Off topic, but perhaps of interest to readers of this blog, since you’re all language and culture nerds!
Last month, I had opportunity to travel to the Navajo Nation (the largest Indian reservation in the US) with RezDawg Rescue, the organization that my family and I foster cats (and occasionally dogs!) for. We’ve fostered 50 animals in the past 22 months for RezDawg, and the bulk of them have been stray or surrendered animals from the Navajo Nation and the Four Corners area in general (for those outside the US, the Four Corners is where the four “square” states in the West — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona– meet). I’ve never been to that area, so I was excited when RezDawg decided to sponsor a volunteer-staffed vaccination clinic on the Navajo Nation. I’m not a medical person at all, but “civilian” volunteers were needed to do paperwork and take payments, so I signed up.
One aspect of this that’s not off-topic: I knew that we were likely to encounter a lot of Navajo speakers on the trip, so I (kind of/sort of) prepared by taking the Duolingo basic Navajo course. Not surprisingly, Navajo (perhaps best-known in the US as the language used by code talkers in World War II) is a really, really hard language for an adult native English speaker to learn. However I managed to learn hello, goodbye, thank you, cat, and dog, which came in very handy!
Our group of volunteers (including three civilians, one veterinarian, and one vet tech) headed from Colorado to Grants, New Mexico. Grants is about a nine hour drive from where we live, and is one of the two “border towns” (the other being Gallup) for the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation. We were there for a week, and it was a truly amazing experience in all kinds of ways.
Each day, we set up the drive-up vaccination clinic at what’s called a chapter house, basically a small community center. On three of the days, I worked the intake station, taking down the age and health information of the animals, and on two days, I worked at the exit station, taking payments and distributing dewormer and flea/tick treatment. We vaccinated around 500 dogs and 50 cats, and brought back around 20 strays and surrenders (including four pregnant mom dogs and a litter of kittens) to find new homes in Colorado.
Most people drove to the clinic in pickup trucks, with their outdoor/herding/guard dogs in the back, and smaller dogs (lots of chihuahas!) in the cab, and sometimes cats on the dashboard or in carriers or pillow cases in the back. Note for cat people: a pillow case actually makes a pretty great improvised cat carrier! We vaccinated animals for 6-8 hours a day, so the days were more like 8-10 hours with setup and cleanup; a lot of work, but the people who came to the clinics were very grateful for the free and low-cost service, since there is not much access to vet services on the reservation. We also gave out hundreds of bags of donated food, collars, leashes, collapsible water bowls, toys, and other items that can be difficult or expensive to find in such a remote area.
I was (honestly/naively) shocked by the living conditions on the Navajo Nation. In the words of one of the local volunteers I worked with, the Navajo Nation is essentially, “A third world country trapped inside the US.” Here’s some of what I learned: 300,000 people live on the Navajo Nation. Almost half are unemployed, about half live below the federal poverty line, about half don’t finish high school, 7% have a college degree, about a third live without piped running water (we saw this everywhere we went; people have enormous water tanks that go in the bed of a pickup truck, and they come fill them up at the chapter house water distribution points), and about a third live without electricity.
The hard part is, what’s the solution? Unlike many reservations, the Navajo Nation is actually on the Navajo ancestral land, and many people live in extended families. Despite the rough conditions, many people don’t want to leave. There is no individual land ownership (the tribes communally own the land), so there is almost no asset capital or transfer of wealth from one generation to another. Basically: it’s complicated; after the admittedly limited experience of spending a week there, I don’t know what the answer is. Donating to reputable non-profits that work there is definitely helpful, and going there and volunteering is definitely helpful, and honestly I think that in order for things to change in any major way, it will take a huge push for awareness in the political and legal systems.
Before going to the Navajo Nation, I naively wondered why more educated Native Americans don’t work to at least demand enforcement of what the US government already agreed to and isn’t doing? Like the US government agreed to give the Sioux jurisdiction over the Black Hills “in perpetuity,” but in reality that meant “until we find gold there.” Why not at least demand enforcement of that? Again, complicated: Native Americans form about 2% of the US population, but only about 0.2% of attorneys and 0.4% of doctors are Native American. The whole horrible history of Indian boarding schools, some of which were active into the 2000s, means that there’s a lot of distrust of the educational system off the Rez (another thing I learned: everyone calls it the Rez, it’s not disrespectful) and very few tribal colleges have graduate or professional schools, so “get an education and work to change things” isn’t a simple solution either. Honestly I think the best thing is to go there and see it with your own eyes and talk to people, and at least admit that our country does this. Our country allows the people whose land we invaded to live like this, in a place where the rest of us are the immigrants. For me, it was a truly amazing experience and I’m hoping to go back.