A whirlwind on the lake

Casamero Lake may be dry, but ideas are flowing

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CASAMERO LAKE, N.M., December 6, 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 twelfth in the series.)

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(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

This fairly new Navajo Housing Authority housing development is home to many of the chapter's residents. The tenants have formed an association to lobby NHA for such things as replacing the current propane heaters with more economical pellet stoves. An open meeting with NHA representatives is scheduled for Dec. 18.

T he dust devils playing across the dry lake bed have nothing on Fernie Yazzie.

Like the whirlwinds, he springs up here and there and then here again, talking so fast you're looking for his rewind button.

The lake is long gone like the Spaniard for whom it is named, but the face of this chapter is young and lively.

On Monday, we try to catch the 38-year-old chapter president at the chapter house, only to find out he was last seen at Borrego Pass School. At the school, he's just left. Leaving messages at both places finally pays off.

Perhaps because he's also president of the school board, Yazzie has an immediate answer when asked what the biggest issue facing Casamero is. The Navajo Nation is calling it an exercise of its sovereignty, but it looks to Yazzie like a power grab from Window Rock.

Back in April, the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution requesting a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act so the Nation's Department of Diné Education can become a legal educational entity and set its own standards for Navajo students.

Sounds good in theory, but the Association of Navajo Community-Controlled School Boards Inc. (of which Yazzie is president) and the Eastern Agency Council (of which Yazzie is secretary-treasurer) oppose it and want it rescinded.

The reason is that, for BIE grant and contract schools, it means giving up the local autonomy they fought so hard for back in the 1960s.

Borrego Pass School, or Dibe Yazhi Habitiin Olta, as it's known in Navajo, was one of the first BIA contract schools (it's now a grant school, meaning the BIE gives it a grant at the beginning of the year and a local school board decides how to spend the money).

In Yazzie's eyes, letting the Department of Diné Education pull the purse strings and set the curriculum is a step backwards.

"DODE wants to expand its department and be a state-like entity," he said, "but it's not a state. A state doesn't micromanage state schools."

On the other hand, there are those, like the teacher who attended Sunday's Community Land Use Planning meeting, who think the school needs some intervention.

"I ask my students what the chapter house is for, and they say, 'Bingo!'" she said.

Yazzie admits the school is in restructuring, meaning the BIE has ordered it to take drastic measures to improve, but it's bouncing back.

"Our math and English scores are up," he said, "and we're hoping to make AYP next year or the year after."

As for the apparent dearth of Navajo civics knowledge, Yazzie doesn't buy it.

"We have a Navajo language and culture program, including Navajo government," he said, adding that Borrego Pass was one of the pioneers in cultural education. "I stand by our program."

Besides the school issue, the chapter has the usual things to worry about, like infrastructure. In that area, it's pretty fortunate: 80 percent of the homes have electricity, and another power line extension is in the planning stages.

Rather than the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Casamero Lake works with Continental Divide, a cooperative headquartered in Grants.

"The homeowners wire their own homes - it has to be done by a certified electrician," explained Yazzie. "Then we use state capital improvement funds to contract with Continental Divide for the power line."

At the moment, the chapter has been allocated $120,000 for the new extension - which sounds like a lot until you learn each power pole costs $1,500.

Road improvements are also coming little by little; County Road 19, Casamero's main lifeline to the outside world, is scheduled for paving next spring.

As for assets, the chapter's biggest one may be its willingness to listen to young, educated folks like Yazzie.

Yazzie says it wasn't his intention to come back home and serve on every board in the area; it just sort of happened.

Back in 2004, he had finished two bachelor's degrees - one in public administration and one in computer science - and done an internship with NASA.

"I was thinking of moving to either Dallas or Oklahoma," said Yazzie, "when I decided to come back home for a while."

On a whim, he and his sister went to a chapter meeting.

"They were looking for a school board president and a chapter secretary," Yazzie recalled.

By the time they came home, Yazzie's sister was school board president and he was chapter secretary.

In the next election, he ran for chapter president... and has served three consecutive terms so far.

The bright lights of Dallas are fading fast.

"To live out here, a hundred miles from good grocery shopping, you almost have to be from here," mused Yazzie. "When we hire teachers from places like New York or Maryland or Florida, they sometimes don't last more than a few months."

Yazzie thinks maybe he'll stay, and try to make Casamero Lake just a little bit more like Dallas.

"We should be getting our certification next year," he said. "We're getting a new senior citizens building, and then we can start working on a feasibility study for a business like a gas station or a laundromat. We're also thinking about trying to get a contract with NAPI for a hay-baling facility or something like that..."

Or maybe the chapter should funnel all its resources into cloning research, so it can clone Yazzie. Think what two whirlwinds could do.

Casamero Lake at a Glance

Name - Casamero was a Spaniard who lived near the lake. According to the chapter's website, he wanted the community named after him and the locals complied, but the real founder of the community that grew around the Borrego Pass Trading Post was a man named Incly Begay. Begay organized the first community meetings and later donated his grazing land for a chapter house. The Navajos refer to the area as Tseta'to'ak'oli, "Water waves among the rock." The lake is currently seasonal, but within recent memory it had water in it year-round.

Population -about 1,200

Land area - one of the Navajo Nation's smallest chapters at about 64,000 acres

Problems - no paved road to the chapter, isolation, lack of businesses, feral horses

Assets - Its location on the edge of the reservation allows Casamero Lake to work with closely with a Grants-based electrical cooperative as well as state and county government for its infrastructure needs

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