Water is Life: Tradition and Transition in the Navajo Nation

16 May 2019 Water is Life: Tradition and Transition in the Navajo Nation

Photo credit: Ari W. Epstein

About 30% of residents of the Navajo Nation don’t have running water, and for many of those who do, their water is contaminated with uranium, arsenic or other toxins. As a group of Terrascopers learns, any discussion of water in the Navajo Nation leads to even more complex questions about tradition, change, language and spirituality.

First Aired: May 15, 2019 


[running water]

Percy Yazzie: This is what you start with: water.

[running water]

[“Sacred Mask Song,” beating drum] 

[singing to traditional music]

Narrator: That is what we started with too- water. We’re a group of students in Terrascope, a first-year program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We started the fall semester with the goal of learning about water access in the Navajo Nation, which is located in the Four Corners region of the United States. Many people call the residents Navajo; however, one of the first things we learned is that “Navajo” is not what they call themselves.

Percy: Here we call ourselves “the five finger human beings,” the Diné Bilá Ashdlá’. I am the person, the human being with five fingers.

Narrator: Seven months after we began learning about the water issues in the Navajo Nation, we had the opportunity to travel there to learn first hand from members of the Diné community like Percy Yazzie, the man whose voice you just heard. We knew from our research that 30% of people in the Navajo Nation don’t have running water. And what limited water they do have often has toxic uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals in it. But talking to Percy while on a hike of the sacred Canyon de Chelley, we saw how this had affected him personally.

Percy: My son is not going to put any kids in this world, he says the waters are dirty, contaminated, the land is contaminated. It’s not pure anymore. He says the world. So he says I’m not going to put my kids in the world that’s contaminated like that. All they’re going to do is suffer, and I don’t want to see my kids suffer, he said. So in that way, I probably won’t have any grandkids to see.

Narrator: Yet many people still drink their water without knowing that it could be contaminated.  Neilroy Singer, an environmental specialist at Diné Environmental Institute & Outreach, does uranium testing, but even he wasn’t always aware.  

Neilroy: I loved drinking out of my own faucet, without worrying. You know, not knowing where the water was coming from, just knowing that it was replenishing me, that I needed it. We lived right by the river. We didn’t mine. We had no worries swimming in the river. We had no worries playing in the river. We fished in the river. Our whole family, we used to have functions and parties by the river. I know now, I know now where— where our water sources are coming from, and it— my eyes are open, and yeah. We do have a lot of radionuclide, heavy metal contamination problems all over the reservation.

Narrator: Due to its geology, the Navajo Nation has always had a lot of natural uranium in the ground, and in the 1930s, human activity exacerbated the situation.

Neilroy: Back in the 1930s, the U.S. government decided to create bombs, the atomic bomb during the World War II— the World War IIera, and they were testing, they were wondering which element was the strongest to use to create this explosion. So, they found out ok, uranium— uranium is the element that we need.

Narrator: The project he was referring to was the Manhattan Project, and as we talked to him, he told us that we were standing where the uranium for these atomic bombs was taken from. 

Neilroy: Mid ‘50s to the late ‘50s, I believe, the government milled out almost 7000 tons of uranium ore from here. So that’s a lot. And they had to haul it all the way to Shiprock. And when they did that, they left these sites open here, exposed. 

[eerie flute tones]

Narrator: Many of these former mine sites are still open today.  This causes toxic heavy metals such as uranium to leak into the drinking water. 

While visiting a local ranch, we met Elba Allen, a student at Navajo Technical University, or NTU

Elba: Well I’m in environmental science, so that’s why I’m talking about these issues because it’s something that I’m, you know, studying about, and something I’m learning about. We’re very connected to the land, we’ve been raised out here, so just imagine you grew up here as a kid, like this is all you’re going to see, you’re so connected to it.

Narrator: As we spoke to Elba, we looked around and saw all these grand mesas, these huge stretches of land, and it just didn’t seem like we, as tiny humans, could have any impact on them. These great, age-old structures seemed so beyond us, but the harmful impacts people are having on the environment are real. And that was hard to believe.  

Elba: You know, we have refineries around here that are trying to frack in Chaco Canyon, which is a historical place. So there’s like a lot of water contamination, even at NTU, you know, we have uranium in our water, we don’t drink our water at Crownpoint, because, you know— and this is in America.

Narrator: Our conversation with Elba didn’t just stick to water.  She showed us the way that other environmental problems interact with Diné life, and we saw how easily physical problems could become more complex.

Elba: We’re on a ranch, and unfortunately one of the problems we have on the Navajo Nation is overgrazing. It is interesting because a lot of our elders depend on sheep, specifically like churro sheep, and we have a lot of cattle here, but this has led to overgrazing and we have a drought so there’s a lot of issues going on.

Narrator: In the Navajo Nation, small-scale sustenance farming and ranching are important both spiritually and financially.  But as Elba points out, ranching or farming is difficult when there’s drought. And drought makes overgrazing problems even worse. Overgrazing happens when animal herds’ feeding exceeds what the environment can handle. This, in turn, worsens drought conditions that are already tough because of climate change. Which, of course, makes ranching and farming even more difficult.

