Gallup Independent: Elderly Diné Woman Has Challenge for Leaders

Wednesday, October 16, 2002 7:51 AM

Jim Maniaci Diné Bureau

SHEEP SPRINGS CHAPTER — After almost nine decades, Mae K. James still wants to be on her own high in the hills that look east over the Sheep Springs and Toadlena-Two Grey Hills Chapters.

But she needs some help.

With the mountain goat-like 2.5-mile trail that obviously — many decades ago — was a maintained dirt road.

With a new house that she can't use because of her broken hip, although it stands right next door.

With electricity.

With running water, or at least water that doesn't have to be hauled on a 20-mile round trip.

With a hot senior citizens meal.

Her story is a textbook classic of a tough-willed, but now bewildered, matriarch who doesn't understand why her governments, especially at the chapter and regional level, can't give her just a little bit of help in her waning years.

Only through the help of her family, can she even survive.

And it is tougher now than 15 months ago. Two younger men in the family, who took care of her place, her grandsons Frankie Nez and Lawrence John, died a year ago in August, in a car accident, during the Gallup Ceremonial.

Their absence shows in the loose logs of the corral and the lack of repairs around the home, the improvements to a yellow house into which she could move if simple things such as handrails were added.

Her daughter Sadie James of Albuquerque also has her 19-year-old daughter, Shervanah, helping her grandmother by staying in the 30-year-old two-room house whose inside ceiling has half fallen away. Only two wood-burning stoves, one in the bedroom and one in the kitchen, can provide heat. (There also is a small butane range for cooking.)

Speaking in her deep Diné language Mae, with daughter Sadie and Lynda Lasiloo translating, wanted to know why repeated proposals submitted to her chapter have gone ignored.

She also spoke of herding her flock of sheep, now down to less than two dozen head. In the summer they are up at the Oat Springs area; in the winter back home in the Long White Cliff area above the Sitting Frog area.

Mae said that her elders told her of Diné hiding in caves just to the north during the Long Walk era, remaining free Navajos.

She and her daughters complained that in the 1960s a well that is relatively close in the flatlands was drilled for livestock watering and used mostly by six families. Then NTUA took it over and converted it into a domestic water source, they said.

The concrete pads where two steel watering troughs stood still hold the eight leg stubs where they were cut off. A spigot with a special head also remains, although bent over. Now, the ladies complain, the utility wants to install a meter and charge them for the water for their animals.

Lasiloo said the family believes chapter officials worked with the utility to convert the water source, but didn't involve those most directly affected, the grazing permit holders.

A tour of the area also revealed that the water pumped from the well up into two storage tanks on a small mesa overflows down the east side of the hill. The ladies repeatedly said that if there is that much extra water, their mother certainly should be able to get a little for living purposes.

The family also expressed concern that a council delegate, now in office for eight years, who used to be a grazing official for many years before that, hasn't helped them, in their opinion.

Until seven years ago, Mae got around real well, riding her favorite horse. But the animal bolted on her and she broke her left leg. Now she shuffles slowly, a step at a time, on crutches, even the 50 yards to the outhouse, over a gully-interrupted path. Not being able to get around much, grandma really enjoys riding in the pickup truck, and her granddaughter has become an expert driver.

What mystifies her the most is that improvements have been attempted, with a lot of family help, but are never completed, are unusable, or are poorly done.

It all comes back to that gut-jarring "road" which climbs the hills at the end of a bus route. The one-lane track tears up even four-wheel drive pickup trucks, and since only a handful of elderly live up the trail, there is no school bus route grading, as down below on the flatland west of U.S. 666 in southern San Juan County.

Everything stops at the bottom of the hill.

"We hope this story will be a wake up call for our leaders about her living conditions," Lasiloo said.

Along that "road" at the west end of BIA Route 5004, stumps of logs line the track like guardrail posts. They fell off, or had to be unloaded, from trucks hauling wood to Mae or the other few families who gain access to their homes via the trail.

"Other areas of the reservation have good housing because they have strong chapter governments," Sadie James said.

If government officials from Washington, D.C., want an example of Third World country conditions in the United States, all they have to do is come visit Mae K. James high in the foothills of the Chuska Mountains of the Navajo Reservation.

They will experience a "road" that is atrocious even for the BIA system. Tracks and trails that are impossible to drive during rain or snow since they turn into a mud from clay amid the rushing torrents of runoff.

They will experience that every drop of water, held in large water jugs stacked on the table, is precious.

They will experience a clear sky because there are no electric lines and poles, nor telephone poles. Not even a solar panel.

They will experience the traditional Navajo hospitality, plain and meager though it may be.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.