A 50-year dance with Washington's wolves

National | Surveying the damage a half-century of "help" from the welfare system has visited upon a Native American people

Issue: "Motel 1600," Sept. 6, 1997

On the high, barren plains of the Navajo Nation, a cramped zoo displays a few dozen listless animals for a few thousand visitors each year. Huge rock formations, the mighty Haystacks, tower over the zoo's litter-lined walkways. A sign at the zoo's entrance warns that something is not allowed in the zoo, "for many reasons." A vandal with spray paint long ago obscured the part of the sign that says exactly what is not allowed. No one has bothered to re-letter the sign or to take it down. It just hangs there, forbidding something unknown, for reasons also unknown.

Last spring, a group of Navajo yataalii (medicine men) blamed the zoo, set up by the bilagaanaa (whites), for the troubles of the Dinee (meaning "the People," the term the Navajo use for themselves). Alcoholism, unemployment, tribal government corruption, even domestic violence is due to the chicken-wire captivity of eagles, bears, coyotes and other animals. For this and other breaches of traditional taboos, the Holy People (minor gods or spirit people) are displeased, and hozho (harmony) is out of balance. Hozho won't be restored until the animals are released, the yataalii warn.

Christian missionary Ken Roberts offers a different explanation: "The Navajo people are out of harmony, but they're out of harmony with the Creator." The spiritual problems, he notes, are made worse by generations of bad public policy: "If people want to see a model of the failure of the welfare system, they only need to visit a reservation. We have 45 percent unemployment and massive poverty."

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Navajo Welfare Report of 1947, a study of reservation poverty that sparked congressional indignation and opened the pipeline for billions of federal dollars to flow into Native American regions. WORLD sent ROY MAYNARD to the Navajo reservation to see what a half-century of attention has produced.

Milt Shirleson, the Navajo pastor of Community Bible Church in Window Rock, sees the devastation daily. He also serves as the chaplain to the Navajo Tribal Police and has a weekly jail ministry. On Friday, he visits the men locked up in the Window Rock tribal jail for DUI and spousal abuse (the two most common crimes on the reservation). The rest of the week, he visits their families.

"The biggest barrier the Navajo people are facing is the thinking of the welfare mentality," he says. "The attitude that someone is going to do it for me is affecting every area of life on the Navajo reservation."

The Navajo Nation covers more than 25,000 square miles of gorgeous desolation, high mesas, deep canyons, prairies, and river gorges. About 165,000 Navajos (and maybe 6,000 more whites) populate the reservation, which is the size of West Virginia and takes in parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. More than a third of the Native American adults have less than a ninth-grade education. Only one out of four has completed high school (the national figure for the general population is 75.2 percent). More than half of all Navajos-56.1 percent, according to the 1990 census-live below the poverty level, compared to 13.1 percent nationwide.

But it's an odd sort of poverty. Scattered along sorry roads with truck-mangling potholes are the run-down trailers and tarpaper shacks the majority of Navajo people live in. Often there's a satellite dish outside, poised between the trailer and the small round or hexagonal hogan (the traditional Navajo dwelling), which sits a few yards away.

Most Navajo homes have electricity now; not as many have running water. The offer of a glass of hand-hauled water is a significant thing indeed. But nearly all the homes have television sets. Poverty here seems a strange mix of third-world privation and disappointed consumerism.

But the Navajo people are more than just morality players preaching against government activism. Historically, there has been in the Navajo soul an abiding love and respect for family. The family has been the foundation of the Navajo's matriarchal society, its steadying force. The way Navajos refer to a reprobate, a youth-gone-wrong, roughly translates as, "He is acting as if he has no family."

Elizabeth Begay and her husband, Kee, live near Bread Springs, a spot in the desert only an optimist would call a town. Their squat, cinderblock home is nice in Navajo terms; it lacks air conditioning, but cooling high plains winds make the heat tolerable. The walls are lined with photos of their two sons; both have left the reservation now, seeking work and a future. The Begays have a telephone and a VCR but no indoor plumbing. Their outhouse is a few yards from the back door. Just up the road is Elizabeth's aging, diabetic mother, whom she visits several times per day.


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