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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Her Life Belongs to the Land

For 32 years, Navajo Pauline Whitesinger has resisted U.S. efforts to force her off what it says is Hopi land. For her, home is who she is.

February 04, 2006|Sean Reily | Times Staff Writer

HOPI RESERVATION, Ariz. — A rifle hangs under Pauline Whitesinger's mud-packed timber ceiling. It's placed within easy reach so she can scare off the coyotes that threaten her sheep. But there have been times when she's imagined other uses.

"Maybe we should have set up firearms at our doorways so we could defend our homes," she said in her native Navajo language, as translated by her nephew Danny Blackgoat.

Whitesinger lives like her ancestors did, in an eight-sided juniper hogan in the reaches of Big Mountain, Ariz. Miles from the nearest paved road, she is without electricity or running water. She sleeps on a cot over a dirt floor next to a wood fire built within an overturned, sawed-off barrel. She wakes each morning before dawn, and her first action is to make a small white-corn pollen offering and to pray in the direction of the rising sun.

Whitesinger is one of the last Navajos remaining on this land after the largest forced migration in the U.S. since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1974, Congress drew a boundary through what had been a 1.8-million-acre joint-use area between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. While an estimated 100 Hopis were told to move from what had become the Navajo side of the boundary, about 12,000 Navajos were ordered off the Hopi side.

Sponsors of the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act said its purpose was to return to the Hopi Tribe ancestral land that had been occupied by the Navajos for more than a century. Critics said it was no coincidence that beneath the land lay some of the largest untouched coal deposits in North America, and that the Navajos needed to be moved to allow the mining.

Either way, Whitesinger said, "it was like a big wind that flew into our vicinity and said, 'This is it; you have to abide by what had passed in Congress. You are going to have to relocate.' "

In traditional Navajo belief, land cannot belong to a person. Instead, a person belongs to the land on which they were born. If Navajos stray too far from that land, they lose themselves and their sense of purpose and direction.

So when a representative from the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation "came to ask me to sign up for the relocation benefits and move," Whitesinger recalled, "I didn't bother with that person at all. But all of a sudden, it was like a sieve. Where we were a thousand points of light within this area, there are only a few of us now -- a few flickers of light."

Many Navajos called the relocation the "Second Long Walk," comparing it to the infamous Long Walk in 1864, when the U.S. government rounded up the tribal members and marched them to Ft. Sumner in New Mexico -- a trail on which many died. In this new transplantation, the Navajos were given promises of the so-called New Lands, mostly government-built housing on the reservation's border towns.

A rural people who earned their living off the land, they were undereducated and ill-equipped to compete for the few jobs on a reservation where unemployment hovers near 50%. Most of the elders and many of the adults didn't speak English. Many of the stories that followed were of tragedy, grief and depression. Of the first groups that relocated, 25% were dead within four years.

"I had a lot of my relatives relocate to the New Lands," Whitesinger said. "If they had sheep, it was three sheep in a corral the size of my hogan. They might have nice homes, but that isn't the way I was brought up. That is why I stayed."

Whitesinger and the other Navajos who refused to move became known as "resisters." And the federal government and Hopi Tribe set out to make life difficult for them.

All construction, including repairs to existing structures, was forbidden. Reductions were placed on livestock, often limiting their numbers to fewer than it would take to support a family. Grazing permits were canceled. Free-roaming livestock that crossed newly created boundary lines were impounded. Regulations limited the collection of firewood. Water wells were capped and blades were removed from the windmills that pumped the water. Even the prairie dogs that the poorer Navajos ate were poisoned in a pest-eradication program.

As Whitesinger watched one resister family after another wear down and succumb to the relocation, she saw "the Hopi come with their bulldozers and level their home sites, leaving no trace of their lives there," she said.

When a work crew arrived in the late 1970s to place a fence across the grazing land for her sheep in the relocation's first move against her, Whitesinger borrowed her son's truck and drove close to the workers in an attempt to scare them off.

Each time the crew members returned, they would find their previous day's work dismantled and discarded. Eventually they gave up.

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