Swept under the rug

A grand community feat never quite paid off for Chilchinbeto

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 14th in the series.)

CHILCHINBETO CHAPTER, Ariz., Dec. 20, 2012

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Everybody knows Chilchinbeto is the home of the world's largest Navajo rug -- and if you don't, you can read it on the sign pointing the way to the chapter.

But did you know the rug was actually Plan B?

The chapter's leaders in the 1970s actually had a different, even more far-fetched scheme to put their community on the map.

Chilchinbeto at a Glance

Name -- The English translation is "Sumac Spring," in reference to a beautiful spring in the rocks a short distance from the chapter house. "It's the best water on the Navajo Nation," boasted lifelong Chilchinbeto resident Rose Zonnie, and at one time the spring was piped into a cistern where residents could gather it. These days, the pipeline has fallen into disrepair and most residents get their water from Navajo Tribal Utility Authority or fetch it from the chapter house. Sumac was an important plant to the Navajo because of its edible berries and supple branches that can be used to fashion baskets.

History -- According to Zonnie, the community was started in the early 1920s by two half-brothers, Hastiin Sherlock and Happy Team Charley, who moved down from Black Mesa to be closer to the spring. Zonnie said both men had large families and may have moved from the community on the mesa top because they needed more room. "Most of the families that are here now can trace back to one of these men," she said. Local heroes include Katherine Wallace, one of the first women in the area to get an education. "She forced me and a lot of other girls to go to school," Zonnie recalled. "She was a health aide for the BIA and was out front organizing every time we had one of these epidemics. She lived to be a hundred years old, with hair as white as paper, and was active almost to the end."

Population -- 1,458

Land area -- 242,949 acres

Claim to fame -- world's largest Navajo rug, although it may be slightly smaller than one that recently surfaced in Winslow.

Those were optimistic times on the Navajo Nation. Peter MacDonald was chairman, and part of his platform was local self-sufficiency. He divided millions of dollars among the chapters, telling each one to invest it in a business that would reap dividends for the chapter for generations to come.

Many chapters went with community farms or irrigation projects. Chilchinbeto went a different route.

Navajo Route 59 between Many Farms and Kayenta was finally being paved, and Chilchinbeto's Council Delegate, Charlie Billy, and president, Billy Charley, decided to focus their efforts on tourism.

But what would draw people to the remote community at the foot of Black Mesa?

Billy decided Chilchinbeto would be the home of the world's largest turquoise nugget.

It was an odd sort of quest. The nearest turquoise mines were hundreds of miles to the west, near Kingman, and hundreds of miles to the south, near Globe. But people knew Billy as something of a visionary, and he was so well loved that the town immediately embraced the idea.

"The community leaders went out in all directions looking for this turquoise," recalled J.B. Kinlacheeny, former chapter manager and current vice president-elect. "They pretty much failed."

Glumly regrouping, Billy and his cronies hatched a different plan. This one would rely on the most dependable resource on the Navajo Nation: grandmas.

Billy recruited 10 of the area's best weavers: Helen Charley (who supervised), Kate Lee Charley, Jane H. Charley, Bessie Redmustache, Helen Begay, Rose Austin, Joann Singer, Susie Young, Lillie Yazzie and Lita Keith.

Amazingly, the artisans were able to agree on a pattern that incorporated all the major rug designs of the Navajo, with a unique design in the center.

Weaving "Shima"

The women commandeered the gymnasium at the BIA school and, with the help of the menfolk, built a gigantic loom 38-by-25 feet to weave the world's largest Navajo rug.

"It was major construction, I would say," said Sally Yazzie, who watched the process as a girl and later worked on "Little Sister," a slightly smaller Navajo rug, which also resides in Chilchinbeto.

"The ladies sat a certain distance apart from each other, all working at once. The yarn had to come all the way from one end of the gym to the other. For some parts they used a come-along. They would roll up the finished part and keep going."

The weaving started in 1977 and was completed in 1979. Everyone agreed the finished rug was breathtaking.

After it was finished, "Word spread like wildfire across the reservation," Kinlacheeny said. Appraisers from far and wide came to look at it. According to local legend, a Saudi Arabian prince offered $2.5 million, and the government of Iran offered to build the community its own coal-fired power plant in exchange for the rug.

But selling it had never been part of Billy's vision. He wanted to build the rug its own museum, so people from far and wide would pay to see it.

Also, the community had become quite attached to its rug.

