Adrian Herder of the Chíshsí clan of the Navajo Nation, explains his identity as a strand of DNA. The clans of his mother and father knit together to create a unique individual from familial characteristics. Family is obviously important to Adrian. He traveled home from Flagstaff where he is in school to host the Westies and share the history of the land that his family has inhabited and lived off of for generations. Time tried myths mingled with personal narratives from his childhood as he introduced us to his relatives, sharing poignant stories about their dedication to their individual life’s work.
Adrian is dedicated in his own right. Out of his high school graduating class of 55, only ten attended college or university, and only four or five are now on track to earn their degrees. Adrian is one of them, finishing his senior year at Northern Arizona University where he studies Wellness and Fitness. Though busy with schoolwork, he also guides tours at the picturesque Antelope Canyon, picks and sells local tea, and hosts college students over the weekend.
On our last morning with Adrian, we found a horny toad hiding under a desert shrub. According to legend, this creature fought off a thunderstorm threatening the earth, using its back as a shield to selflessly protect the place it loved. At our departure, Adrian emphasized the need to channel this warrior instinct toward modern environmental and social justice battles. Adrian himself embodies this spirit, generously educating us about his family and culture.
By: Sarah Dunn
With worn hands and warm smiles, the matriarchs of Black Mesa weave a tale of Navajo tradition persisting vibrantly through the onslaught of technological and environmental change. The youngest three of nine siblings in the Chíshí Diné clan, Lena Henley, Edith Simonson, and Lorraine Herder are experts in carding and spinning wool yarn. They shear the wool from their own sheep and dye it with native plants such as wild carrot, prickly pear, and sagebrush. “It’s an art that’s fading away,” Edith explains, “Only three or four families still spin and dye their own wool.” The final product of her labor, an exquisitely patterned shawl, warms her shoulders. “It’s a long process, but I enjoy doing it.”
Living without running water or electricity, the Chíshí clan sisters make do with what they have: a beautiful place to call home, tight-knit family, and a deep intimacy with the land. In traditional Navajo culture, the women stay and head the clan while the men leave to join their wives. Thus Lena, Edith and Lorraine have lived on Black Mesa since they were born, their memories stretching back to times when springs still flowed abundantly on the mesa and summer rains were frequent and gentle. Now, as they face a water table depleted by coal mining and the erosion caused by more intense monsoons, the matriarchs of Black Mesa represent the fabric that holds their community together, weathering the changes with warm wool and warmer hearts.
By: Thomas Meinzen
For Nicole Horseherder, “water is life.” As a founding member of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a member of the Navajo chíshí dine’é clan in the Black Mesa area, and a mother, she is passionate about protecting the water resources that define her home. Horseherder defends her beliefs through action. In 2001, the Black Mesa Water Coalition was formed with the mission to protect both the natural environment and indigenous peoples’ culture from degradation. Nicole was part of one of their first campaigns, which successfully stopped the Peabody Western Coal Company from contaminating and depleting precious groundwater in the Black Mesa area through its use for slurry transportation of coal. Horseherder’s lifestyle reflects a reverence for the place she considers sacred. She is raising her children on rural land long inhabited by her native clan in order to maintain traditional relationships to their food, water, and language. Nicole lives in a place where the modern United States’ values and the Navajo lifestyle rub against one another. Her native farming lifestyle is silenced under the interests of Big Energy and technology is a dangerous distraction from seeing the environment in the ways her ancestors did. Water scarcity in a warming climate makes every one of these concerns more urgent. Despite the challenges, Horseherder has hope for the future: she sees water flowing through everything. Given a cup of water and a cup of oil, she offers, “everyone will always choose the cup of water.”
By: Signe Lindquist
“The number one thing that matters is water” Marshall Johnson says as he picks up a large piece of cardboard and sketches on it the Navajo Sandstone Aquifer that lies deep below Black Mesa, a sacred piece of land on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Aquifer (or “N-Aquifer”), sits 2,500 feet below ground level and holds extremely pure water due to sandstone filtration. It is the only potable water on the reservation but has a fraught history of water transfers to large-scale farmers and coal fired power plants. Marshall Johnson speaks of how difficult it is to see the water beneath your feet exported to large farming corporations in the southern part of the state and subsidized at a price much cheaper than the water on reservation.
Marshall Johnson and his wife Nicole Horseherder started a grassroots organization named To Nizhoni Ani (Sacred Water Speaks) as a way for Navajo people to have their voices heard. To Nizhoni Ani, the first environmental group based in the region of Black Mesa, emphasizes water sustainability and education in the local community. They are preserving the water beneath Black Mesa by ending coal slurrying and installing water conservation equipment inside reservation schools, houses, and community buildings. Marshall Johnson and his family are working to instill in others a deeper respect of water, a value that could be treasured everywhere, but most especially in the heart of the arid West.
By Sophie Poukish
Valencia Edgewater is chíshí dine’é, of the Chiricahua Apache clan, from the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation. She teaches community-based Navajo language and culture classes near her home in Hardrock. In addition, she drives her own vehicle for a family-owned, non-emergency medical transportation company. After earning a master’s degree in bilingual bicultural education from Northern Arizona University, Valencia started using her training to pass on the Navajo language, which she began learning in childhood from her grandmother, to community members and visitors. Valencia teaches through immersion, speaking entirely in Navajo and focusing on ways of thought. Through gestures, images, and the natural environment, Valencia invites her students to learn. She begins a lesson with the sun, orienting her students to the cardinal directions of sunrise, sun passage, sunset, and the North Star. After only an hour of instruction, novice students can point out the directions of the sacred mountains, introduce themselves in Navajo, and ask others to do the same. As a mother of two boys, Valencia is committed to imparting Navajo language and culture to the next generation.
