Kicked off the mesa

Low Mountain struggles to regain footing after relocation

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

LOW MOUNTAIN, Ariz., August 1, 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 46th in the series.)

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A nyone who thinks the Navajo-Hopi land dispute is ancient history should come to Low Mountain.

Although the chapter lost much of its land, including the top of the mesa known as Jeeh Deez'a (Piñon Gum Point), in the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, the wounds seem very fresh.

One of the symptoms lies in the clear malt liquor bottles that line every ravine.

"A lot of people drink here," says Milton Segay, 22. When asked what the major occupation is in this chapter, Segay replies with a straight face, "Bootlegging."

Segay has recently returned from Phoenix to help out his grandmother, Jenny Sam Chee Begay. Begay says she only last year got the hogan the government had been promising her since her family was relocated from the mesa top in 1974. According to Segay, she hadn't filled out her original paperwork completely, and the grandchildren started two years ago to help her push it through. But he's upset that the hogan has no running water.

"My grandma has a metal plate in her hip," he says. "She doesn't need to be walking to the outhouse in the middle of winter."

Apparently, Begay is not the only one suffering. The first thing you read on the chapter's home page is, "The Hopi and Navajo Land dispute and eventual land partitions have kept the chapter from needed development."

It does not help that the chapter's major lifeline to State Highway 264 is Hopi BIA Route 60. The chapter passed a resolution in 2000 in support of paving it, but it hasn't happened yet.

Other than bootlegging and the chapter, the only other employer here is Jeeh Deez'a Academy, a K-5 BIE school. The nearest grocery store is in Piñon, 20 minutes away.


Still, there are advantages to living here.

"You should hear the birds in the morning," says Segay. "They're incredible."

Segay and his cousin-brother Diceson Begay offer to lead a hike to the top of Jeeh Deez'a, where they say many Navajos lived before the relocation. There's nothing left of the homesites, except for a large stock tank that Segay says his grandfather or great-uncles built.

"There weren't any Hopis here as far as I know," he says. "I don't know what they wanted it for. They're still not here."

Jenny Begay says she probably would have had a house if she had agreed to move to the New Lands, as the government encouraged the Navajos of Low Mountain to do.

"I didn't want to go there," she says. "I wanted to stay as close as possible to my home."

She lived with relatives at the bottom of the mesa until she got her hogan last year.

The mesa top is cool and beautiful, with outcrops of blonde sandstone and stands of piñon and juniper.

"The Hopis don't mind us coming up here, as long as we don't cut firewood," says Segay. "Some people do anyway."

Ancient springs

The long-legged young men spring across the sandstone like mountain goats, leading the way to a series of small caverns just under the mesa's sandstone cap. This is why the Navajos settled on the mesa top, they say: There was water here.

A careful climb down the cliff, forcing tennis shoe toes into toeholds carved by early Navajos or perhaps Anasazi (a pot shard reveals the Ancient Ones' presence), rewards the hiker with a beautiful little grotto with water slowly dripping from the roof.

"You can taste it if you want to," offers Segay. "It's really sweet."

The water does have a delightful sweet taste, and the cave supplies a cool respite from the July day. Segay points out what he calls a "Navajo shower." His grandparents' generation wedged a pair of logs into a narrow section of the wash below the caves, building the sides up with rocks. In the old days, Segay explains, you could hold tight to the logs when the wash was running after a rain, giving your body a refreshing rinse.

At the next grotto, the young men are upset to see the rock wall full of red and black gang symbols.

"Tagging!" declares Segay. "Another big problem here."

They seem to differentiate the painted symbols from the names carved into the sandstone on top of the mesa.

"That's a tradition," Segay explains, identifying several of his relatives' names. "I'll probably carve mine here some day. I just haven't gotten around to it."

Perhaps it's just the Navajos' way of staking their last claim to this former homeland. After years of pretty much leaving the Diné alone, Segay says the Hopis seem to have taken a sudden interest in Jeeh Deez'a.

He points out a survey marker dated 2010 showing the division between Navajo and Hopi partitioned land.

"Last year, they built a fence along the partition," he says.

The last time Segay hiked up here with his grandfather, he says a Hopi followed their tracks and confronted them at his grandfather's house.

"He asked us what we were doing there, and whether we were carrying any weapons," Segay says. "We said, 'No, we were just taking exercise.'"

Asked if there's any way the Hopis can keep the Navajos off Jeeh Deez'a, Segay shakes his head no.

The Hopis may have the legal right to Jeeh Deez'a, but to the people of Low Mountain Chapter, it will always be Navajo land.

Low Mountain at a Glance

Population — 757

Land area — 41,382 acres

Name — The chapter consists of a broad valley between two mesas. The one known as "Low Mountain" in English — Ta' Sahdi' Da' Askani', or "Lone Mesa" in Navajo — is actually mostly in Whippoorwill Springs Chapter. Most of the top of the southerly mesa, known as Jeeh Deez'a ("Piñon Gum Point") in Navajo, was lost in the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974. Both Navajo terms are used to describe the area of Low Mountain Chapter even though neither mesa lies within the current chapter boundaries.

Famous son — Peterson Zah, first President of the Navajo Nation

Assets — Jeeh Deez'a Academy, a BIE school serving much of the surrounding area

Problems — lack of industry, graffiti, bootlegging, historical trauma from relocation

History — This chapter lost much of its population after the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974, when residents atop Jeeh Deez'a were relocated to New Lands or Flagstaff

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