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Oljato elder hunkers in makeshift hut while new home is quickly being built

Oljato elder hunkers in makeshift hut while new home is quickly being built

OLJATO-MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah

On a road to Douglas Mesa, Lena Salt lives in a family-made hut.

She chose to stay in the area of her home after a fire with an unknown cause destroyed her mobile home last year. Inside the shed, she sleeps in a makeshift tent to find more warmth.

Construction for this new home began the week of Dec. 8, as the CEO of Utah Navajo Health System, Mike Jensen, became aware of Salt’s situation from a friend.

Salt, an 82-year-old Navajo woman, lives in a small shack in the background of a new home built for her by the Utah Navajo Health System. Her makeshift home, despite it looking downhearted, is kept warm with her smile and tenacity to remain on her own.

Salt is Táchii’nii and born for Honágháahnii. Her cheii is Tódích’íi’nii and her nálí is Tł’ízíłání.

The road to Salt’s home is winding but smooth; it is splashed with fresh snow from a previous storm. The first sight after passing her turnoff is the new house being built for her. Behind it sits the hutch and the rubble from the house fire. In the rubble from the fire lie some of Salt’s pots, pans, and irreplaceable memorabilia.

Salt’s makeshift home, which served as a shack for her firewood and other things, was improved for her to live in by her family after the fire; inside is an assortment of bagged clothes, canned goods, and other necessities such as a wood stove, a mirror shard sitting on a cabinet above a hand-tub with soap, pots and pans, a couch, and a makeshift-tent to sleep inside of.

While inside her home is warm, outside, the air is cold and thin, making breathing shallower and deeper. The shack inside is filled with a warm atmosphere, aided by the woodstove burning a few logs of wood. The room’s aroma is filled with the fire’s smell of dirt and smoke.

The tent in her home is made of several layers of tarps; they are all laid across a metal pole that keeps the whole structure together at the top of the shack. Inside the tent are small containers holding clothes and other items, and a sleeping area is on the other side of the tent.

Navajo Times | Sharon Chischilly
Workers begin installing a meter box outside Lena Salt’s new home Tuesday morning north of Monument Valley in Utah.

On Dec. 13, Council Delegate Herman Daniels Jr. and Monument Valley resident Carl Holiday, the chapter community service coordinator, visited Lena Salt at her shack and checked on the status of her new home.

Salt, according to Daniels, is doing well and is in good health.

According to Daniels, who translated the conversation with Salt from Navajo to English, she wanted to live in the same place she was from and where she spent so many years living; therefore, she did not leave her home to live with her children or grandchildren.

Salt’s makeshift home was previously used by her family to keep wood inside and to store old items that would otherwise take up space in her home.

Since it’s gotten colder, Salt said she sleeps with at least five blankets at night to keep herself warm. In the morning, she wakes up and builds a fire to warm herself.

The wood she burns throughout her day and night she gets from her family members who live in both Page and Kayenta, prospectively.

The walls of her home are covered with various boxes, insulation blankets, and other materials used to keep the warmth inside her shack.

She uses an outhouse located a few feet northeast of the hut. She has two cats and a dog that lives with her.

The Oljato Chapter is working on a resolution for situations like Salt’s. According to chapter president Willis Begay, there is unreliable communication between the chapter officials and Navajo lawmakers.

“We don’t have communication; chapter officials were not aware of it,” Begay said, referring Daniels’ visit.

Additionally, the Oljato Chapter has placed the resolution on hold due to the chapter no longer being certified. Begay labels the previous chapter administration of James Adakai to be responsible for the de-certification of the chapter.

The resolution was also put on hold because of the lack of required leadership needed to move forward; they have filed paperwork to help gain certification again.

“A lot of stuff is red-taped,” Begay said.

Hank Stevens, a Navajo Mountain, Utah resident, said individuals or families could apply for certain assistance through Navajo and Apache counties. Additionally, Utah Diné Bikéyah can provide housing development and funding for families.

“I would say there’s a good number, around 300,” Stevens said.

The new home will help Salt resume her life again after the tragic fire took her home away from her. It will have electricity, water, and a compostable toilet that does not require water but uses power.

“She’s a sweet woman; she bangs on a pot or something and chants, which I think is her cheering us on,” said Jensen, CEO of Utah Navajo Health System.

Salt does not have a vehicle or running water; therefore, she would hitchhike when she needed more food every two weeks. She hitches a ride to Gouldings Trading Post and Museum when she needs to get some groceries. After, she hitchhikes back to her home.

She would visit her son-in-law’s house in Page, Arizona, when she wanted to shower.

In her home, she cooks various foods such as potatoes, frybread, and tortillas on her woodstove and eats different canned foods such as soup and vegetables.

“It’s really rewarding because we’ve taken much of this for granted. We don’t notice our elders.” said a worker working at her home. “It’s really rewarding that we are able to help. She’s going to have a warm winter.”

According to the workers on site, the structure of the home and the flooring were already in place before they began work. The workers built their new work for the house on top of the structure and flooring placed by Salt’s family.

On Dec. 13, the workers placed new windows inside the home and installed a new door in the frame. After they finished putting on the door, the workers handed Salt the keys. Salt’s new home is not yet finished.

“I feel really good about it, and I’m thankful that they’re helping me,” Salt said.

Utah Navajo Health System recently hosted a wood-hauling event; the extra wood they have left over will provide more firewood for Salt to throw into her wood stove to keep warm. The workers will deliver the wood to Salt Dec. 15.

The construction continues, and with the right materials planned is expected to be completed as early as next Friday.


About The Author

Jalen Woody

Jalen Woody is a 2022-23 staff reporting intern for the Navajo Times.

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