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Feds let Navajo put power and water in their home after 40 years.

by Betty Reid Sunday, Nov. 26, 2006 at 5:03 PM

This almost sounds like some punishment god gave the people in the bible. Force them to live for 40 years with out water or power. But nope it ain't the mean old testement god, its Uncle Sam who showed up 40 years ago and said "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you"

If this is the best the government can do then it sucks!!! The government would not allow these Navajo Indians to build new homes or modify existing homes for 40 years, making many indians live for 40 years with out water or electricity.

Now the feds are bragging they solved the problem and whoppie, the indians should thank them cuz in a few months these indians will might get water and power.

New home to end wait for ailing Navajo mom

My mother will get a water faucet.

Dorothy Reid has lived her 79 years on the Navajo Reservation in hogans, under arbors or in canvas tents without running water, bathrooms or electricity.

But that will change soon. After three years of petitioning tribal officials, next year, she will have a modern home: two bedrooms, 600 square feet.

I am as relieved as she is excited. I make the four-hour drive from Phoenix as often as I can, but, with her health declining in recent years, it was never enough.

I visited her this week in northeastern Arizona and found her loading empty 1-gallon milk containers onto a rusty, squeaky Radio Flyer wagon that she pulls to a nearby water spigot sticking out of the ground.

She and my 80-year-old aunt, Jeanette, live together in an isolated hogan warmed by a wood stove. A kerosene lamp lights the one-room home. The women walk 100 yards to an outhouse.

All that will change when her new home, about 100 feet away from the hogan, is finished.

Long wait

My mother and aunt were shepherds until they retired in 1999. They live about three miles west of Tuba City in the "Bennett Freeze" area, where thousands of Navajos have been without modern conveniences for 40 years. The freeze was a federal moratorium placed on all construction, even minor improvements, in an area of disputed ownership between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Residents in that area couldn't improve their homes or build new ones unless they went through a costly and complicated petition process, often taking years.

The dispute was settled Nov. 2, and the freeze was finally lifted. Residents in that area are free to improve their living conditions.

Several times over the past few years, my mom fell and hurt herself on the earthen floor of the hogan. Because of her declining health, I couldn't wait for the decades-old dispute to end, so I petitioned the Navajo and Hopi nations to get permission to build.

The lifting of the freeze will do the same for many elderly people in her situation.

For my mother, getting a new house built is like winning the lottery. She worried that, if her condition worsened, she would have to live with me in Phoenix or my sister in Salt Lake City. She sees our lives as cramped and harried.

Her new home is perched on a cliff overlooking agricultural fields in Kerley Valley. She will have a majestic view of the Painted Desert to the west. In the city, she would never have a view like that, she has reminded me.

I could hear the excitement in her voice earlier this week. She eagerly showed me the construction site as she clutched a wooden survey stick to support herself. We walked toward the cliff where reeds, wild date trees and greasewood grow in abundance.

A foundation had been poured already. The wall and the roof went up the day before Thanksgiving. She had hoped to be in her new home in February with all the modern conveniences, but on Friday, she was told by the Navajo Office of Environmental Health & Engineering that she may have to wait two to three years to get water hooked up to her new home.

The news of the long delay hit her hard, and my family and I spent Friday strategizing ways to get her water earlier. A waterline is only about 25 feet from her new home.

Just before the delay, she said of her new house: "K'ad nizhónído shí" (It will be a beauty). "When it's finished, I'm moving in with my suitcases, and there will be plenty of space for my children, my grandkids, my sisters and my relatives when they visit me. I think the bathroom and shower will be a magnet."

Her February move-in date is still on. But the shower and the faucets may just be things to look at for a time.

"I guess I'll have to continue hauling water with my squeaky wagon," she said when she learned of the next long wait.

Trapped in Phoenix

Although there are more services for elderly members of the Navajo Nation these days, they often require paperwork, and that is difficult for many. I signed up my mom and my aunt, and they had a ramp built to the entrance of their hogan so it would be easier to get in and out. Living with osteoporosis of the knees and spine has not been pleasant for my mother. Her bad knees have been the reason for her falls.

My sister and I gave up on a campaign to get her knees replaced. Mom rejected the idea because she feared medical doctors would tell her to stop lifting piles of wood or carrying pails of water, things she has to do to survive.

