Rising from the ruins

Black Mesa getting some long-awaited improvements

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

BLACK MESA CHAPTER, Ariz., November 8, 2012

(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 eighth in the series.)

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T he best-known landmark in Black Mesa Chapter is one many locals have never seen close-up. Kits'iili ("Shattered House") sits high on a rocky knob with a 360-degree view of its surroundings, including the chapter house and school.

It lends the chapter its Navajo name. But the old Anasazi ruin, little more than a few crumbling walls, is lonely most of the time.

Out here in the middle of the Navajo Nation, accessible only by a dirt road, the old taboos still carry weight. Most of the older folks say they've never climbed the hill to Kits'iili, fearing that an inadvertent step on a hewn stone or piece of pottery will bring illness.

On the hillside below Shattered House, a strange object pokes out of the dirt near some pot shards. A little digging with a stone reveals it's not Anasazi, it's modern American — a toy spaceship. The strange juxtaposition of ancient and futuristic is reminiscent of the chapter itself, which seems to have skipped the 20th century and is now straddling the 19th and the 21st.

Many homes still lack electricity and running water, but there is satellite Internet available. Elders who live within walking distance of each other stew about someone not friending them on Facebook.

After a long dormancy, things are happening in Kits'iili. One can't help but think the Anasazi, who managed to create a life of bounty and beauty on this rocky mesa a thousand years ago, would approve.

Even since this reporter first traveled to Black Mesa a few years back, things looked different. The road to the chapter from Navajo Route 4 is paved, or at least the first five miles are. A Navajo Department of Transportation crew is hard at work stabilizing the roadsides. There is nice-looking new school housing and a new water line.

On this particular day, Nov. 5, workers are unloading pieces of a mammoth new tower for improved cell phone reception. Next spring, Chapter Coordinator Albert Lee reveals, ground will be broken for a new Head Start building, and by 2016, the remaining 15 miles of dirt road will be paved — "practically revolutionizing the chapter's contact with the outside world," according to the chapter's website.

It's all making the over-50 crowd dizzy. They still remember when that little rectangular building by the windmill doubled as the school and the chapter house, and when the meetings grew crowded, they had to take turns letting people inside to speak. Until the 1970s, chapter elections were done by a show of hands.

"I can still remember my father-in-law saying, 'Let me in, I want to say something!'" recalled Phyllis Rose. "There wasn't room for everybody, so they just had to stand outside until it was time for them to talk."

Now there's a nice chapter house with satellite Internet, and though the broadband is so slow people don't bother downloading movies and such, it works.

"It's been great for us at the (Black Mesa Community) School," said Principal Marie Rose, Phyllis's sister-in-law. "The BIE makes you fill out everything online these days."

The chapter is due to improve its Internet capability soon, which will allow the school to start computer classes, Marie Rose said.

The tribe's recent round of negotiations with Peabody Western Coal Co., owner of the Black Mesa mine (most of which is not located in Black Mesa Chapter, by the way) resulted in the five affected chapters dividing $1.5 million from Peabody every year to defray the mine's impacts. Black Mesa's next $300,000 slice of the pie will go toward starting a new electric line, said Chapter Secretary Marlene Biltah.

The company also shares coal with the chapters to distribute among the elderly, and donates red-dog gravel to improve the roads.

The roads have always been the major issue here.

"I can remember when I was little, the chapter meetings were always about roads, electricity and water," recalled Marie Rose. "That's still the case today."

Black Mesa residents routinely get snowed in for days at a time, and have learned to stockpile, since the nearest grocery store is 15 miles away in Piñon.

"We all know how to live on potatoes and Spam," laughs Marie Rose.

As close to Flagstaff as to Window Rock, Black Mesa has learned how to forge alliances to get things done. A coalition representing Peabody, Navajo County, NDOT and the BIA gets the red-dog gravel out to the chapters; the Dzil Yiijiin Regional Council, comprised of representatives of 12 area chapters, pitches in marching funds and decides where to spread it next.

One thing the chapter has not learned how to deal with is the herd of 100 or more feral donkeys that has been eating the local livestock out of pasture for the past several years.

Folks here say they're descended from a single pair brought in by a rancher 10 years ago, but for being so inbred, they're pretty smart.

"People try to round them up from time to time," sighed Black Mesa resident Louise Whitehair. "They just scatter like mercury."

Another population the chapter has in abundance is single women.

The 2010 census revealed a surprising number of unmarried females, Whitehair said, so the hunting is good for single guys looking for a country girl with a beautiful homesite.

But don't think you can come in here and pull the wool over these ladies' eyes. Way out here in the shadow of Kits'iilii, you don't survive without being pretty darned wily.

Black Mesa at a Glance

Name — The English name is for the large mesa to the west, but other chapters actually occupy larger portions of the mesa. The Navajo name, Kits'iili or "Shattered House," refers to a large Anasazi ruin on a hill overlooking the chapter.

Population — 208

Main industry — ranching

Problems — lack of paved roads; herd of bothersome burros

Elevation — one of the Navajo Nation's higher chapters at 6300 to 7600 feet above sea level; snowdrifts commonly reach four to five feet deep, stranding residents

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