Her Life Belongs to the Land
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.
Whitesinger said it was a Hopi ranger who came next. The ranger read the mandate for her to leave in English -- with her daughter translating -- while Whitesinger whittled the end of a long stick. When the ranger demanded Whitesinger’s acceptance and answer, her daughter said to him that he could see her answer.
“She is making a stick right now. A fire poker. To poke you with,” Whitesinger said, recalling her daughter’s words. “She told him if he stayed around I might even fix a blade to the end of the stick.”
For three decades, Whitesinger has kept powerful forces at bay.
“I don’t know how old I am,” she said. “It is like floating down a river. Each year passes by, and it’s just another season of winter, and time goes on.”
But, she added, speaking in Navajo, “I know where I belong. I know if I relocate, I will die of loneliness.”
Threats of Armed Conflict
Before the settlement act was approved, the Navajo and Hopi governments signed a pact to share equally in all royalties from minerals mined from beneath the joint-use land, regardless of who controlled its surface.
Whitesinger believes that’s why “through this all, any kind of needs that we had, any kind of requests that we made to Window Rock [the seat of the Navajo government], they say we can’t do it because this is all under Hopi jurisdiction.”
In the mid-1980s, representatives from the Navajo government called upon her and her sister Roberta Blackgoat.
“There was about seven or eight that came out here to meet us, including the Navajo tribal chairman,” Whitesinger said. “My sister had come to my house to wait for them with me. When they came, they threatened us with armed confrontation. They told us that the U.S. Army was coming to forcefully relocate us. They related that unless we left, they were going to witness us being drug out of this house.”
Long past being intimidated, “I said, ‘Where is the Army?’ ” Whitesinger recalled. “They told us they were right over the hill. So I said, ‘OK, let’s get it over with. Which one of you tribal officials are going to be the one that’s going to grab me, and which is it of you that are going to observe?’ ”
According to Whitesinger, none of the Navajo officials answered.
The standoff didn’t last long. There was no Army unit. No one dragged anyone out. And if they had, the officials knew they probably would have had a media event on their hands. By then, the resisters had learned how to get out their message. Sympathizers and volunteers from outside had arrived to offer their help and numbers.
The growing publicity eventually caused a reevaluation in Washington, and in 1996, Congress passed the second Hopi-Navajo settlement act, also called the Accommodation Agreement. Sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, it permitted those few Navajos who had stayed to live out their lives on the land if they signed leases with the Hopi government giving up all property rights and stating that the land could not be passed to their heirs.
A new forcible eviction date was set for late 2000.
“A lot of elders were pressured to sign the Accommodation Agreement, and a lot moved,” Whitesinger said. But she and her sister still did not sign. To them, land could not be ceded away.
Today, where there once had been about 12,000 Navajos, only eight resister families remain, with 22 adults.
A Fading History
The affected lands are now a vast, quiet and empty desert. In winter, snow dusts the juniper trees and sage. In summer, the heat can reach triple digits by early morning. Water is always the most precious commodity.
No coal has been mined here, as coal transportation costs, because of the remoteness of the area, have proved prohibitive. No more than a handful of Hopis has tried moving here despite their government’s claim that this was a return of their homeland. And the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation is planning to close down sometime in the next few years.
For Pauline Whitesinger and the U.S. and Hopi governments, it’s a war of attrition now.
Whitesinger points to a post within her hogan.
“It needs to be repaired,” she said. “But the Hopis won’t allow me to cut the wood to get a new post. Whatever way they can to break our spirit, they have done that. We still experience a lot of hardship. And now it seems like we’re forgotten.”
In July 2003, Roberta Blackgoat died, and with her went not only Whitesinger’s sister and closest friend, but also the primary voice of the resisters to the outside world.
“We used to be a team,” Whitesinger said. “My sister used to bring her herd over here right before the summer heat, and we’d join our flocks and would graze them in the coolness.”
Her words fade, and she puts her hands up to her face.
“When I was in shape, I didn’t feel lonely out here,” Whitesinger said. “I used to go visit my sister and my neighbors, and go herd sheep and look after the horses and cattle. But I got hurt, and since then I am more homebound and I feel the sense of loneliness now.”
She looks out over the desert where she was born.
“It’s quite obvious here [with what’s happened] that we are going to lose the essence of ourselves, our language, the sense of kinship and who we are,” Whitesinger said. “We are going to lose our connection to what we’ve been taught from the early days. Ceremony will be lost -- our prayers, our way of life. There is a lot of history that was covered up. The essence of [our] time [here] covered up by the wind.”
Every evening before darkness, as she is able, Whitesinger puts her sheep into pens made of juniper branches, wire and broken wooden pallets, with mattress frames stripped to their springs as gates.
She still tends to her free-roaming horses when they return for the water that is trucked in. She still goes to her woodpile for the branches to keep the fire going in her hogan.
And every evening, Whitesinger finishes the prayer that she starts that morning.
“I make an offering with the yellow cornmeal to the yellow folding of the evening,” she said. “I pray to anything and everything that is holy around here. I pray for harmony and peace and that there be compassion and understanding by any and all about our situation here. I pray for an end to the disharmony that is caused by man.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.