By: Nina Finley
Even before he left his home in Kayenta, AZ for college, Brett Isaacs knew that he would return home with the skills to improve his community on the Navajo Nation. Brett grew up making things with his hands and after seeing a problem in his community, he found his niche building solar power systems. He graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in American Indian Studies, with a focus in Economic Development, Law and Policy. Brett now makes a living working across the Navajo reservation, building power systems in areas without municipal electricity. Beginning in Shonto, where he lives now, he has expanded out to many of the Navajo Nation’s 110 chapters, where an estimated 18,000 people live without power. Brett designs and builds solar systems for individual houses, larger projects like schools, and also makes mobile systems. Brett has taken his work up to the Standing Rock reservation, allowing the protectors there to power their camp sustainably with a mobile unit that will soon be joined by two more. Brett’s skills allow Navajos to improve their quality of life in dramatic ways. As he says, “we have to maintain our traditional aspect, outlook and culture, and still integrate into a progressing society that is using technology and advancement… You are trying to bridge the two… Fossil fuels are not necessarily the future. We have to start investing into something different, and start believing that that difference is going to pay off at some point.” Brett’s work is making a big difference to Native people across the West.
By: Maggie Baker
At the edge of a hundred miles of rifted steppe sits Kane Ranch, an unassuming brick building just south of the Arizona-Utah border. Within a chair circle out front, Ed Grumbine thrums with energy as the dynamic focal point for 48 eyes. A veteran university professor, he’s recently found tenure outside academia with the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation non-profit which owns the historic ranch structure and, since 2008, the grazing permits to 830,000 surrounding acres of public land. Ed oversees the business aspects of those allotments, partnering with a veteran rancher to keep the organization’s 600 cattle in line.
The former teacher spends equal time asking questions as answering them, and his main line of rhetorical inquiry, “why the hell is an environmental group running cattle?” sparks animated discussion. Our eventual consensus—building relationships with neighboring ranchers and influencing their practices for the land’s benefit—proves correct, and Ed confirms that the strategy has paid dividends. However, putting environmental sensitivity first has the ranch in the red financially, complicating the endeavor’s long-term prospects.
Asked if he personally would banish cattle from public land, Ed responds affirmatively, but appends two caveats. First, that people still depend on grazing permits to make their living, and second, that the economic and political leverage necessary for a systemic shift towards more sustainable meats simply doesn’t exist. A pragmatist, Ed works to change the system from within, and he leaves us with the mantra “embrace the complexity”, a prominent feature of public lands grazing.
By: Hunter Dun
As the evening light fades into the Milky Way at Kane Ranch Arizona, archeologist Jason Nez pulls into our camp for dinner. His clothes and face are spotted with black soot—evidence of a long day in the field. Jason and his colleague Toby have been surveying nearby archeological sites that were recently revealed after the area burned. Once dinner plates are cleared away, we gather to hear Jason’s stories. He speaks in measured rhythm, spinning words both animate and raw. One of his stories recounts the night he encountered a skinwalker on an empty forest service road. Another is about Coyote, the Navajo trickster who feeds on chaos and leads people astray. Jason explains that in order to combat Coyote, we must collectively “develop the understanding and knowledge to see though the blame he’s (coyote) casting and all of the fear he instigates…we get past it through science, we get past it through study, we get past it through communication.”
Jason first joined the Park Service in 2001 as a ranger at Navajo National Monument. Since this time, he has become a vocal presence within the field of Native American archeology, giving presentations and promoting cultural outreach throughout the Southwest. For Jason, the work is of particular significance. He has spent most of his life on the Navajo Nation, but his genetic lineage is more in line with ancient civilizations he studies. In his words: “I am Zuni Edgewater, I am born for the Orabi Salt Clan, my mother’s father was tangle people and my father’s father was Mexican people… I’m Navajo culturally, I speak Navajo, I look Navajo, I live Navajo, but genetically, I’m not Navajo. I can walk in these ruins and know that these used to be my ancestors.”
By: Maya Aurichio
As the executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, it was Travis Bruner’s job to close grazing allotments through litigation in federal court. From an ecological standpoint, western states should not be grazed, however the delay in seeing the change he fought for on the ground left him unsatisfied with his work. Leaving his job to become the Arizona Forest Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust forced him to alter his political mission while maintaining his own ecological goals. Bruner is now tasked with fostering consensus in collaborations with the Forest Service. Consensus collaborations, which require unanimous agreement, arise from issues including fire, uranium, and grazing. As Bruner sees it, grazing on public land is driven at an enormous loss to tax payers and the environment. His goal of changing the grazing culture is now realized not through federal courts but through collaborations that generate changing mindsets in diverse stakeholders.
By: Griffin Cronk
“Hello Mr. Raven,” Roger Clark, of the Grand Canyon Trust, interrupts himself to greet a raven whirling above him on the west rim of Marble Canyon in Arizona. Roger has poised himself here because of his belief that a person should intimately know the places they work for. As the Grand Canyon Program Director this is the landscape he has dedicated his work, and impressive education, towards. Roger received his Master’s degree and PhD from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and quickly took up a position at Berkley as an assistant professor of Forest Sociology. His love of academia and his students kept him in the job until he was convinced, at the suggestion of one of his students, to become a river guide at 30 years old. For the next ten years Roger’s love of the natural world and education blended together on western rivers. His work for the Grand Canyon Trust, which began in 1989, consists of the promotion of renewable energy, the fight against uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, and work to stop a proposed tramway that would run into the bottom of the canyon. Meeting Roger, it is clear why his classes at Berkley were stock full of 300 students. Everything he says is wrapped in a laugh and it is as easy to ask questions of him as it is to joke with him. Roger Clark’s devotion, humor and knowledge stand as a powerful force in his Northern Arizonan community.
By: Grace Butler