Blog – Life on the Reservation

Living on an Indian reservation in the late 1980 and early 1990’s was an experience. A good experience. My kids were very young and impressionable. They learned something there I could have never taught them. They learned what it was like to be a minority, they learned what prejudice is, but they also learned to be adaptable, to work differences out with their heads not their fists. They learned about a different culture, learned a new language. Learned about Coyote stories, about superstitions and mythical monsters.

Life was hard. We moved into an apartment that sheep were kept in. You can imagine the smell. The neighbor had come down with giardia, also known as beaver fever, a microscopic parasitic zoonosis disease caused by the protozoan giardia lamblia which causes severe diarrhea. The other neighbor had a wolf chained in his yard. She was very sweet. We worked with the owner and eventually got her out and into a wolf sanctuary but that’s an entirely different story.

We lived in the smelly apartment for 3 weeks and then moved into a newly refurbished apartment. Much nicer. It was October. Halloween was coming and we were told it was a very big deal. It was, A. Very. Big. Deal. It was also the night that the Yei’s came out. I was warned my kids should keep a quarter in their pockets to give to these Yei’s so that they did not switch my kids. I wasn’t very happy about that so I started walking the kids to school every morning and evening.  No Yei’s ever bothered them.

One hurtle cleared.

Sunday Sept. 17 2017

My son soon made a friend. They were both in 2nd grade. It was hard for me to watch my son struggle with being accepted. He was fair skinned, blonde hair and big blue eyes. He was different. His friend was of Hopi, Navajo decent, dark skinned, black hair and dark eyes.  I will call his friend Ash.

Ash was very upset at my son because he wore new shoes and new pants. Now most of the Navajo children were dressed very well, were clean and well cared for. Very polite, good kids.

Just as there is among all people, Ash had a different life. His mother was an alcoholic. She worked for the school district and therefore qualified for housing which was fortunate for her children since there were at least eight living in the house. Food was scarce in their residence and the kids were hungry.

Getting back to my son’s situation, Ash was angry that my son had new clothes on, specifically a pair of jeans and shoes that he had wanted. Ash tore my son’s homework page from his hand, threw it on the ground down into the mud, then stomped on it. When my little guy came home he was very upset. We immediately went to the school and consulted with his teacher, a young just out of college girl, who was very understanding and gave him another sheet of paper and an additional day to get it done.

After that had been resolved, then we had to deal with Ash. As my son explained to me why had made Ash so mad, I told him to please go into his closet and choose a pair of jeans, a shirt, and shoes to give to Ash. Not only did he pick out clothes he also decided to give him a Soccerball  he had gotten as a gift.  I was so pround of him. We took the items and walked over to Ash’s house. My son gave the items to Ash, his mother was home but she said nothing. I asked Ash if he would like to come over tomorrow morning and have breakfast with my son, then they could walk to school together. The smile we got back in return was huge.

Breakfast at our apartment was usually about 6:30 a.m. The doorbell rang at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. My kids were just getting out of bed. I answered the door and there stood Ash. He was dressed in his “new” clothes and was ready to eat. I told him it was a little early. He said, “My stomach was mad. My little brother and sister has an angry stomach too.”   Around the corner of the building peeked a younger boy about 6 years old and a little girl maybe 4 years of age. I swallowed hard and let them in.

My husband was up and dressed and was having his first cup of coffee. He looked surprised as I ushered the kids inside but didn’t say anything as I started breakfast of fried eggs, french toast and bacon. The three kids didn’t say anything either but they  watched my every move in silence as they sat crossed legged on the floor.

My son and daughter came into the room, and helped set the table. I brought the food over and asked the kids to join us and we all sat down. They, at first, were hestitant to put food on their plates but once they did they started in. The look on Ash’s face when he took his first bite of french toast, with maple syrup and powerded sugar sprinkled on it was priceless. I believe he ate 4 slices of french toast, 3 fried eggs and at least 5 pieces of bacon. The two smaller ones also ate plenty, but not as much as Ash did that late October morning.

My husband soon implemented a Title I free breakfast at school for the kids. they had free lunches but we saw the need in some of these kids for a good breakfast. Ash kept coming every morning for breakast and often brought his little sister along. He and my son became best friends. Ash continued to help my son after that by protecting him from the other kids who were upset or didn’t like him for one reason or another. It took about 6 months for things to settle down for my kids. They both had cultural adjustments to make but they both did and thrived.

September 18, 2017

Christmas 1990 came and went without conflict or emergencies or sickness. In January of 1991 the temperature plummeted and everything froze. Some mornings saw the temperature at 36 degrees below zero. Snow with sleet and freezing rain was the norm during January and into February. As long as everything remained frozen getting around was fine but by By March things were beginning to thaw. The school district, of which my husband was principal of the Primary, had a fleet of 4-wheel drive buses required to make it into the canyons and the now muddy roads. This is canyon country and the resulting thawing mud was so deep, in places 3 or 4 feet, these buses were consistently getting stuck. The situation was grave since people could not get into town for groceries or other necessities. the National Guard was called in to bring people food as well as hay and grain for the stock.