Hearing about all these environmental issues, it seemed more and more apparent that sticking to traditions, like farming, can be hard in the face of these physical obstacles, like the scarcity of water.

Elba: And unfortunately a lot of our elders don’t want to change with the times, but that’s very important. I see our culture evolving, and it has evolved in the past; through our language, our traditions, we’ve embraced a lot of different ideas. We’ve become farmers and ranchers and traditionally we weren’t. I think now is a point in which the traditional Diné philosophy and the more modern Diné philosophy is kind of in conflict because there’s a lot of issues, especially with natural resources and environmental problems, that a lot of the younger generation is seeing and is trying to be active— proactive about, but there’s also the traditionalists like our másánís, our grandmothers, and the cheiis, our grandfathers, who want to stick to a certain way of life.

Narrator: Before we visited the Navajo Nation, we thought we had some level of understanding of how culture intertwines with ways the Diné address water scarcity and environmental problems. During our semester of research, we had read studies, seen statistics, and even heard from some Diné. But it only took a few conversations for us to realize the deeper complexity of keeping tradition alive in the face of adversity. Talking to more people only revealed more and more complicated layers.

[Slow guitar music]

Narrator: Brandon Francis is an agricultural researcher at New Mexico State University, and he also practices and promotes traditional farming on his own time. He sees traditional agriculture as part of the future of his nation. But he understands that the lack of water makes traditional farming more difficult. Part of his work has been to cultivate drought-resistant plants that can survive the increasingly dry conditions. 

Brandon Francis: When you put that first seed in the ground, as planters, as people who plant things, we were making a holy pact with our Mother Earth and Father Sky that we’re going to love all things no matter how small or how big, we’re gonna love all things. That’s the pact we made, just like the pact we made with the sun not to abuse that sacred knowledge, but as corn planting people we made a pact to love all things and hold things sacred. And I think that’s one of the things that broke our people is we’ve lost that sense of k’é, community, and sense of community just doesn’t mean people who live in the same region, people who are blood related. It’s a sense of community with these plants, with the water, with the earth, and all things that we gotta view them as interconnected. And we’ve lost that, we’ve lost that connection.

Narrator: With farming and traditional practices at the heart, Brandon has hope for how his people can move forward. Farming stands firmly planted in Diné cultural identity—and so does language.

Brandon: Us as Navajo people, we are created from two ears of corn. And us as Navajo people, we are song and prayer given physical form. Because when they were first making us out of those ears of corn, they would sing songs, and they would say holy words, because we always believe that words, they have power and meaning beyond the ones we give them as definitions. They were given purpose. So that’s why when we talk as Navajo people we try not to yell or raise our voice or say things in anger because we know that these words have power and they can hurt people at a very physical, spiritual and mental level. So we always tell people you gotta be eloquent in what you say and choose your words very wisely. Because when they were making us, they put a lot of thought and song and prayer into us.

Narrator: As Brandon points out, language is deeply tied into Diné creation. By holding on to language, people can more easily retain a firm hold on their traditions. These words and language aren’t just important for preserving tradition, they also play a crucial role in communication with older generations. Emma Robbins is the director of the Navajo Water Project for Dig Deep, a group that improves water access by installing running water systems in homes. She told us how communication in Diné is integral to her daily work with families. 

Emma Robbins: When I talk to my family, the elders, you know, they know the work that I’m doing. They’re always really proud, and one of the parts that they are really proud of is not necessarily installing these home water systems, but even just coming back to the res and wanting to stay here. But I do think a lot of times they’re concerned, like a lot of times my family, my elders, will get after me, and be like you need to be fluent in Navajo. And that’s something that is extremely important. And I’m like “you’re right.” Once we lose that language, we’re totally just going to lose our culture. You know, a lot of times when we work with our clients, they might not speak English, and so when I go in and if I can’t explain something clearly, it’s like “okay, I’m not even able to talk with them.”

Narrator: Without fluency in the Diné language, Emma finds it difficult to do her work, a work that brings running water to people who otherwise might never receive it.  

[Slow melodic guitar music]

Narrator: On our trip there, a lot of the conversations we had started with water, and how to get people clean water, but they often turned towards culture, and how to keep that culture, and how language was integral to this. It seemed to us that many members of the Diné community believe that preserving tradition is just as important as solving the environmental problems. Many people in the Nation are worried that the Diné language is being lost, and with it, the culture is being lost as well. 

Tina Becenti is an official in the Baca-Prewitt chapter of the Navajo Nation, and we asked for her thoughts.

Tina Becenti: So our language itself soon may be extinct, sooner than we think. Our nature, our roots to this Mother Earth come from our culture, come from our traditions, come from our blessings to the snow, to the rain gods and all of those are being forgotten. We’re forgetting who we are as Native Americans.

Earl Tuley: What we believe was important, we lost it along the way. 

