From ugly to beautiful ... again

Manuelito undergoes a physical and fiscal makeover

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

MANUELITO, N.M., August 15, 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 47th in the series.)

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I t was a case of history repeating itself.

According to oral history, Chief Manuelito once christened this area "Kin Hócho'o'" ("Ugly House") after an abandoned trading post.

The locals promptly cleaned up their act and defiantly named their community "Kin Hozhoni" ("Beautiful House").

However, when Zander Shirley came on as community services coordinator a year and a half ago, Manuelito's moniker for the town seemed more apt.

The 1969 chapter house was in an embarrassing state of disrepair. The walls and ceiling were dingy, the kitchen was closed down, the podium for the chapter officials was falling apart.

There may have been other problems in the chapter some people would have called more pressing, but Shirley knew what he wanted to do first.

"I was raised somewhat traditional," Shirley said, "and one of the things I was always taught was that you should always keep your house clean, because that's where all your thought processes, your planning comes from. I thought, 'This chapter needs to be cleaned up.'"

Shirley asked for money to fix up the chapter, and found some unexpected bonuses: two refrigerators and a stove still brand new and in the boxes; a brand new cooling and heating unit in a box on the roof that everyone had forgotten about.

He opened the kitchen and even got somebody to spruce up the carefully stenciled designs on the chapter house's beams and benches.

The podium was rebuilt and paneled in yellow pine beadboard; dusty curtains were torn down to flood the room with light from a row of clerestory windows.

Finding a good deal on rocks and railroad ties, Shirley even landscaped a bit and used some extra culverts to improve the drainage.

"It really improved morale," he said. "If you ask any of these people, even the PEP workers, you'll find they're really happy to be working here."

Fiscal rebuilding

But the chapter house was just a metaphor for the corruption that had plagued the chapter in recent years.

In 2010, the Navajo Nation's Ethics and Rules Office had charged the chapter's former office manager, Josephine Bahe, with embezzling nearly $60,000 from the two chapters she had worked for, Manuelito and Iyanbito. About $35,000 of that had come from Manuelito's coffers, and according to the complaint, she had brazenly continued to write herself checks even after she resigned, having taken the chapter's checkbook with her.

Taking a look at the chapter's books, Shirley discovered they were in worse shape than the chapter house. A series of chapter coordinators was still in possession of some records; the chapter is in the process of retrieving them. The new chapter administration has embarked on the Five Management System, and is in the process of converting to electronic filing, which should solve the problem of people taking their work home with them.

It's a long process, but Shirley says, people are starting to feel pride in their chapter again.

"It's really too bad all this happened, because I've met some of the best people here," said Shirley, who hails from the Sawmill area. "Really, really good people."

Unfortunately, there's still the matter of the missing $35,000, which the Ethics and Rules Committee ordered Bahe to pay back, but she never has. In an administrative Catch 22, Manuelito can't apply for certification until it makes up the missing money, and without certification, it can't collect taxes to pay it back.

As of now, it has whittled the debt down to $29,000, "paying it back out of the revenue we get from people taking showers and little things like that," Shirley said.

Looking down the road

As for future plans, all one has to do is look down the road at Speedy's, a sort of truck stop gone cancerous, to see the economic potential of this stretch of I-40.

Speedy's is a gold mine, but none of that gold is going to Navajos ... it's owned by two bilagáana brothers on a narrow strip of private land between Manuelito and Tsé Si Ani chapters.

Also chugging right through Manuelito is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which stopped here in the 1880s, giving rise to businesses such as a telegraph station and a trading post.

The chapter is contemplating working with the railroad again, perhaps to develop a weigh station or a refrigerated depot on chapter land.

Lovely, historic Manuelito Canyon could easily be developed for tourism, with its gorgeous scenery and easy access to I-40.

For now, however, Manuelito is concentrating on basic infrastructure. Everyone on the chapter's north side has running water, and attention is now turned to the south. About 20 percent of the households need electricity, and bathroom additions are in the works with four already completed.

Only 11 miles from Gallup, Manuelito is within commuting distance of the University of New Mexico's branch there, so scholarships for the young are a high priority.

"We've given out 27 this year," Shirley said.

After the financial debacle, it has taken some talking to get back in good graces with McKinley County and the state of New Mexico, but both the county commission and the state Legislature have looked kindly on Manuelito lately, and the capital improvement funds are flowing again.

The chapter hopes to repair washed out roads, shore up its sinking senior citizens center and lobby Congress to replace the Manuelito Bridge, which has been declared unstable. Improvements to the Sky City Road would help connect Manuelito with Albuquerque and points south.

Local churches have led the way in feeding the chapter's poor and bringing in volunteers to help repair homes. The Southwest Indian Foundation is headquartered here, bringing home improvements to the most needy.

"We're very lucky to have them here," said Shirley. "They've helped literally hundreds of people in Manuelito."

The chapter has stubbornly resisted inviting the Navajo Housing Authority in. "People think (an NHA development) would attract crime," said Shirley, and in fact, the chapter is remarkably free of graffiti so far.

If Chief Manuelito were to return to the chapter that bears his name, he would find a place no longer ugly and not yet as beautiful as it could be. Perhaps he would call it, "House in Progress."

Manuelito at a Glance

Name - Named for the great leader Chief Manuelito, although he himself once christened this community "Ugly House" after an abandoned trading post. The locals promptly renamed it "Kin Hozhoni" ("Beautiful House")

Population - Estimated between 1,300 and 1,400

Land area - 57,000 acres

Assets - Manuelito Canyon, good grazing land, Southwest Indian Foundation, proximity to Gallup, a railroad and a major freeway

Problems - Still reeling from an embezzlement case uncovered in 2010

Current projects - planned water and electric lines, bathroom additions, chapter house renovation

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