The Problem with Water – A Personal Journey

By Bill Robinson

Lynn is behind the wheel today and her clenched-jaw attention is fixed on the road.  The borrow ditches on either side of the narrow, bumpy, asphalt defile known as “Indian Highway 15” are exceptionally deep. She does not have the luxury of sightseeing. That’s my job. That, and trying to serve as our navigator to a place we have never been. I’m assisted only by an outdated Rand-McNally map, that doesn’t show the dirt roads on which we will have to travel, and a cell phone that is currently receiving only intermittent service. The land is uniformly dry, beige, low, and rolling, sparsely studded with cinder cones, hulking basalt plugs of ancient volcanos, and distant horizons in every direction. Occasionally, I spot a hogan or some other sign of human habitation, but my view is dominated by the sky. Great grey cumulonimbus clouds tower to the north, trailing curtains of rain that will never touch the ground. They are remnants of a late spring storm that came through this morning leaving scant evidence of its passage. There is a taste of dust in my mouth. 

Highway within the Navajo Reservation, Northern Arizona

Lynn Graff is the Senior Warden at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Mesa, and I am the Farm Mgr. of the Crazy Chile Farm at Transfiguration. We are driving east through the southwest quarter of the vast (27,000 sq. mi.) Navajo Nation, on our way home from a Eucharist at the Grand Canyon, sponsored by the Diocesan Council for Creation Care. Detouring through “The Rez”, as the Diné call it, we are delivering 10 lbs. of indigenous seed stock from the Crazy Chile Farm to Coffee Pot Farms, one of our partner growers. Coffee Pot Farms is on a family allotment owned by Diné Councilwoman Cherilyn Yazzie and her husband Mike Hester. Their farm began in 2018 on an acre of land north of Dilkon. It was the realization of Cherilyn’s dream, and Cherilyn and Mike’s mutual objective,  to help the Navajo Nation regain their agricultural base and to restore the health they once enjoyed from a diet of healthy food. On the strength and integrity of their combined vision, the farm has grown rapidly to  36 acres and includes five 75 ft. hoop houses that allow them to extend their season. 

Cherilyn Yazzie and Mike Hester, owners of Coffee Pot Farms

I think about these things, somewhat distractedly, as I am supposed to be looking for our turnoff:  Mike told us earlier, “After you go through Dilkon, keep your eyes peeled to the right for a couple of flatbeds loaded with hay and covered with tarps. When you see them, look immediately to the left and you’ll spot a graded dirt road heading north. We’re about seven miles up that road.” I missed the turn, and Lynn drove an extra 20 miles on the 15 before we turned around. However, my mistake gives me another half hour to gather my thoughts about Cherilyn’s dream.

Many of us, with a mostly European heritage, probably don’t think of the Navajo as an agricultural people. Weavers, silversmiths, artists, or perhaps sheepherders seem to be the popular images.

However, through most of the early 1800s, using the waters of the San Juan, Colorado, Little Colorado and numerous containments and divergences of intermittent streams, the Diné built a solid economic base of edible crops and livestock. Their food came from agriculture, not hunting and gathering, but in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, that base was destroyed. When most Navajo family clans refused to accept confinement on reservations, Union Army Colonel Kit Carson was ordered to wage a brutal assault against them. In three campaigns that year Carson terrorized the people—burning crops, destroying villages, and slaughtering livestock. The extent of the devastation was staggering. Carson’s own account reveals the cruelty of those events. But that account also reveals (quite unintentionally, I’m sure) the sheer volume of how much food the Diné were producing for themselves:

“They are almost entirely naked, and had it not been for the unusual growth of the Pinon-berry this year, they must have been without any description of food. This is owing to the destruction by my command, of their grain amounting to about two Millions of Pounds, and all of their huge stores of pumpkins and beans and all of the thousands of peach-fruit trees in their big central canyon [Canyon De Chelly sic]…which they depended on for their Winter’s Sustenance…”

Colonel C. Carson, 1863 

In 1864, Carson rounded up some 8,000 Navajo and marched them 300 miles across New Mexico, where they were confined in a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo, where they remained for the duration of the war.

“Bill!” Lynn’s voice has clobbered my brain back into the present. “Are those the flatbeds of hay?” And sure enough, about 200 yards to the south were two flatbed trailers covered with blue tarps. And opposite them, to the north, was our graded dirt track. Lynn made the turn and proceeded north with caution, and the term “emptiness” began to take on a profound meaning. I tried to call Mike to let him know we were getting close, but there was no cell service. The air was clear, but a persistent tailwind was causing the dust we kicked up to surround us, like the dust around Pigpen in the Peanuts strip. Way to the north, in the direction of  Old Oraibi and the Hopi Mesas, was a squat basalt plug surrounded by thousands of acres of dirt, dry grass, and scrub. The landscape is bricky dry, and an old western song comes to mind: “Oh Dan can’t you see that big green tree, where the water’s runnin’ free—Cool, Clear Water.” Where we are now, the is no “big green tree.” There is also no water, and I return to my reflections.

