Soft ground, hard luck

Tsé Al Náoztii struggles with nature, internal conflict

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 97th in the series. Some information for this series is taken from the publication "Chapter Images" by Larry Rodgers.)

SANOSTEE, N.M., July 31, 2014

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(Times photos — Cindy Yurth)

TOP: Tsé Al Náozt’í (“Bypassing Rocks”) is named for these criss-crossing rock layers in the mesa above the large wash that bisects the chapter and often floods.

BOTTOM: Chancelane Begay, 16, a participant in the Summer Youth Employment Program, paints a welcome sign in front of the Tsé Al Náozt’í Chapter House. “We try to fix this place up, try and make it look nice,” Begay said. “Some of the older people don’t appreciate it.”

Some chapters have all the luck. In Tsé Al Naoztii's case, most of it is bad luck.

In the past decade, this agrarian chapter south of Shiprock has lost a year-old bridge, a three-year-old senior citizens center, and much of its historic ranching economy -- all due to forces of nature.

A flood washed away the bridge with its three eight-foot-wide culverts; shifting soil buckled the floor of the beautiful new senior center and compromised the structure; the ongoing drought has stolen the once-lush grasslands at the foot of the Chuskas, turning them to a crispy-dry wasteland picked over by herds of feral horses.

A segment of the understandably frustrated populace has turned against its new chapter president, former Council Delegate Jerry Bodie.

"We need a new chapter house. We need a new senior citizens center. We need a new bridge. We need new roads," declared Mary Smith, 60. "The chapter has money but they just sit on it."

Irvin Tyler, who ran for Council in 2010 and lost, is leading a crusade to oust Bodie, claiming the chapter president has on several occasions declared his intention to resign, most recently at the July chapter meeting. (Tyler has his own enemies; when he ran for office, a community member came forward to accuse him of attacking him and conspiring to burn down a house.) Bodie, for his part, says he's committed to serving out the two-and-a-half years left in his term, and is trying his best to get things off the ground in Tsé Al Náoztii , but the problem is ground.

"They accuse the chapter officials of doing nothing, but we can't do anything without land, and nobody wants to give up an inch of their grazing permits," Bodie complained.

The chapter has until recently been without a community service coordinator, Bodie said, but was recently able to lure Calvin Lee, whom Bodie describes as motivated and highly credentialed, away from Klagetoh.

"Right now Mr. Lee is holding down two jobs, as accounts maintenance specialist and CSC," Bodie said. "Because of that, things are lagging behind. When we get an AMS, that's when we can really start moving."

Plans afoot

If it can get some stable land, the chapter has big plans: a compound that would comprise not only a new chapter house and senior center, but a relocated IHS clinic, hopefully with extended hours (the present clinic is open only twice a week) and a police substation (right now, says Smith, "You call the police and you're dead by the time they get here." ).

Tsé Al Náoztii at a Glance

Name: Tsé Al Náozti'’ recently changed its name to the original Navajo, having been known for decades by the English corruption "Sanostee." It refers to a criss-crossing rock formation that rises above the big wash that runs through the chapter. The community of Tocito is usually thought to be a mixture of Spanish and Navajo meaning "Littlewater," but according to Chapter President Jerry Bodie, it's actually a corruption of the Navajo "To Sidoo," "Warm Water," after a natural warm spring there.

Land area: One of the largest chapters in Northern Agency at 314,000 acres.

Population: 1,795.

Major clans: Táchii'nii.

Famous sons: Code Talker Harry Benally (1925-2000), Bataan Death March survivor Joe Kieyoomia (1919-1997), Navajo Nation presidential contender Cal Nez.

Assets: U.S. 491 frontage, a day school, Head Start, a clinic, a U.S. Post Office (although the mail truck will turn around when there is water in the wash), a thriving veterans' organization.

Issues: drought, seasonal flooding, bad roads, unstable sandy soil, land tied up in grazing permits, feral horses.

As an example of what can happen when the community comes together, Bodie pointed to the beautiful new Sanostee Day School. But that was a challenge too.

"It took years to convince that family to give up their land," he said. "The Navajo Nation president had to go and talk to them."

A series of artesian wells, which have tested pure in contrast to some of the uranium-contaminated windmills in the area, is also being held hostage by grazing permit holders, according to Bodie.

Tsé Al Náoztii does have one private business, the Littlewater convenience store on U.S. 491, but as a non-certified chapter it cannot collect local taxes.

Bodie said the chapter has considered certification, but after looking around at surrounding certified chapters, he isn't sure it's worth it.

"It seems like they do all the work to get certified, and they still have to go through the tribal government for everything," he said. "I don't know if certification is working the way it is meant to be. I hear people tell me, ÔIf they're going to be like that then we might as well be status quo.'"

Perhaps the status quo is not so bad; Jamie House, a purple-haired 16-year-old who was raised in California and recently moved back to the chapter with her family, says she enjoys the peace and quiet, the expansive vistas under sometimes spectacular skies.

The uprising

And after all, this place is famous for its devotion to the status quo. It was behind the present location of the chapter house, on the volcanic plug known as Beautiful Mountain, that the revered medicine man Little Singer made a stand for a traditional Diné practice in 1913.

The event that became known as the Beautiful Mountain Uprising is chronicled in Will Evans' memoir, "Along Navajo Trails: Recollections of a Trader."

According to Evans' account, Natáanii Nez himself, BIA Superintendent William T. Shelton, had decided to try to eradicate polygamy among the Navajos by pressing federal anti-bigamy laws.

He demanded Little Singer renounce two of his three wives. When Little Singer refused, Shelton sent the cavalry after him. They succeeded in capturing the wives, but their crafty husband escaped.

With the help of his father, brother-in-law and others, Little Singer formed a posse to rescue his wives, whom the men found lightly guarded at the BIA compound in Shiprock, where Shelton had put them to work hoeing a field.

The women mounted the spare horses the men had brought and the entire crew sped off to the top of Beautiful Mountain, where they were able to guard the lone, treacherous trail to the top and keep the soldiers at bay.

Eventually the local traders, most of whom were Mormon and probably sympathetic to the polygamous Diné, brokered a truce and convinced Little Singer to surrender. After enduring a stern lecture by Gen. Hugh Scott, Little Singer and the other renegades were whisked off to Santa Fe where they were kept under surveillance for three months.

"The Beautiful Mountain rebellion and its aftermath had little effect upon the marriage of Little Singer and his wives," Evans writes. "Most of the white traders thought the situation could have been handled differently, and they all agreed it was too difficult to end a custom that had been practiced for centuries."

To end the modern standoff in Tsé Al Náoztii, perhaps some viable economic alternatives will have to be found to the age-old occupation of livestock rearing. Until then, as the drought gobbles up viable pasture land, the people will continue the status quo: clutching their grazing permits so tightly that development is strangled.

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