About three months into my new job teaching at Navajo Community College, in early November of 1982, our department secretary came by my office with a handful of documents to sign. Confused by a quick perusal, I asked our department head Jack, who was also my co-teacher in the welding area, what this was all about.
It seems these docs were the annual grant authorizations for the satellite training center at Sweetwater, of which I was director. I inherited this grant project simply as a part of being the welding trades instructor at NCC. Jack told me about the grant, a little about Sweetwater, and suggested that I just sign everything.
I was curious about the grant, the facility, and the people in charge; also, I confess, I thought this development to be a rise in my fortunes. It seemed that eight years before, a grant established a small skills-training class in this remote village in Navajoland; each year, over ten thousand dollars in funds were paid out to various local people who ran it.
No one from the main college had been to the facility at Sweetwater in several years. The place was ‘off the grid’, meaning no electricity, and no phone service. It seemed clear to me that, as I was grant director, I needed to visit, inspect, and assess, and generally speaking, exercise my responsibilities as prime factotum. When I suggested as much to Jack, he thought the concept doubtful, if noble, because of the nature of the roads, the village of Sweetwater being in the middle of nowhere. After I told him of my resolve, he reluctantly approved my plans, but sent me to speak to another teacher who had recently visited Sweetwater, and thus had the best recollection of the route.
So I spoke to Amando Garza, one of our most estimable co-workers, and director of our automotive trades program, and a person with real experience four-wheeling all over the reservation, to the most remote places; at first, he seemed doubtful of my thinking, as Jack had been. Amando himself was Hispanic, or ‘Tex-Mex’, and had married a Navajo woman, who had clan in Sweetwater. Poring over a map, we discussed the roads, and he described the terrain (very rough), and marked some waypoints on the map. He encouraged me to be careful, and later that week, Amando had some students overhaul my truck, paying particular attention to my brakes and suspension.
Early on a brisk, sunny November day, I drove north out of Tsaile and the college, through Lukachukai valley, hemmed in on the east by the cliffs and pinnacles of Los Gigantes Buttes, vast red sandstone formations that form all along the slopes of the Chuska Mountains. I topped off my tanks and got hot coffee in Lukachukai, then drove north through Round Rock, to a small valley of hardscabble sheep and goat farms, the village of Rock Point. I turned east off the highway, onto a wide dirt road.
The road to Sweetwater crossed over a broad and vast valley on the eastern edge of the Chuska range; I could see, in the far distance, the big sand wash, that was my eventual goal. For several miles the road was easy. It cut through and around the tan and red sandstone formations, into small valleys, past small homesteads, with hogons, barns, sheep herds, and windmills.
After several miles, the road became rougher, and muddy, and I had to slow to a crawl in some spots, being careful not to get ‘high-centered’, stuck with two wheels off the ground. After a mile of this, the road led out onto slickrock, the route became hard to follow, and I immediately was lost. I retraced my route and got back on track. Occasionally, I needed to stop, climb up on my truck, and search with binoculars for the small rock cairns that marked the road across that slickrock barren. I went on like this for several miles, until the landscape changed back into high desert, and the road became a little easier to follow. Beyond the sandstone moonscape, the road gradually improved, and, after ten more miles, I got to Sweetwater.
Downtown Sweetwater, Arizona, wasn’t so much, just a small village of a dozen hogons along the dirt road; the surrounding area was divided into Navajo ranches and farms; I was impressed with the richness of the bottom land, well-watered by Walker Creek, which ran most of the year round, drawing from a huge drainage on the western slopes of Pastora Peak. After the harsh desert landscape of the drive, Sweetwater is an oasis, shaded by occasional cottonwood groves, and fertile. Even in July and August, when the surface of Walker Creek seems dry, or running meekly, the creek is flowing underground, a necessary condition to sustain the cottonwoods along the banks of the wide sand wash.
Not far from the village, out in a wide, fenced range, I found the facility I was looking for, a medium-sized corrugated metal building, and I turned in the drive. I pulled up to the end of the building, which had two tall sliding doors hung on roller track, and an entry. I tried the entry door, found it locked, so I tried one of the corrugated metal sliding doors; a little pushing and it opened, enough to slip in.
The front of the building was stuffed full of hay, floor to ceiling, with only a small passage on the right side; I walked down to the back. Besides some stored furniture and junk, there was a portable gas-driven welder on a trailer with flat tires, a cutting torch with two empty tanks, a small metal welding table, all buried in thick dust. I looked around a little more, then I walked outside and back to my truck.
From the east, a truck was racing up the road, hurling large clouds of dust into the air behind it. It veered into the drive and raced up to the building, screeched to a halt, and a large, stocky Navajo rancher got out and walked over to me. He said,” This is private property, who are you?”