Raza de Churra sheep

After the surviving Diné returned from Bosque Redondo, they rebuilt their lives and economy with livestock, rather than crops. Here’s how that happened: In 1598, the first Spanish colony was established in what is now Northern New Mexico, and their supply caravan carried the seeds of an agricultural revolution: indigenous chile seeds from central Mexico as well as an abundance of European vegetables. they also brought a herd of over 1000 sheep, specifically the Raza de Churra, or “Churros” of Andalusia. The Diné encountered Churros during periodic contact with the Pueblos and the Spanish. By a combination of “trading and raiding,” they acquired enough of them, in the 1600s, to develop sizeable herds of their own. 

Because of a trade dispute over wool between England and Spain, the famously fluffy Spanish Merinos,  coveted by the English weaving industry, were guarded by the Spanish. To protect their own burgeoning weaving industry, the Spanish Crown prohibited the export of Merinos under the penalty of death. When Columbus wanted to bring sheep to the Western Hemisphere on his second voyage, he had to settle for the supposedly less desirable Churro. But, the Diné embraced the breed enthusiastically.  Unlike Merinos, Churros were able to thrive in the arid Navajo homelands on forage alone.  Their wool is straight with higher tensile strength than Marino wool, perfect for the traditional Navajo-style weaving of belts, bridles, rugs, and blankets. Churro wool is low in lanolin, so it is easy to clean and readily receives vegetal dyes.  The Churro’s lower legs and muzzles are free of wool, meaning they pick up fewer burrs than other breeds.  Finally, as Andalusian cooks have known for centuries, Churro fat, unlike the fat in other sheep, is concentrated around the organs. The meat, therefore, is lean, exceptionally mild, and tender, with none of the musky or “muttony” taste that most sheep develop at about 15 months of age.  Thus, a symbiotic relationship between the Diné and the Churro developed and deepened for almost 250 years.  Churro became a source of income from weaving, a source of food from meat, and, ultimately, became part of the culture and legends of the Diné.

The Carson raids focused on the destruction of edible crops. Much of the livestock was spared and, after their release from Bosque Redondo, the surviving Diné were able to rebuild their herds. Churro sheep, heritage Spanish goats, and the strong wool and good meat they produced, rapidly became the new foundation of native economics and diet. But it didn’t last. In the 1930s, the Department of the Interior, under the authority of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act (H.R. 6462, 1934),  attempted to write the final chapter on the Churro.  Using exceptionally bad science, cultural ignorance, and racial cruelty, the Department claimed that the Churro was “causing” the Dustbowl by over-grazing. 

The Federal solution was “stock reduction.” Teams of gunners were sent throughout Navajo Land to kill the Diné sheep and heritage Spanish goats. The resulting slaughter left only a handful of Churros on the 27,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation. Remaining sheep were then subjected to 30 years of forced inbreeding with other European breeds which lacked the characteristics most favored by the Diné—strong wool, good meat, and the ability to thrive on desert forage. Quality weaving, and its resulting income, were greatly diminished. Poverty and starvation prevailed, and The People became virtual wards of the state, surviving on government commodity food. 

Lynn again brings me back from my reflections and reminds me that I’m supposed to be navigating. “Bill, I think you picked the wrong fork at the last junction. We’ve gone way past seven miles.” I’m used to choosing the wrong forks, but I look around and start to reassess. The land ahead of us looks rough, a jumble of arroyos, dry scrub brush, and chunks of basalt. Several miles to the rear is a volcanic plug that, from this angle, looks like a squashed-down coffee pot. Could that be near the farm? Then I spot a cloud of dust behind us, closing rapidly. It turns out to be Mike’s pickup. Mike is a friend, so I was not offended by his agitation. “Bill, I saw you go by—how did you miss us???” “Sorry Mike, I must have been admiring the scenery,” Lynn turns the car around and we follow Mike to the farm.

Entrance to the Coffee Pot Farms

The farm is incredible, and more extensive than I had imagined, and, yes, that squashed basalt plug I had seen earlier was Coffee Pot Butte, a name given to it by Cherilyn’s grandfather many years ago. After we deliver the seeds from the Crazy Chile Farm, Mike gives us the grand tour. Healthy crops, bound for restaurant kitchens in Winslow, Flagstaff, and along Route 66, fill the 75-foot hoop houses and surrounding fields. Today Cherilyn is off to Farmington, NM dealing with some Navajo Council business, so Mike is treating us to his undivided attention. Lynn, in the meantime, is receiving the undivided attention from one of Cherilyn’s Great Pyrenes dogs that are trained to keep free-range cattle out of the fields! Today, however, the pooch has a day off and only wants to be her constant guardian and protector.