By the middle of April the mud had dried up and the wind began to blow. The reservation land has been consistently overgrazed and as a result the mostly flat plateau land was devoid of grasses and or trees to stop the wind. Gusts of 45 to 50 miles an hour were common. As the ground became more dried up dust started to blow around and filled the air.  Over one weekend at the end of April the wind blew with sustained winds of 60 miles an hour with and a wall of dust, dirt and debris formed called a haboob that was hundreds of feet high and it was coming right as us.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

There was a fence behind the storage sheds, built 10 feet high with a 3 foot barbed wire angled top ( the management said to keep the drunks out) so I’m talking a 13 foot fence. When the haboob passed after 3 days of constant wind and sand and dirt filled with animal dung, dust, plant particles, rocks etc. only the top 3 feet of the fence was visible. It was quite a sight. I have a picture of that around somewhere, if I find it I will post. Every car and truck had its paint pitted and there was so much dust and dirt in the engine that ours would not start. The inside of the apartment was filled with dirt. After the worst of the storm we couldn’t get out the door of the apartment. My husband had to crawl out the kitchen window and use a snow shovel to dig the door open so we could open it. Being from Illinois, I had never, ever, seen anything like this before. Even living in Phoenix where we had haboob’s I’d never known them to last as long as this one had. People were getting sick. If you were unfortunate enough to have to go out of doors during the storm your ears, nose, eyes, between your teeth, under your fingernails – all had pieces of grit and sand that had been driven in.

That particular year, after the terrible haboob wind storm, in April we had a grasshopper invasion. They were everywhere. You walked outside and the grasshoppers jumped on you, got into your hair, landed on your face, arms, legs, on your clothing, they did not hurt you, of course, but they sure were annoying and a little bit scary. If you weren’t careful one could easily fly into your mouth. In the evenings, under the streetlight, of which there was only two in the entire neighborhood, they were thick. That lasted about 3 weeks.

Finally the weather changed and everything settled down and was peaceful, blue sky and beautiful cool temperature. We had been so cooped up inside the apartment for months, just venturing out long enough to go to work or grocery shop that my husband and I decided to take the kids to the canyon and hike down the White House ruins trail. Its a fairly long hike, about 1 1/2 miles down and of course the same back up. The trail is steep, rocky and can be treacherous in areas. After a rain, you can slip easily. We headed down the trail and about half way down my son spotted a little reddish color puppy along side the trail. She had likely been dumped there because she was a female. Naturally he picked her up and we finished out hike. We walked down, crossed over the stream, and over to the White House ruins. Its an amazing sight. Its the only trail you are allowed to walk down without a Navajo guide. As residents of Chinle, we knew about the toe and foot holes that exist on some of the canyon rocks, put there by the Navajo 150 some years before when they were hiding from Kit Carson up on Starvation Rock. But that another story.

white house ruins

White House ruins in Canyon de Chelly, Chinle AZ.

After viewing the ruins we started our trek back up the trail, my son still holding onto the puppy. He had named her Lucy.  We, of course, took her home with us, gave her a bath and then fed her. She was so hungry. We already had a dog, a Shih Tzu named Heidi and after much family discussion we decided that we would make sure Lucy was healthy, give her health vaccinations, then find her a good home. That was the beginning of the RUFF Program. (Reservations Unwanted Four Footed Friends).

September 27, 2017

My son was attached to Lucy. She was a fun puppy but at the time we were not really ready for another dog. Since my husband was the principal at the Primary school, I asked him if I could bring Lucy in and visit my son’s second grade classroom and talk about pet responsibility, about the animal’s health requirements and breed specifications. Lucy was of the Chow-chow linage with a mixture of coyote, collie and other breeds. When I brought her into the classroom with the teacher’s consent, the kids were stunned. They literally stopped talking and stared at me holding the puppy.

I wasn’t expecting that. I thought they would be excited to see a dog in the classroom and be eager to be out of their seats petting this puppy. They weren’t,  they were more shocked than anything. I sat down in the front of the classroom and held Lucy. The teacher introduced me and of course my son was very proud. He came and stood by me and explained to the kids how he had found Lucy, that she had been hungry and thirsty and that “my mom took her and made sure she got her shots and was happy.” That made me proud. More importantly, the kids in the class were shocked that a dog would need “shots.”

It opened the door for me, made me realize that these kids didn’t understand the basics of dog care. I asked them questions about pets they might have and we had a good discussion about dogs in general. Then, one little boy stood up and said, “Navajo do not keep dogs as pets, they are for herding sheep only. At my house I never see the dogs until they bring the sheep back home at night. We call them “poop eaters.” (That is putting is nicely.”

I asked them, “if you could have a pet dog, would you like that?”

Most of the kids agreed they would very much like a dog as a pet. It was their parents who clung to tradition that said only the Chihuahua was suitable as a pet to have.

I talked about how dogs get sick sometimes, just like people do. I told them how a dog can gets shots from the doctor to keep them healthy, just like they did.

I stayed in the classroom that day for about a half hour and by the time I left word had spread through-out the school and teachers began coming up and asking if I’d visit their classroom too. The art teacher, a young Anglo man came up to me as Lucy and I were leaving and asked if he could adopt her.  She was the first of many adoptions of the RUFF Program that would be made over the next five years, along with countless dogs and cats that was helped. The RUFF Program was born.