Saturday, July 20, 2024

Letters: ‘Stop your fears! Believe strongly in yourself!’

Letters: ‘Stop your fears! Believe strongly in yourself!’
Big Mountain protesters fighting relocation in the 1980s as part of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute. Photo by Kenji Kawano.

Big Mountain protesters fighting relocation in the 1980s as part of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute. Photo by Kenji Kawano.

The first thing I must acknowledge is that, though I will do my best, my words could never do Ida Mae Clinton or her struggle, justice. There is no way to adequately describe her strength, her resolve, or the depth of the spiritual relationship she had with the land that sustained not only her, but countless generations before her. Ida was what in a sane world would be considered a “national treasure,” yet her passing and the passing of others like her have taken place with barely a whisper, barely a mention.

First and foremost, Ida was an activist fighting to save her way of life from the forces of colonialism. During the 1980s Ida and other elders on Black Mesa took their activism to another level and opened up their homes to “supporters” who came from all over the world to see firsthand what was happening.

Supporters began staying for weeks or months at a time herding sheep and providing elder care and domestic assistance. One important task of the supporter is to spread the word about what is happening in that area. The message of Ida’s resistance must be heard. Her message, her truth, is exactly what we need to hear In today’s world of multiple and overlapping crises, many of them stemming from our warped or totally nonexistent relationship with the land we live on and the natural forces that sustain us.

Ida Mae Clinton was one of the last of a generation that truly knew what it was to be free. Their worldview is almost incomprehensible to us. How many of us can go down to our local river or stream and drink from it? How many of us can feed, clothe, and house ourselves without the aid of money or huge corporations?

Imagine learning everything you need for life without expensive universities and tedious hours of absorbing and regurgitating useless facts and information. Imagine a way of life that does not pollute and destroy the earth we depend on for survival. Though the modern world has given us much, the price has been steep and something has been lost, something fundamental to our humanity and to our ability to be good stewards of this precious earth.

In the 1960s and 70s, the Baby Boomer generation was coming of age and driving the expansion of cities and suburbs in the increasingly energy-hungry southwest. Amazingly, at that time and despite all the assaults against indigenous people over the centuries, many traditional Diné still thrived on the so-called reservation. Around this time is when the U.S. government instigated land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes began in earnest.

It was no coincidence that the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act came into effect during this period of settler expansion in the southwest. This legislation that officially disenfranchised many thousands of traditional Diné was enacted in 1974. The Navajo Generating Station power plant was officially brought online two years later in 1976; it ran on coal that was strip mined from lands that had until a few years before been occupied by traditional Diné and Hopi living together in relative peace and harmony. Essentially, there was cultural genocide in exchange for cheap, dirty energy.

Ida lived far enough from the mine and the Navajo Generating Station to avoid the very worst aspects of this turmoil (devastating pollution and a marring of the landscape), but she was still swept up in the tragic events due to living on the wrong side of the newly created Hopi partition boundary. In the very beginning she could have taken a settlement and moved to relocation housing like many others were compelled to do, but she did not. As the years wore on, and as she grew frailer, rather than take the easier path of moving in with relatives to live out the rest of her days in relative comfort, Ida chose to continue residing on her land despite the hardships she knew she would face.

Her own tribal leaders, many of them brainwashed by the settler education system and more concerned with money and status than with anything else, turned their backs on her and the other resisters. Services like road and home repairs that were provided to most tribal members were denied to Ida because, according to the bureaucrats, technically she was no longer living on the Navajo Reservation. I remember Ida telling me several times how she and her daughter Rose (who was special needs and required a lot of care) would often resort to eating potatoes for days on end. There were times when she would be fearful of people trespassing on her land, yet there was no phone line, no electricity. Living as a resister to relocation also caused rifts between Ida and members of her family who had made different choices. There was bitterness on both sides; some relationships fell apart and were never mended.

Knowing the physical and emotional hardships she would face, why did Ida choose to stay? Well, when the land dispute kicked into high gear, she recognized right away that the future of the Diné people was in jeopardy. She understood instinctively that dislocation from the land would mean a loss of tradition, a loss of language, and that the loss of these things constituted a form of violence. This is why she advocated for direct action. When the livestock impoundments began, Ida fought back. Along with her friends and family in Star Mountain valley she confronted BIA officials, even going as far as to get into physical altercations with them. She marched, she protested, she traveled to faraway cities to spread awareness about the threats facing her traditional way of life.

Here are some of her words from the last video recorded interview she gave to NaBahe Katenay Keedihiihii for Big Mountain Productions: “Our livelihood, like the sheep, all of it they confiscated! The sheep are our savings and income, food as well. There are the cornfields, the sweat lodges, places of holiness — all of these they destroyed in our area. To me it is unacceptable! Another solution with more force perhaps; stronger plans initiated from here; our supporters and non-Native allies notified — Access into [the] coal mine pit needs to be blocked, a barrier set up and their operations halted.”

During the last weeks of Ida’s life the Hopi and BIA assault on Black Mesa elders was renewed with the tacit support of the Navajo tribal government. Swat teams complete with helicopters descended on Black Mesa after a lull of over a decade, terrorizing and arresting people and confiscating livestock. Though Ida was recovering in a nursing home far from her own land at the time, and though her family did not dare let her know what was happening, it was almost as if she could somehow sense what was going on. The small progress she had managed to make began to reverse itself. She became “agitated” according to the nurses, and began insisting on being allowed to go home immediately.

