The homeless chapter

All Chichiltah wants for Christmas is a chapter house

By Cindy Yurth
Tseyi' Bureau

CHICHILTAH CHAPTER, N.M., December 13, 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 13th in the series.)

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T his pretty chapter high on a wooded plateau wants the same thing for Christmas it wanted last year, and the year before that, and the year before that: a chapter house.

A simple chapter renovation that was supposed to last three months is going into its fifth year.

It all started in 2007 when the chapter received a grant from the state of New Mexico to expand its 1970s-era chapter house to add a veterans' services office. The money was also sufficient to redo the dingy bathrooms and kitchen.

As Chapter Services Coordinator Roselyn John explains it, the chapter had no idea it was standing on the brink of a money pit.

"It turned out to be a humongous project," John said. "And we're not done yet."

Anyone who has ever bought an older home will recognize the story.

The first thing the renovation uncovered was a leak in a major water line that happened to run right under the building.

"So, OK, we fixed that," John said. But when it came time to hook up the new plumbing to the sewer system, the chapter discovered its aging sewer lagoon came nowhere near complying with modern environmental standards.

About the same time, "We also found out the chapter had asbestos," John said. "Using the Navajo Nation procurement process, it took us a month just to find someone to clean it up."

Of course, by this time, the original grant had long since run out, so every new problem required begging for funds. Which, as everybody knows, have become scarcer and scarcer with the decline in the economy.

"I spend most of my days knocking on doors looking for money," John said. "I've been contacting the Office of the President, our council delegate (Charles Damon), the state, the county...anyone I think might be able to help us."

The chapter has passed several resolutions requesting funding, and even got the whole Eastern Agency on its side, but hasn't managed to secure enough money to finish the job.

"We're looking at next March or April, after the Legislature meets," John said. "That would be a great late Christmas present."

Meanwhile, next-door neighbor Bááháálí Chapter has provided office space free of charge, and the chapter has been meeting in the elementary school.

"We're very grateful to Bááháálí," John said. "Without them, we'd be paying rent on top of everything else."

It's a fairly typical cooperation. Separated from the rest of the Navajo Nation by the town of Gallup, the southern chapters have learned to rely on each other.

"There's a lot of people in Bááháálí who vote in Chichiltah and vice versa," John said. "The chapter boundaries kind of blend together."

There's also a lot of intermarriage with nearby Zuni, although the two reservations have never worked on projects together, as far as John knows.

Observed Wilbert Billy, who has lived in Chichiltah since he was a young child, "When the Zunis have a ceremony, Navajos bring groceries. When we're having something over here, they show up with food. They're good neighbors."

This heavily checkerboarded chapter has had to deal with neighbors of all kinds throughout the years.

"I don't know how, but some of the best farm land ended up in the hands of bilagáanas," John said.

The most famous bilagáana farm was the Jones Ranch, owned by an old Texan whose first name most of the locals seem to have forgotten but who employed most of them at one time or another in his bean field during the 1950s and 60s.

Most people here referred to their employer as "Old Man Jones" or simply "Jehkaal," "Deaf."

"He was so hard-of-hearing you had to yell at him," recalled Wilbert's wife Alice, 65.

Jones paid his workers $3 a day, which at the time, wasn't bad, said Wilbert.

"That was back when a bottle of pop cost five cents and a loaf of bread cost fifty cents," he said.

Of course, Old Jehkaal got most of it back, since he also operated the only store for miles.

These days, Jones is long gone and his land has been subdivided into ranchettes.

"There's a lot of bilagáanas moving in," John said. "They kind of keep to their own area. We don't interact much. Nobody has any problem with them, as far as I know."

However, the checkerboard also includes tracts of state and BLM land, which makes getting rights-of-way for water and power lines a nightmare. In a chapter of fewer than 1,000 people some 200 families still haul water, and a sizeable number are without electricity.

The solution, says John, is supplying utilities on location. The chapter is planning a deep well in its southern region to serve the families in that area. The Billys recently installed a solar panel through a program serving low-income, remote households.

Power lines and water lines are slowly going in, and in short order the chapter will have broadband Internet through a partnership with McKinley County Schools.

"We were fortunate to be the halfway point for the antenna," John explained.

It's also possibly the only chapter operating its own transfer station, partnering with Bááháálí, so residents have a place to take their trash.

"We don't make any money on it," John said. "It's just a way to keep our community clean."

Seniors like the Billys appreciate the spanking new senior citizens center, and the chapter is eyeing the pleasant, light-filled building as a temporary location for its offices.

While Chichiltah does not have the problems with feral horses that most Navajo chapters are facing, it does have a large population of feral dogs.

"It seems like people from Gallup dump their dogs out here," Alice Billy said. "We get some real mean ones."

The Billys, in fact, sold their small herd of sheep 10 years ago after a pack of dogs killed five and injured several more. Just last week, an elder suffered a dog bite so severe, it cracked his rib.

But far and away the hardest situation facing the chapter is its lack of a central home.

A chapter house, says John, "is an education center, a social gathering place, your headquarters for emergency response, a place where people share with other families.

"You won't miss all that until it's not there."

Chichiltah at a Glance

Name - At first glance, "Among the Oaks" seems an odd name for this chapter, which has many more piñon pines and junipers than oaks. But the elders recall the original location of the chapter house in a stand of Gambel oak.

Elevation - At 7,000 feet, one of the Nation's highest chapters

Population - between 900 and 1,000

Land area - 207 square miles

Features - Manuelito Canyon, a scenic area for hiking and herding livestock

Problems - A seemingly endless chapter house renovation, extreme checkerboarding, packs of feral dogs

Assets - transfer station, new senior citizens center, soon to have broadband Internet, good relations with neighboring chapters

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