An eye on the past and the future

Still remote, Ojo Encino has developed quickly

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 61st in the series. Some information for this series is taken from the publication "Chapter Images" by Larry Rodgers.)

OJO ENCINO, N.M., Nov. 21, 2013

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(Cindy Yurth - Navajo Times)

TOP: From the ruins of a granary where Navajos once stored their crops, the modern town of Ojo Encino can be seen in the distance. This very remote chapter has a clinic and a school, and a lone paved road from the chapter house to New Mexico Rte. 197.

BOTTOM: Reuben Jake walks toward the Ojo Encino, the small but dependable spring for which the chapter is named, Friday. Trash and graffiti around the spring is a recent phenomenon; back when people had to fetch water from here, Jake said, people had more respect for the “ojo.”

By the time we get to the Ojo Encino, the little eye-shaped spring, dusk is falling and the almost-full moon is high in the sky.

Somewhere behind us, a pack of coyotes sets up a blood-curdling wail.

This time of year, says Reuben Jake Jr., our guide for this remote chapter, the ma'ii are begging for snow.

"It makes it easier for them to hunt rabbits," he explains. "At least, that's what my father told me."

It's the kind of thing, Jake says, that every kid in Ojo Encino used to know, until about 30 years ago when the chapter suddenly developed. NHA housing sprang up, along with a clinic, a Head Start and a Behavioral Health facility.

"Before that, there was nothing here," Jake said. "Just the school."

Much was gained when running water and electricity finally came to this far eastern edge of the reservation, but something was lost too.

Jake, 58, points out the graffiti and trash around the spring. "Teenagers," he mutters.

Jake says nobody from his generation would defile the spring, which flows all year round and, according to Jake, produces some of the sweetest water on the rez.

"We used to come here every day to get water," he says. "Now, they just turn on the NTUA tap. They don't realize what a special thing water is."

On this barren, sandy plateau, with the last rays of sun glinting off the little ojo's trickle of tears, it seems a magical place indeed. Jake picks up an empty bottle and flings it away from the water.

Other things have changed since Jake was a kid. There's no sign of the farm fields that used to be all over the place, irrigated by the runoff from the ojo. The old stone granary where people used to store their crops has fallen in, and looks more Anasazi than Navajo.

This is the time of year when people used to socialize and share their harvest, but these days, the streets in the housing are empty.

Ojo Encino at a Glance

Name: Spanish for "Oak Eye" in reference to a small but reliable eye-shaped spring. The oaks are long gone, but there is a magnificent cottonwood guarding the spring, which is still used by residents who believe the water tastes better than treated tap water.

Population: 688 at the 2010 Census

Major clans: Tó Dích'íinii

Problems: isolation, lack of paved roads, no private business other than the clinic run by non-profit Presbyterian Medical Services

Assets: rights-of-way fees for oil and gas pipelines provide a small amount of income to local allottees; the chapter was recently certified under the Local Governance Act

Interesting facts: The chapter includes parts of four New Mexico counties and sits on top of the Continental Divide.

"Everybody just sits in their own house and watches TV," Jake laments.

Actually, right now, that sounds like a really good idea. The coyotes have failed to call down snow, but they have managed a freezing drizzle that is rapidly turning the sandy dirt roads to corn meal mush.

Problem No. 1 here, as in so many chapters: lack of pavement. The only paved route to Ojo Encino involves taking New Mexico Highway 509 past Torreon, then north on 197 and about eight miles in from there to the chapter house. There are some dirt-road shortcuts, but, trust this reporter, you have to know what you're doing or you can get dangerously lost.

People out here, according to Jake, don't even bother to call the police when there's a mishap. It will be hours, if they get here at all.

The county sheriff? First you have to determine which county you're in. Ojo Encino Chapter comprises bits of Sandoval, McKinley, San Juan and Rio Arriba. Jake says, here on the extreme eastern edge of the rez, the closest police force may be in Cuba, N.M. or the neighboring Jicarilla Apache reservation -- but of course, they have no power outside of their jurisdictions.

The chapter even straddles two continental watersheds. It may not look like it on this broad, almost vegetation-free plateau, but you're at 7,000 feet here, atop the Continental Divide.

The plus side of living in Ojo Encino? This place is so out in the middle of nowhere that, as the crow flies anyway, it's on the way to everywhere. Seven different pipelines bring petroleum products through here, and they're working on a new one.

"Natural gas, gasoline, jet fuel; you name it, we've got a pipeline for it," Jake boasts. This is good news for the chapter's many allottees, who get right-of-way revenue from the pipeline companies, although most would argue it's not anywhere near enough.

The chapter is certified now, so it's ready for any businesses that might come its way.

That hasn't happened yet, but you never know -- 30 years ago, it was hard for people to imagine what Ojo Encino would look like today.

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