NCC was the first Indian-owned and operated institution of higher education in the United States. It’s founding was the occasion of much pride for the Navajo Tribe. I was wearing my NCC tee-shirt. Seeing that, his manner eased when I told him that I was from the college. We chatted for several minutes; he turned out to be the son of the teacher, and, living nearby, kept an eye on things. He grew hay, he told me, proudly. As I began explaining my reasons for visiting, I told him I was the college’s director of this satellite project, and that I was here to inspect. I wondered aloud about where the classes were, the dilapidated state of things, and the hay.
Initially, he gave me some straight answers, but as he grasped my meaning, a change came over him. He deflected my questions, referring me to his father, who was out-of-town, gone off to Farmington, New Mexico, to buy feed. Persisting, I asked if there had been classes recently; he shrugged off the question, became evasive and nervous, and finally, he resorted to that time-honored Navajo strategy for dealing with annoying Anglos: he forgot how to speak English.
On many occasions while living in Navajoland, in my dealings with the people, when I pressed someone, such as a student, and especially the Navajo who came to our welding shop looking for service, the person would suddenly feign misunderstanding, and conveniently lose the ability to speak English. This tactic was a nifty dodge, useful for shutting off inconvenient discussions. I might speak to a truant student, who I knew full well spoke enough English, and he’d suddenly start looking quizzical, shrugging his shoulders at my inquiries, and respond in mono-syllabic, guttural Navajo. It was a rude strategy, and it worked.
As my Navajo friend was uncomfortable at being put on the spot, I dropped the subject. Our conversation being clearly over, we shook hands, I jumped into the truck, and left. I drove a little further, to the intersection with the road that eventually led north to Red Mesa, and Highway 160. I turned south instead, and drove to several miles, to Emmanuel Mission.
The mission was operated by the Franciscan Order of Catholic brothers, and had been in existence since the mid-1900s. Just south of Sweetwater, it was a cluster of buildings located in a cottonwood stand along the wash. Simple structures, the buildings had sandstone rock walls and metal roofs; the brothers maintained small subsistence farm plots, irrigated with creek water delivered via an irrigation pump.
I found my way to a central building, walked in, and introduced myself to some Franciscans, who insisted I stay for dinner. It being late in the afternoon, I accepted only coffee, and chatted for a pleasant hour with the two men. After I described my enterprise, and related the tale of my chance meeting at the shop facility, they exchanged knowing glances at each other, and found the whole thing inexplicably amusing. I recognized that the two were keeping something close to their vests.
The brothers told me about Sweetwater, about the stunning beauty of the area, the general poverty of the community, and their activities at the mission. Feeling a pressing need to be on the road, I thanked them, and invited them to stop in at our shop in Tsaile, should they ever need my services. As I drove away from the mission, I admired the situation in which they lived: deep in the heart of the most remote area of the Navajo reservation, far from pavement, without electricity, telephone, or television, in spectacular southwestern beauty, dedicated to the service of the Navajo people.
It being Friday, my plan was to drive north out of Sweetwater to Highway 160, continue on into Colorado, and spend the weekend in Durango, where I had friends and lodging. The drive north from the village had essentially the same character as the drive into Sweetwater, except that there were long sections of road that were simply mud bogs, around which I had to pick a cautious route. It took almost three hours to travel thirty miles, and when I got to Teec Nos Pos, my first stop was at a truck wash, where I blasted caked red mud out of the wheel wells, and cleaned the windows.
Back at Tsaile on Monday morning, as I was brewing coffee in my office at the shop, Jack arrived; as we both stood by, waiting to fill our cups, I gave Jack a report on my officious activities at our satellite program way out in Sweetwater. Outwardly, he seemed astonished, but his demeanor seemed a little forced. I told him that, to my eye, there was no program, and if there had been, it had long ago ceased to meet on any regular basis. Although I counted my journey a most excellent adventure, I felt I couldn’t really sign off on sending more money out there. In those early days of my time at the college, I suffered from an excess of rectitude, mostly misplaced, I’m afraid.
Two weeks later, I brought the subject up again, and was told, by Jack, that I was no longer the director of the program at Sweetwater; my responsibilities were assumed by a Navajo who managed some other grants for the school. Only slightly discouraged, I gladly washed my hands of the affair. As time went by, in my conversations with Jack, and Amando, who understood the dynamic of life way out there, I gathered a clearer picture of things. The original grant program, conceived as a beneficial training program to serve a remote, underserved community, had, in time, and like many things on the Navajo reservation, deteriorated into a simple political patronage scheme, a conduit by which some people got money out of the tribal coffers.
One day, Amando Garza gave me his outlook on things, that the thousands of dollars that regularly arrived in someone’s mailbox out in Sweetwater, instead of lining the pockets of any one individual, would be divided, subdivided, and subdivided over and over, diffusing out into the pockets of many clan members, who, after all, continued to be very poor, and were grateful to be made less so by this windfall from tribal government. This was the Navajo way of doing things, where those who have more share with those who have less, whether the commodity in question was sheep, corn, pickup trucks, or money. Eventually, I’d modify my outlook about these kinds of cultural things. In time, I evolved to admiring the Navajo point of view, and realized, after all, as far as things to worry about go, the scandal at Sweetwater was of very small concern.