"They called it 'Shima' ('My Mother')," Kinlacheeny recalled. "They said it would take care of the community like a mother. We would take care of it, and it would take care of us."

Apparently, no one had quite thought through how the rug would take care of them. The grand museum Billy envisioned was never built. Today, the rug is rented out for display at $1,500 a pop.

It has been to the 1984 Presidential inauguration, all over the state of Arizona, to many Navajo Nation inauguration ceremonies, and this past summer followed the Navajos' footsteps to Bosque Redondo, N.M. and back.

Chapter officials are currently negotiating with the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., which wants to display it.

But the proceeds trickling in have never been enough to build Shima and Little Sister an appropriate home.

Is it the largest?

Meanwhile, some contention has arisen over whether it actually is the world's largest Navajo rug. The Winslow Arts Trust claims to have recently acquired a rug 26 feet wide by 36 feet long commissioned by Lorenzo Hubbell in 1932.

If those dimensions are correct, the Winslow rug would be a full 14 square feet larger than the 37-foot-10-inch-by-24-foot-five-inch Shima. (Still, Chilchinbeto could claim to have the world's LONGEST Navajo rug.)
Currently, the Chilchinbeto rugs sit rolled up in the chapter house, wrapped in plastic tarps. Seeing them, the chapter officials agree, would make any textile curator cringe, but the chapter lacks the funds and the expertise to properly store and preserve them.

"We need a secure location to properly display it," Kinlacheeny said. "We still need a way to figure out how to make some kind of money off it."

Chapter Vice President Mary Keahey said people often want the community to share the rug for free -- just recently President Ben Shelly's office asked if Chilchinbeto could waive the fee to display it at the inauguration for chapter officials in January.

"No Navajo Nation president has come to this chapter in 10 years," Keahey said. "We invited President Shelly to our Christmas dinner, but he said he would send a representative."

Responded Yazzie, "Just tell them, 'If the president can't come to visit us, the rug won't come to visit them.'"

Other baskets

Newly hired Chapter Manager Rae Tate is all for preserving and displaying the rug, but doesn't think Shima and Little Sister should be expected to pay their way; the chapter has other baskets for its eggs. Chilchinbeto recently withdrew land along Navajo Route 59 for a convenience store and gas station, which would be the only roadside business along the 65-mile stretch between Kayenta and Many Farms.

Also on the drawing board: a multi-purpose building that would include space for chapter offices. The chapter house has been condemned for 10 years now, and the chapter has moved into the former Canyonlands Clinic, which put up a new building.

The clinic is another dream gone somewhat awry; originally built by the chapter and run by the Indian Health Service and the tribe, it was sold to Page-based non-profit Canyonlands Healthcare in 1998 after the IHS decreed the tiny clinic was not feasible to maintain.

The community had put the 25-by-19 foot "Little Sister" on the auction block at Sotheby's, hoping to make enough money to keep the clinic in public hands, but didn't get a single bidder.

The physician's assistant who manned the clinic for years has moved away, and the community is having trouble attracting another doctor who doesn't mind living in such a remote area.

There are plenty of people, however, who find this pretty chapter a fine place to live. The chapter's office assistant, Rose Zonnie, finds herself a newlywed at 63, having married her bilag‡ana pastor last month.

"He loves it here," she said. "He doesn't mind living without water or electricity. He's out with my grandson chopping wood for me right now."

The 44 homes of the Navajo Housing Authority's Chilchinbeto Estates are finally occupied after years of vacancy following the Lodgebuilder/Ft. Defiance Housing Corp. bankruptcy debacle of 2004.

The chapter officials complain the rent is too high, but an employee of Sandstone Housing, which manages the property, said the amount charged is on a sliding scale based on income and family size, and even the maximum is less than $600 a month for a three-bedroom house.

According to the employee, the homes are all occupied and there's a waiting list, so apparently the market is bearing the price.

The chapter welcomes the influx of new residents, bringing the population to 1,458 at the last census, but it doesn't really benefit from them. Most commute the 24 miles to Kayenta for work and shopping, since the only business in Chilchinbeto is the clinic. Since the chapter is certified, it can begin collecting taxes once the new convenience store is operational, Tate said.

According to oral history, Chilchinbeto was once a rendezvous point for trade between the Navajo, Hopi and northern tribes.

Perhaps, with the new store and a nice place to display the World's Longest, if not Largest, Navajo Rug, it can be a mecca once again.

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