A Billágaana's Attempt At Understanding
February 20, 2013

Photo by Laurel Morales
A village on the first mesa of the Hopi Reservation near Polacca, Arizona.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- While my colleagues cross the southern border to Mexico to report, I drive across a different type of border in northeastern Arizona to interview the Navajo and Hopi tribes. I am a billágaana (the Navajo word for white person) who lives in Flagstaff, a border town on what's often referred to as "the edge of the Rez."

The last time I drove with my family across the reservation, we passed small clusters of trailers and several half-built wood framed structures on dirt roads. My almost 5-year-old looked out the window and asked, "Mama, why are all the houses broken?"

"They don't have enough money to fix them," I said. I did my best to explain to her in words she could understand.

But when I'm working on a story, say, about crime or unemployment or suicide on the reservation, it's just as challenging to explain to adults in four minutes or less the complex history and the systemic issues these tribes have dealt with for generations. I'm not sure I have completely wrapped my head around all of it.

In the 1860s the U.S. Army forced more than 10,000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache people to leave their homeland and march 450 miles to an isolated reservation in eastern New Mexico called Bosque Redondo. About a third of them died of hunger and disease. Some died crossing the Rio Grande. Stragglers were shot.

The long walk, as it's called, was General James Henry Carlton's solution to the "Navajo problem." After four years at Bosque Redondo, the Army accepted that their experiment was unsuccessful and sent the survivors home.

This was the first of many attempts by the U.S. government to erase the tribe's culture and language. Many generations have suffered from this demoralizing treatment.

Today, many Navajo schools celebrate the tribe's heritage and proudly teach its language, traditions and history. But there is still so much more healing to do.

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