My Time With The Navajo Elders

by Jenn Campus Mar 20, 2007

Sunset over Arizona

When you live with people who have lost everything, can you learn to forgive?

Black Mesa, also know as Big Mountain, is a beautiful desert land out in the northeastern tip of Arizona. It is dotted with few sheep and other livestock.

It is also home to the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe.

“We are humans but our laws have been broken. All of these people’s rights have been violated.”

— Percy Deal, Dine’, Hardrock Chapter

These two peoples have peacefully shared and lived off this land from time immemorial. But the United States government, who holds these peoples in its charge, drew their own borders in 1974, leaving over 10,000 Navajo (Dine’, “The People”) and about 100 Hopi families on the wrong side of the line.

This land is held sacred to these peoples. It is the physical representation of Mother Earth.

So the irony wasn’t overlooked when these artificial boundaries were drawn in order to exploit the land for the coal, uranium and natural gas in the earth below.

The tribes do not benefit from the resources themselves – they have no electricity, running water or plumbing, not even a phone. They make their way as they have always done, through their livestock and agriculture.

Yet their very existence was threatened in order to power cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix; to water their many golf courses in the desert. The Dine’ watched as their wells dried up, the wildlife disappeared, and the plants for the sheep to graze on become more and more scarce.

A Familiar Tragedy

The Arizona LandscapeLike similar stories heard the world ever, these sad events and measures were agreed upon by corrupt leadership.

The US Government decided to solve this crisis by relocating these Dine’ families now on the Hopi Reservation to track housing projects in suburban Phoenix.

Most of these families did not know how to survive in urban areas. They could not afford their mortgages because they could not find jobs, as many of these relocatees were elders who are illiterate and speak no English.

Some of these elders, who know no other way to live than by herding sheep and living off the land, started resisting this relocation. Thirty years later, they are still fighting for the right to remain on their ancestral lands.

The US government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, called the Hopi Tribal Police to coerce them to leave, enforcing laws to make those resisting families lives harder. Their livestock were impounded, they were barred from collecting firewood, and even their homes and sacred spaces were bulldozed.

Journey To Black Mesa

Winter is an unforgiving time on the Mesa. Many elderly resisters die because of sub-zero temperatures, and with wood difficult to stockpile, many get sick, and they freeze.

In 1998 my conscience called to me to action.

The modest home of Grandma and GrandpaI went out to Black Mesa to spend several months with an elderly couple, to help them with their daily tasks and to keep watch over them. I also went to bear witness to the atrocities.

It was a sadly documented reality that Indian families in the company of a white person were less likely to be harassed by the Hopi Police. If anything happened to a white person up on the Mesa, it would be all over the airwaves.

During my time there I had the honor of staying with the *Smith’s. (*I have changed their name in this article, for their protection). It wasn’t long before they were known to me as “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”

When a person of relative privilege goes to a place where the basic amenities and comforts of home are absent, it forces you to become what is really inside of you, to call upon your deeper nature. You find out what you are really made of.

It gets down into your core of you and just… simplifies everything.

As you focus on the things that really matter in life, the value of “stuff” becomes unimportant.

No more taking for granted running water and flushing toilets or a hot bath. As you focus on the things that really matter in life, the value of “stuff” becomes unimportant.

How much does one really need in order to be content and happy? Does it come from things, or the beautiful exhaustion that comes from having an actual relationship with the land and the earth’s creatures?

I learned to talk to myself and to listen. I wondered, what are the issues in my life that I would be willing to fight for?

In The Presence Of Tradition

I helped Grandma and Grandpa too. I was there when the Hopi Ranger arrived with a semi-automatic, entered their home and questioned them in a language he knew they didn’t understand.

I was there to take care of the goats and the sheep when Grandma needed to go to her heart doctor, 3 hours away in Phoenix.

Sheep heading home for the corall.Alone and afraid, I brought the herd home when the snow and ice were so deep that ice balls had formed on their fur and weighed them down so much, they could no longer walk. Relying on my newfound inner strength, I found a stick and beat the snowballs off the goats until I could get them up the hill and to safety.

I was also there for humor. Slaughtering a sheep and preparing the meat afterwards is a process that takes all day. The first time I participated, I was given lots of little jobs to do. The Dine’ eat every part of the sheep.

I watched as Grandma sat emptying the bowels of the animal into old coffee cans and cleaning the intestines in hot water. She took parts of the fat layer that had dried in the sun and wrapped the cleaned pieces of the intestines around it. She then put these packages into clean water to keep them fresh.

The sheep corall.She motioned for me to do something with the bowl of water with intestines and the dirty coffee can. I could not figure out why she wanted me to put the clean intestines in the dirty coffee can. I pretended to do it and she nodded.

I dumped the intestines in the coffee can. I had almost dumped it all when she yelled and came over to me with another bowl of clean water and motioned for me to take the intestines back out of the coffee can and clean them.

I realized then that all she had wanted me to do was dump the dirty water out of the cleaning bowl into the coffee can.

I felt horrible. But instead of being mad, it became the joke of the duration of my stay. She started calling me dygyss (some form of “stupid” or “git”) and even when we had visitors she would tell the story of how the stupid bilaga’ana (white girl) dumped clean food to be eaten into sheep dung.

A Place In Their Family

The most treasured gift they gave me was the gift of humility; of knowing how much space I take up in the world. That humbleness has nothing to do with weakness, but is perhaps the most powerful human attribute of all.

Jenn holding a lambThe silent power of knowing more is not better. To give when you have nothing and never presume to know anything.

Since then I give thanks that I don’t have to sleep with one eye open, worry about freezing to death or having my home torn down when I am away.

After all the pain and sadness these Dine’ resistors had experienced at the hands of outsiders, to know they invited me into their home, eat their food, and made a place for me in their family is overwhelming.

These people, on the brink of losing everything, can still forgive. It changed the perspective of how I think. Even now, almost ten years later, as I sit here writing this, the tears well in my eyes as I wish I could have done more.

When I was there, I even considered staying with Grandma and Grandpa indefinitely, helping them as my life’s work. But I knew I had to get back to head home eventually. My job was to bring these lessons back with me, and implement them into my own life.

To tell people what is happening up there, on a beautiful desolate land full of people who “Walk in Beauty”.


Things for the most part have remained the same on Black Mesa. Grandpa died of old age about 5 years ago. Grandma, in her 80’s continues to live out her years, on her own, with her piece of land and her sheep.

In November, she suffered a minor heart attack after a harassing confrontation with a Hopi Ranger while herding her sheep. (Read her statement here)

Currently her case is on continuance and the pre-trial date is March the 12th.

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