Shortly after I wrote a post last month about author Edward Abbey, I went on vacation for two weeks to the Desert Southwest — Abbey Country.
Thus, it seemed appropriate to take along a copy of Abbey’s rambling masterpiece “Desert Solitaire” to read on the airplane. I hadn’t read the book in at least a dozen years. I was overdue.
As always, “Desert Solitaire” was delightful and enlightening. And, on this trip, half of which I spent in the Navajo Nation, I was especially struck by Abbey’s chapter on the plight of the Navajo in modern times.
The picture he painted in 1968 was sad, depressing, and dishearteningly accurate. 45 years later, nothing much has changed. Prepare to be bummed out.
Today, outside the canyon country and particularly in Arizona and New Mexico, the Indians are making a great numerical comeback, outbreeding the white man by a ratio of three to two. The population of the Navajo tribe to take the most startling example has increased from approximately 9500 in 1865 to about 90,000 a century later — a multiplication almost tenfold in only three generations.
The increase is the indirect result of the white man’s medical science as introduced on the Navajo reservation, which greatly reduced the infant mortality rate and thereby made possible such formidable fecundity. This happened despite the fact that infant mortality rates among the Indians are still much higher than among the American population as a whole.
Are the Navajos grateful? They are not. To be poor is bad enough; to be poor and multiplying is worse.
In the case of the Navajo the effects of uncontrolled population growth are vividly apparent. The population, though ten times greater than a century ago, must still exist on a reservation no bigger now than it was then. In a pastoral economy based on sheep, goats and horses the inevitable result, as any child could have foreseen, was severe overgrazing and the transformation of the range — poor enough to start with — from a semiarid grassland to an eroded waste of blowsand and nettles.
In other words the land available to the Navajos not only failed to expand in proportion to their growing numbers; it has actually diminished in productive capacity.
In order to survive, more and more of the Navajos, or The People as they used to call themselves, are forced off the reservation and into rural slums along the major highways and into the urban slums of the white man’s towns which surround the reservation. Here we find them today doing the best they can as laborers, gas station attendants, motel maids and dependents of the public welfare system.
They are the Negroes of the Southwest — red black men. Like their cousins in the big cities they turn for solace, quite naturally, to alcohol and drugs; the peyote cult in particular grows in popularity under the name of The Native American Church.
Unequipped to hold their own in the ferociously competitive world of White America, in which even the language is foreign to them, the Navajos sink ever deeper into the culture of poverty, exhibiting all of the usual and well-known symptoms: squalor, unemployment or irregular and ill-paid employment, broken families, disease, prostitution, crime, alcoholism, lack of education, too many children, apathy and demoralization, and various forms of mental illness, including evangelical Protestantism.
Whether in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the barrios of Caracas, the ghettos of Newark, the mining towns of West Virginia or the tarpaper villages of Gallup, Flagstaff and Shiprock, it’s the same the world over — one big wretched family sequestered in sullen desperation, pawed over by social workers, kicked around by the cops and prayed over by the missionaries.
There are interesting differences, of course, both in kind and degree between the plight of the Navajo Indians and that of their brothers-in-poverty around the world. For one thing the Navajos have the B.I.A. looking after them — the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The B.I.A. like everything else is a mixture of good and bad, with policies that change and budgets that fluctuate with every power shift in Washington, but its general aim over the long run has been to change Indians into white men, a process called “assimilation.”
In pursuit of this end the little Indians are herded into schools on and off the reservation where, under the tutelage of teachers recruited by the B.I.A. from Negro colleges deep in the Bible Belt, the Navajo children learn to speak American with a Southern accent. The B.I.A., together with medical missions set up by various churches, also supplies the Navajos with basic medical services, inadequate by national standards but sufficient nevertheless to encourage the extravagant population growth which is the chief cause, though not the only cause, of the Navajos’ troubles.
A second important difference in the situation of the Navajo Indians from that of others sunk in poverty is that the Navajos still have a home of their own — the reservation, collective property of the tribe as a whole. The land is worn out, barren, eroded, hopelessly unsuited to support a heavy human population but even so, however poor in economic terms, it provides the Navajo people with a firm base on earth, the possibility of a better future and for the individual Navajo in exile a place where, when he has to go back there, they have to take him in. Where they would not think of doing otherwise.
Poor as the land is it still attracts the avarice of certain whites in neighboring areas who can see in it the opportunity for profit if only the present occupants are removed. Since the land belongs to the tribe no individual within the tribe is legally empowered to sell any portion of it. Periodic attempts are made, therefore, by false friends of the Navajos, to have the reservation broken up under the guise of granting the Indians “property rights” so that they will be “free” to sell their only tangible possession — the land — to outsiders.