The worst fall happened in April 2004, when my mother lost her balance while cooking outdoors over an open fire. She fell on hot embers and set her long calico skirt afire.

My cousin rushed her to the emergency room where she was treated for third-degree burns on her right hip and required skin grafts. Mom's doctor said Mom needed three months to recover and in a clean home equipped with running water and a bathroom.

Several of my relatives told me I was neglecting my mother, harsh criticism that deeply hurt my feelings. I do have other responsibilities off the rez in Phoenix where I work as a journalist and raise my family.

I wanted to argue and tell them that my life was nearly consumed trying to help her, but I chose to be respectful. Besides, I already made the decision that Mom would live with my family in Phoenix. The hogan was not suitable anymore. So she came. The first month in the city was difficult for her. She wore a hospital gown and was housebound.

This tiny woman, who grew up outdoors and has spent a lifetime walking or chasing after livestock, felt like she was trapped in a corral in Phoenix.

I cleaned her burn wounds daily. The giant sore on her hip was the size of a soccer ball.

When I returned home from work, she asked me for news from the reservation.

Did anyone call asking for her? How were the goats? How is her sister-in-law Jeanette? Has it rained? Has anyone checked on the flock of sheep by the buttes at sheep camp? Who plowed the land for planting in Kerley Valley?

Sometimes she cried. Tears streamed down her brown face. "Ch'ééh ha'ííníshní" (I'm trying to stay strong)," she would say.

I took her on a driving tour of Piestewa Peak, South Mountain and the most picturesque places in the Valley. It did not erase her longing for home. I promised her the sores would get better and she would go home in a couple of months.

She greeted me at the door one evening dressed in her traditional velveteen shirt and her three-tiered skirt. She was free of the hospital gown. Slowly, she became more active around the house, sweeping each morning and sewing quilts.

Then she started walking outdoors each morning, but she couldn't find a good place to walk. I worried about her getting lost. My husband and I were at work, the kids were at school, and she speaks only Navajo. I asked my neighbors to keep an eye on her.

Sometimes, I would see the fingers on her hand spread like the paw of a yawning cat, and I knew she was counting the days to when we would drive north to Tuba City to get a clean bill of health from her doctor.

The Fourth of July weekend she caught a ride home to visit relatives.

I gave her strict instructions about caring for her wound and set a time to return to Phoenix on Sunday evening. She rolled in at 1:30 a.m. Monday eyes full of excitement and stories about her trip.

I put her to bed knowing that she would never find the right kind of happiness in Phoenix.

Back on the rez

When her doctors said she was well enough to go home, I knew there would be no holding her back.

All I could do was to continue pressuring tribal officials to build her a house and to find her the elderly services she would need.

My mother's calls come through my brother William, a biology teacher who lives in Tuba City. He is there for the everyday things. He relays her requests to me and others.

Most recently, the house project needed 15 tons of gravel. I found it in Flagstaff.

Later, my mother wanted a whole sheep to butcher in order to feed the construction crew building her home.

I would get the call.

Betty Reid grew up on the Navajo Reservation. She is now an education reporter for The Republic. You can reach her at or at (602) 444-8049.

Tribes given access to home necessities

Betty Reid

The Arizona Republic

Nov. 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Ruth Tohannie holds a cardboard box of dead flashlights.

Because of the "Bennett Freeze," she and her children and grandchildren rely on flashlights and generators to power their family home and sheep camp.

In 2004, Navajo Nation officials held a news conference beneath her family's shady arbor and announced a power-line installation would be strung less than 50 feet from her property west of Tuba City.

Tohannie's family believed they were assured electrical power was coming to them.

But that has not been the case. Tohannie says her extended family seems to go into cycles of optimism and disappointment about the chances of having modern conveniences.

These days, they are once again more hopeful.

They are among the 15,000 Navajos who lived without the basics on the western portion of the Navajo Reservation in the Bennett Freeze area, where residents couldn't improve their homes or build new ones. Now, they won't have to fight so hard to get basic necessities because the Navajo and Hopi tribes reached an accord earlier this month and the freeze on improvements was lifted.

Tohannie's granddaughter, Victoria Ben, 28, envisions her son, 6-year-old Xavier, reading books in well-lit rooms.

"I'm sure we won't wait another four decades to get electricity," Ben said. "We better not. My son is growing up fast, and I want him to experience the luxury of having light."

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