I wish I could say that Ida passed peacefully from this world after her decades of inspirational struggle, but that would be a lie. Thanks to a fundamentally broken geriatric care system, her last months on this earth were very difficult. The details are too painful to recount here. In the end, her heart that was so strong and warm and full of love failed. Because of the situation on Black Mesa she could not be buried on her beautiful ancestral lands, but instead was laid to rest in some strip mall border town. Sadly, the circumstances of her passing are not unique and will be familiar to many reading this.

What is unique is the way she lived. She lived life on her own terms. She fought for what she believed in, drawing upon wells of strength that must have been quite deep. In the days following her passing, many family members came out to her land over a period of several days to pay their respects, as is their custom. Seeing Ida’s great-grandchildren and other young relatives taking the sheep out to pasture made me smile in spite of my grief. She had left them an important gift; she had been a living example, a living testament to the importance of holding onto their traditions. Her sacrifice was not in vain.

Over these past few months I think I’ve cried more for her than I cried for my own grandmother when she passed in 2010 (rest in peace). This was surprising at first, but then understanding dawned on me. Yes, Ida was not related to me by blood; she was not flesh of my flesh. Yet flesh can be corrupted, destroyed, and obliterated. Flesh rots away and blood can be tainted. Spiritual bonds and emotional ties born of shared experiences, mutual respect, and an acknowledgement of another person’s humanity and uniqueness — these bonds are not so easily broken. Some might say that these bonds transcend our earthbound existence; they are, or can be, immortal.

I will end this with Ida’s own words: “The aggressors force requires prayers to confront them, “Stop your fears! Believe strongly in yourself!”

Ron Lester Whyte
Philadelphia, Pa.

Address excellence gap to improve
basic proficiency

For too long, high-achieving and high-potential students have been harmed by the dangerous fallacy that they will succeed on their own. We can no longer afford to dismiss talent development for the population New Mexico defines gifted — about 5 percent of students or 16,800; nor the additional 15 percent (approximately 50,000) who could be identified by a national definition of giftedness. These students are the future workforces for high-paying science, technology, creative and information-based careers in New Mexico. Their education is a major source of the state’s future prosperity.

Because of inattention to talent development, New Mexico has an excellence gap — between high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers, between white students and students of color, and between high-potential students in New Mexico and those across the nation.

Based on National Assessment of Educational Progress test data sampling performance for the last two decades, our state’s greatest educational improvement has been in elementary mathematics. While that is laudable, American Indian, Black, and Hispanic students are three or more times less likely to score at the advanced level than White students. Students receiving free lunch, an indicator of poverty, are five times less likely to score advanced than students not needing assistance. Half as many New Mexico students (4 percent) score advanced, compared to the average 8 percent nationwide.

On another NAEP test, 8th grade reading, 1 percent of New Mexico students score advanced, ? of the national average. Despite the many attempts at reform, reading scores have not significantly improved in New Mexico since 1992.

New Mexico has invested vast sums in raising the educational status of low-performing students, with mixed results. Overall, our state’s educational performance could be predicted by its poverty.

Our workforce of tomorrow has too few high-performing students to attract increasingly intellectual jobs to this state. And, given who performs at the top, we can predict those intellectual jobs that do exist will go disproportionally to students who are white and economically secure.

Our students have every bit as much potential as any students in the nation, but we must improve the economic status of our children to help them perform well in school. We have to address the excellence gap in order to improve basic proficiency.

Our state can make improvements in talent development, beginning this legislative session. Cost effective and easily implemented examples include:

  • Early entrance to kindergarten.
  • Required availability of more accelerated classes.
  • Teacher preparation programs requiring at least one course on high-ability learners.
  • Growth and advanced achievement of the top 25% of students becoming a part of school grading.
  • Require that school districts report how funding for high-ability learners is spent.

New Mexico has long had a commitment to gifted learners. To create a more equitable impact for our diverse population, more students need talent development services. Our current investment in gifted education keeps a small yet significant portion of our student population learning, growing, and motivated. A greater one would benefit our entire state for years to come.

Geoffrey Moon
New Mexico Association for the Gifted
Gallup, N.M.

Covert exclusively to Class II gaming

If New Mexico, our gaming competition, and their lobbyist want to play hardball, we have an option – don’t play. Yes, we have that option.

We only need a compact for Class III gaming; Class I and II are reserved for our exclusive regulation. That means we won’t make as much as we once did. It used to be that Native nations were the only ones to offer Class III gaming in New Mexico, but New Mexico has opened up Class III to other private and non-profit gaming interests thus making Class III non-exclusive. In doing so, New Mexico saturated the gaming market, not us. Now, New Mexico wants us to pay for their greedy mistake. Stop Class III gaming in New Mexico altogether and convert exclusively to Class II gaming.

With technological advances in gaming machines, Class II and Class III games are virtually indistinguishable, and the player experience is practically the same. Class I include traditional games and could be beefed up as well, some tribal casinos offer high stakes traditional games.

The best part is we will not have to pay any state fees, regulation, or agree to a repressive colonial compact. Those fees and regulatory burdens are substantial and could be re-invested into the expansion of Class II gaming facilities (economic development) elsewhere including New Mexico. We would be the first nation in New Mexico to buck the state and chart our own self-determinate course free of colonial intrusion.

Matthew Tafoya
Fort Defiance, Ariz.


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