Lynn Graff at the Coffee Pot Farms

The two earlier agricultural setbacks for the Navajo Nation were the burning of their crops and the slaughter of their livestock.  Now Mike begins to fill us in on the third wave of the trifecta of destruction. Mike says the most difficult problem at Coffee Pot Farms is getting enough water. “For our first four years”, he tells us, “Our crops relied entirely on occasional rainfall and my twice weekly 24-mile round trips in my aging Chevy pickup to buy and haul water from Dilkon. Collection of surface water (rivers, streams, and runoff) is simply not permitted on the Rez, even though it is touched by the two biggest rivers in the southwest and crossed by a third.” I ask about this restriction, and Mike fills me in on some of the background:

“US water law is complex, and its history is deeply intertwined with Native American treaty rights. Those rights are regulated by a 1908 US Supreme Court case, United States v. Winters, which led to something we now call the Winters Doctrine. This doctrine holds that If the Government reserves land for a tribe (i.e., a “reservation” sic.), they must also “reserve” sufficient water to “fulfill the purpose of the tribe.” Since the Winters Doctrine predates other water use laws it affirms the reserved right of Native American access to water.”

My immediate reaction to this is “That sounds pretty definitive, Mike, so what’s the problem?” “The problem,” says Mike, “is the Winters Doctrine doesn’t quantify the amount of water needed to fulfill Native allocation rights. So, those rights are constantly being challenged and litigated, and where in this wilderness of rock, dust, and sky can I find someone who will litigate for tribal rights—rather than the presumed rights of a State or a corporation??” He goes on,  “In 1922, the Federal “protection” provided by the Winters Doctrine was further challenged by the Colorado River Compact. That compact was an agreement between the seven States of the Colorado River drainage (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California) and guaranteed 7.5-million-acre-feet to each State. Native Americans were not included in that agreement and were left to negotiate their “rightful share” with the State in which they are located. While some States have developed agreements with their tribes, Arizona has not.  All the surface water on the Rez is in the Colorado River drainage, and the State of Arizona claims it all belongs to the State and not to the Natives. This is why we can’t even stick a drinking straw in the rivers and streams the Creator provided for us.” And now we are left with a conflict between “State’s Rights” and “Federal Rights” which will ultimately be decided by a bunch of big-city white guys who’ve never even been to the Rez!

Somewhat taken aback by Mike’s passion I change the subject. “So where are you getting your water?’   

Mike continues,

“We can’t wait for the courts, the legislators,  the politicians, and even our own tribal officials to figure out an equitable solution to this mess. But we have learned we can have unrestricted access to  SUBSURFACE water. For a $25 tribal permit, tribal members can have permission to drill and harvest as much subsurface water as they wish. So that’s what Cherilyn and I decided to do. We hired a dowser from Williams to tell us where to drill a well on our allotment. Amazingly, she got a hit just a few yards from the house, and we hired a team with a drilling rig. Unfortunately, the first water we encountered was saline. But we kept drilling. We didn’t hit the good stuff until 400’ and our cost was over $50K. Fortunately, we were able to cover the cost with donations from folks like you guys at the Crazy Chile Farm and a U-Fund-Me program. We were lucky. 40% of this part of the Rez still must haul their water!”

The sun is setting rapidly, and Lynn and I need to say our goodbyes, extend our thanks, and hit the road. It has been an eye-opening visit, but “we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep” (apologies to Robert Frost). Mike says “Watch out for the elk. The forests between here and Payson are full of them this time of year, and you don’t want to hit one.” So, with Lynn again behind the wheel and me on “elk lookout,” we begin the 6-hour trek to Mesa and AJ. We have much to think about, but I guess that’s  “the trouble with water.”

Postscript: The Navajo Nation is not in the Diocese of Arizona. However, 21 other tribes ARE in the Diocese of Arizona, occupying a third of our State.  All of them, save one, are dealing with the same water issues. I chose the example of Coffee Pot Farms because of the similarity of their story with those of other tribes, and because the Crazy Chile Farm has been blessed with a long-term relationship with Cherilyn and Mike. So, the question is this: What do we, as a Christian Community, do about the human rights inequities that Lynn and I witnessed in our own backyard? What we learned today is not just something in a moldy history book—it is a twenty-first-century horror and a continuation of the GENOCIDE to which our first peoples have been subjected to since 1492. Here there is no justice or peace. This is not something we can just pass off as the responsibility of the Council for Creation Care or the Council for Native American Ministry. This is OUR responsibility as the congregation of a Diocese. And this is OUR commitment to our Baptismal Covenant: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” (BCP p.305.) So, what do we DO about this?   

In Christ,

Bill Robinson

4 comments on “The Problem with Water – A Personal Journey”

  1. Thank you for this great interesting history lesson . I will keep the Navajos in my prayers.

  2. Bill, thank you for this. So well written and evoked powerful memories! I grew up in Ganado, six miles east of Snake Flat. Not many understand the actual need for water like you so eloquently emphasize. “Water is life” is not simply a talking point. Is is a way of life of the Diné and all of the original peoples of Arizona.

  3. Bill, thank you for this excellent piece. It illuminates many aspects of our collective past in this region of which I have not been aware. This history needs to be acknowledged and its modern day consequences reckoned with by all of us. You ask the right question.