin Kazh (Perfect House) and Kin bii Nayolii (Wind Through House) would be of interest to Chaco aficionados if Lake Valley can develop enough to lure them in.

Meanwhile, Lake Valley itself struggles into modern times. The chapter is pressing Jemez Mountain Electrical Coop, which supplies the community's power, to upgrade to a three-phase line to reduce pesky outages, and bugging Cellular One for the cell tower they say they were promised in February.

They're offering meals and door prizes to lure more community members to chapter meetings so they can be more informed and involved (and the chapter doesn't have to wait two hours for a quorum).

In partnership with San Juan County, they've established rural addressing (although they say the Navajo Nation wants them to convert to the tribal system).

"My officials, they're really up there with everything," said Yazzie proudly.

Maybe, some day, they'll bring back the lake.

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