Meriah: Earl Tuley is the Vice President of Diné CARE, a Navajo Nation non-profit that uses grassroot tactics to advocate for environmental protection. He reflected on how his culture will be affected in the coming years.  

Earl: You know, we’re being told that in your lifetime, you know, you’re going to lose “Navajo.” We’re going to lose our people walking in moccasins, having my hair the way that it is, speaking our language, eating our diet. And I really, really thought that it meant that it was gonna be Navajos were going to cease, and we’re not going to see them on the surface of the Earth anymore. It really scared me.

Narrator: He was frightened because he thought that the Diné would simply vanish, but he realized it was more than that. It was the loss of the traditions that was more realistic, and maybe even more scary.

Percy Yazzie told us what he thought needed to be done.

Percy: We need to step back, one step and probably take time. And probably sit and think how this world is going to be better for us, how we are going to better it for the future generation, ya know. What are we leaving them? We’re leaving them nothing. The waters are dirty, contaminated, the land is contaminated. 

[Voices overlap of people talking about the problems in the Navajo Nation]

It’s not pure anymore…

All that time I was thinking we are drinking this? From this tank? So I was shocked. It was very sad for me to find that out that way…

We had a lot of coal mining and there was uranium mining back in the day and we have water issues so there’s like…

We’ve lost that sense of k’é, community…

It’s so complicated because it’s like…

What we believed was important, we lost it along the way…

We don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s no plan afterwards… 

In your lifetime…

[overlapping voices stop]

…you’re going to lose Navajo.

Percy: 50 years from now, you probably won’t hear a person sing…

[Percy singing traditional song]

Narrator: Culture is an integral part of life and identity in the Nation, and the Diné culture comes with a long history of resilience through hardships. We still have a lot to learn, but we’ve begun to see how the Diné continue to survive.

Miss Navajo Nation: Through my reign right now, my platform is resiliency. And I chose resiliency because that is all I’ve known my entire life. 

Narrator: That was Autumn Montoya, the reigning Miss Navajo Nation for 2018–2019. She explained to us that her job is to be a role model of tradition, a teacher of history, and a community leader. She shared with us a lot of hope and faith in the strength of her people. 

Autumn Montoya (Miss Navajo Nation): If we work together, our future will not be lost, we won’t go extinct.

Neilroy: We cannot just put aside our tradition, our culture, we have to incorporate that in things that we do on our land, especially if we want to bring everything back to the beauty way, hajong, meaning balance and harmony. 

Narrator: We learned that physical problems like water access and contamination don’t exist in isolation. They can’t be solved just by just building a filtration plant or a pipeline to every house. Yet even with the scope of these issues, there is still hope when resilient people come together.

[Percy singing]

Narrator: From Emma’s work with the Dig Deep project, providing water to remote homes in the   Navajo Nation to Neil’s work testing for uranium in community water supplies, we have repeatedly seen the ways the Diné work to improve the lives of their people.

Percy: If you don’t want to take and take and take and take and give nothing back, and if you want to change and give something back, this is what you start with, water. Who gave this to us? Mother Earth, huh. She’s given us a drink. So for me to have this whole bottle to myself, that’s some sort of greed. So for me to give something back, I give Mother Earth a drink first… 

[Water splashing]

Percy: …and then I drink…

[Sound of drinking]

Percy …so I don’t have this thing all to myself.

[Soft instrumental music, “La Citadelle” plays]

Narrator: Percy’s gratefulness and respect for the earth was inspiring.  After a semester of research and a week of immersing ourselves in the Navajo Nation, we were left thinking about our own traditions and culture, our purpose in life, and our goals for the future. We asked ourselves just as Earl had asked… 

Earl: …where did you come from? Why are you here, on this Earth? And then, where are you going to go, after this is all over?

[Traditional singing, “Red Ochre” plays]

Student voice: This story was created by students from Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope program in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparative Media Studies. 

To Terrascope director David McGee, coordinator Elise Chambers, lecturer Ari Epstein, and undergraduate teaching fellow Landon Chu: thank you so much for being a part of Terrascope and allowing us to have this amazing experience.

We would like to thank Brandon Francis and Karyn Denny, without whom this story would not have been possible, as well as Professor Steven Chischilly from Navajo Technical University, Professor Anne Semrau from Diné College, and Terrascope alum Levon Thomas.

We also express our gratitude to the officials of the Navajo Nation government, in particular Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Jason John from the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. Likewise, we thank the Lane family of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture Farm and Emma Robbins from Dig Deep for opening their homes, farms, and workplaces to us. 

Finally, thank you to all of the amazing people we met at the Navajo Nation. You helped us to see the world in new ways. 

We are Terrascope Radio 2019: Aashini Shah, Christopher Kiel, Daniel Amaya, Jorge Nin, Laura Chen, Hou Lin, Meriah Gannon, Natasha Stamler, Neosha Narayanan, Patricia Chan, and Sreya Vangara. We hope you enjoyed the show.