So far the tribe has been wise enough to resist this pressure and so long as it continues to do so The People will never be completely separated from their homeland.
Retaining ownership of their land, the Navajos have been able to take maximum advantage through their fairly coherent and democratic tribal organization of the modest mineral resources which have been found within the reservation. The royalties from the sale of oil, uranium, coal and natural gas, while hardly enough to relieve the Indians’ general poverty, have enabled them to develop a tribal timber business, to provide a few college scholarships for the brainiest (not necessarily the best) of their young people, to build community centers and finance an annual tribal fair (a source of much enjoyment to The People), and to drill a useful number of water wells for the benefit of the old sheep and goat raising families still hanging on in the backlands.
The money is also used to support the small middle class of officials and functionaries which tribal organization has created, and to pay the costs of a tribal police force complete with uniforms, guns, patrol cars and two-way radios. These unnecessary evils reflect the influence of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the desire on the part of the more ambitious Navajos to imitate as closely as they can the pattern of the white man’s culture which surrounds them, a typical and understandable reaction.
Despite such minor failures the Navajos as a tribe have made good use of what little monetary income they have. It is not entirely their fault if the need remains far greater than tribal resources can satisfy.
Meanwhile the tribal population continues to grow in geometric progression: 2… 4… 8… 16… 32… 64, etc., onward and upward, as the majority of The People settle more deeply into the second-class way of life, American style, to which they are fairly accustomed, with all of its advantages and disadvantages: the visiting caseworker from the welfare department, the relief check, the derelict automobiles upside down on the front yard, the tarpaper shack next to the hogan and ramada, the repossessed TV set, the confused adolescents, and the wine bottles in the kitchen midden.
Various solutions are proposed: industrialization; tourism; massive federal aid; better education for the Navajo children; relocation; birth control; child subsidies; guaranteed annual income; four lane highways; moral rearmament. None of these proposals are entirely devoid of merit and at least one of them — birth control — is obviously essential though not in itself sufficient if poverty is to be alleviated among the Navajo Indians.
As for the remainder, they are simply the usual banal, unimaginative if well-intentioned proposals made everywhere, over and over again, in reply to the demand for a solution to the national and international miseries of mankind. As such they fail to take into account what is unique and valuable in the Navajo’s traditional way of life and ignore altogether the possibility that the Navajo may have as much to teach the white man as the white man has to teach the Navajo.
Industrialization, for example. Even if the reservation could attract and sustain large-scale industry heavy or light, which it cannot, what have the Navajos to gain by becoming factory hands, lab technicians and office clerks? The Navajos are people, not personnel; nothing in their nature or tradition has prepared them to adapt to the regimentation of application forms and time clock.
To force them into the machine would require a Procrustean mutilation of their basic humanity. Consciously or unconsciously the typical Navajo senses this unfortunate truth, resists the compulsory miseducation offered by the Bureau, hangs on to his malnourished horses and cannibalized automobiles, works when he feels like it and quits when he has enough money for a party or the down payment on a new pickup.
He fulfills other obligations by getting his wife and kids installed securely on the public welfare rolls. Are we to condemn him for this? Caught in a no-man’s-land between two worlds the Navajo takes what advantage he can of the white man’s system — the radio, the pickup truck, the welfare — while clinging to the liberty and dignity of his old way of life.
Such a man would rather lie drunk in the gutters of Gallup, New Mexico, a disgrace to his tribe and his race, than button on a clean white shirt and spend the best part of his life inside an air-conditioned office building with windows that cannot be opened.
Even if he wanted to join the American middle class (and some Indians do wish to join and have done so) the average Navajo suffers from a handicap more severe than skin color, the language barrier or insufficient education: his acquisitive instinct is poorly developed. He lacks the drive to get ahead of his fellows or to figure out ways and means of profiting from other people’s labor.
Coming from a tradition which honors sharing and mutual aid above private interest, the Navajo thinks it somehow immoral for one man to prosper while his neighbors go without.
If a member of the tribe does break from this pattern, through luck, talent or special training, and finds a niche in the affluent society, he can also expect to find his family and clansmen camping on his patio, hunting in his kitchen, borrowing his car and occupying his bedrooms at any hour of the day or night. Among these people a liberal hospitality is taken for granted and selfishness regarded with horror. Shackled by such primitive attitudes, is it any wonder that the Navajos have not yet been able to get in step with the rest of us?
If industrialism per se seems an unlikely answer to the problems of the Navajo (and most of the other tribes) there still remains industrial tourism to be considered. This looks a little more promising, and with the construction of new highways, motels and gas stations the tribe has taken steps to lure tourists into the reservation and relieve them of their dollars. The chief beneficiaries will be the oil and automotive combines far away, but part of the take will remain on the reservation in the form of wages paid to those who change the sheets, do the laundry, pump the gas, serve the meals, wash the dishes, clean the washrooms and pump out the septic tanks — simple tasks for which the Navajos are available and qualified.
How much the tourist industry can add to the tribal economy, how many Indians it may eventually employ, are questions not answerable at this time. At best it provides only seasonal work and this on a marginal scale — ask any chambermaid. And whether good or bad in strictly pecuniary terms, industrial tourism exacts a spiritual price from those dependent upon it for their livelihood.
The natives must learn to accustom themselves to the spectacle of hordes of wealthy, outlandishly dressed strangers invading their land and their homes. They must learn the automatic smile. They must expect to be gaped at and photographed. They must learn to be quaint, picturesque and photogenic. They must learn that courtesy and hospitality are not simply the customs of any decent society but are rather a special kind of commodity which can be peddled for money.
I am not sure that the Navajos can learn these things. For example, the last time I was in Kayenta I witnessed the following incident:
One of the old men, one of the old Longhairs with a Mongolian mustache and tall black hat, is standing in the dust and sunlight in front of the Holiday Inn, talking with two of his wives. A big car rolls up — a Buick Behemoth I believe it was, or it may have been a Cadillac Crocodile, a Dodge Dinosaur or a Mercury Mastodon, I’m not sure which — and this lady climbs out of it. She’s wearing golden stretch pants, green eyelids and a hiveshaped head of hair that looks both in color and texture exactly like 25¢ worth of candy cotton. She has a camera in her hands and is aiming it straight at the old Navajo.
“Hey!” she says. “Look this way.” He looks, sees the woman, spits softly on the ground and turns his back. Naturally offended, the lady departs without buying even a postcard.
But he was an old one. The young are more adaptable and under the pressure to survive may learn to turn tricks for the tourist trade. That, and a few coal mines here and there, and jobs away from the reservation, and more welfare, will enable the Navajos to carry on through the near future. In the long run their economic difficulties can only be solved when and if our society as a whole is willing to make an honest effort to eliminate poverty.
By honest effort, as opposed to the current dishonest effort with its emphasis on phony social services which benefit no one but the professional social workers, I mean a direct confrontation with the two actual basic causes of poverty: (1) too many children and — (here I reveal the secret, the elusive and mysterious key to the whole problem) — (2) too little money. Though simple in formula, the solution will seem drastic and painful in practice.
To solve the first part of the problem we may soon have to make birth control compulsory; to solve the second part we will have to borrow from Navajo tradition and begin a more equitable sharing of national income. Politically unpalatable? No doubt. Social justice in this country means social surgery — carving some of the fat off the wide bottom of the American middle class.
Navajo poverty can be cured and in one way or the other — through justice or war — it will be cured. It is doubtful, however, that the Navajo way of life, as distinguished from Navajos, can survive. Outnumbered, surrounded and overwhelmed, the Navajos will probably be forced in self-defense to malform themselves into the shape required by industrial econometrics. Red-skinned black men at present, they must learn to become dark-brown white men with credit cards and crew-cut sensibilities.
It will not be easy. It will not be easy for the Navajos to forget that once upon a time, only a generation ago, they were horsemen, nomads, keepers of flocks, painters in sand, weavers of wool, artists in silver, dancers, singers of the Yei-bei-chei. But they will have to forget, or at least learn to be ashamed of these old things and to bring them out only for the amusement of tourists.
A difficult transitional period. Tough on people. For instance, consider an unfortunate accident which took place only a week ago here in the Arches country. Parallel to the highway north of Moab is a railway, a spur line to the potash mines. At one point close to the road this railway cuts through a hill. The cut is about three hundred feet deep, blasted through solid rock with sides that are as perpendicular as the walls of a building.
One afternoon two young Indians — Navajos? Apaches? beardless Utes? — in an old perverted Plymouth came hurtling down the highway, veered suddenly to the right, whizzed through a fence and plunged straight down like helldivers into the Big Cut.
Investigating the wreckage we found only the broken bodies, the broken bottles, the stain and smell of Tokay, and a couple of cardboard suitcases exploded open and revealing their former owners’ worldly goods — dirty socks, some underwear, a copy of True West magazine, a comb, three new cowboy shirts from J.C. Penney’s, a carton of Marlboro cigarettes.
But nowhere did we see any eagle feathers, any conchos of silver, any buffalo robes, any bows, arrows, medicine pouch or drums.
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