Dinah DeWald grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and is a 2013 graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Science and Policy. While in school, she became a member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice, a part of the fossil fuel divestment and climate justice movement. The summer after graduation, she spent six weeks living with a Navajo family in northern Arizona. Besides sheepherding, and generally trying to make this family’s life easier, she was there to help make sure they could stay on their ancestral lands. They reside on the current Hopi Reservation, which is land that was reallocated to sole Hopi ownership from a joint use area because of a ‘land dispute’ between the tribes. The organization that she worked through, Black Mesa Indigenous Support, takes the view that the turf war between the Hopis and Navajos was fabricated to allow the government to move people off the land so Peabody Energy could mine it. This is a contested idea and has resulted in tension between the tribes. SEE Magazine does not endorse either side.
In Philadelphia, Ms. DeWald and several other Swarthmore alumni formed the Maypop Collective for Climate and Economic Justice. The organization developed into Philly Thrive, and its ‘Right to Breathe’ campaign. Currently, Ms. DeWald resides in Lansing, MI, where she continues the work of advocating for the environment.
SEE: How long did you live with the Navajo family? How did that come about? And what were your personal reasons for doing it?
DD: I stayed with a Navajo family who lives on the current Hopi Reservation for six weeks. I was just graduating from college and I had taken a class where I explored Native struggles in Arizona and organizations that were working with those issues. That opened my eyes to more things that were going on. I realized that having lived in Arizona my whole life and having Native peoples be more present than they are in a lot of other places in the country, I still wasn’t aware of much of what was going on. It’s very invisible. I got very excited about this organization, Black Mesa Indigenous Support, which was trying to support people who have been, for many decades, in threat of relocation. So, having just graduated and having the whole summer before I had to be somewhere else, I wanted to spend it doing something completely different and supporting the struggle.
SEE: Your job then was to herd sheep while you were there, correct? Do you know if they were the Churro sheep?
DD: I don’t know. I have read about the Churro sheep but I didn’t know how to tell the difference.
SEE: So they didn’t have any family who were willing to help out?
DD: Yes. The woman I stayed with, all of her daughters live in Tuba City, which is about a 40-min drive from where I was. They all moved to the city and all of their children live there, too.
SEE: So it’s a way of helping the elders who are still living the traditional lifestyle. What is the relationship between the sheep and Dine culture?
DD: Starting with the sheep makes a lot of sense. They are a symbol of the way the Diné think of the natural world as inseparable from themselves and central to life. There is a phrase they use which is “Sheep are Life.”
SEE: Are they able to sustain their lifestyle with just the sheep and no connection to the outside economy? Is that a problem? Can they sustain their lifestyle in isolation from the rest of the culture?
DD: That is the big question! I think they feel that all is connected, but they used to be able to sustain their lifestyle separately because they had water. Which meant they had enough plants, including the plants that they needed for their natural dyes, which meant they could keep bigger herds, which meant they had more to sustain themselves, including meat and wool. It’s all connected to water and climate which is also part of their struggle with the coal mine [Peabody] which takes hundreds and thousands of times more water then the residents – the people who live there – do. It lowers the aquifer.
SEE: When the Navajo had water, were they self-contained? Were they able to sustain themselves with their wool and meat products? And were they interacting with the larger culture at that point?
DD: Yes, they were always trading. They were trading with Hopis and with other nomadic peoples.
SEE: On your blog, you talk about how Navajos used to work better with the Hopi before the division and rules set by the U.S. government were implemented. Did you get any feedback from them or have any conversations that confirm your statement? Did you talk with the family about their relationship with the Hopis or get any Hopi perspective?
DD: I didn’t speak with any Hopis while I was there. I was pretty isolated. But I did hear a lot about how, as a family, they would often go to Hopi sacred ceremonies and kivas and they would invite Hopis to their ceremonies. There were good relationships between the elders, but the younger Hopis, they just don’t understand. They believe just what they’ve been told, which is that we’re hanging onto their land and that they [the Navajo] want to take up this land. It’s difficult.
There was one situation where a Hopi ranger came to visit the house. That used to happen more often when there was a stronger push to relocate people, but apparently they still come a lot and check up on people to make sure that they’re not building anything new or they’re not increasing their herds. It was interesting because when the ranger came, the matriarch of the house said, ‘Go hide,’ basically because she thought that they might be unpleasant to me and to the family. The original idea, at the end of the 70s, was to have third party witnesses [such as Dinah] watching to make sure that there were no human rights violations.
SEE: Was that the main reason the Black Mesa Indigenous Support placed you there?
DD: I think they always want to be watching, but at the time I was there, there wasn’t intense pressure from Hopi rangers. I was there mainly just to help, because in the family that I was with, they were all getting older and it was hard for them to continue herding sheep. I was there just to help them stay there.
SEE: Why are the Hopi rangers working with the U.S. government on the relocation effort? What are they getting out of this?
DD: It’s a struggle that’s going on. In truth, it’s been going on for hundreds of years. This particular relocation struggle has been going on for decades and it’s been getting a lot of public attention.
SEE: And one of the things that we’re recognizing is that there are a lot of subtleties, a lot of complexity. One thing I’m sure you’re really sensitive to is for people outside the community to come in with ideas of what is helpful… But, what is helpful? Is having a witness there as protection helpful or does it make more trouble? Could you talk about what you think, from your perspective, would be helpful? The idea that you went and helped with day to day living, when even young Navajos are leaving, I think is amazing, terrific, but could you talk about some other things that you think would be helpful?
DD: I may direct you to Black Mesa Water Coalition. They’re working on ALL of these things. They’re working on creating new jobs for people so they can stay on the Reservation; stay on the land, and creating markets so they can sell wool from the sheep directly as opposed to through middlemen.
SEE: How far were you able to put yourself into Diné culture? Did you feel welcome? Did you feel accepted by the family and others in the community or did you still feel like an outsider?
DD: I did feel like an outsider and I think that is to be expected. The main person I spent time with was the matriarch who speaks pretty good English. She’s learned it in the past few years. Diné is her first language.
It’s hard for them, given that they have a lot of people coming in and out. Some people stay there for six weeks, which is the middle of the time range. They can stay as few as three weeks and I think it’s hard to form connections with so many people. And so, I definitely was amazed at how much they did form a connection with me and were so grateful to me. I felt like through the whole process I was getting so much from it that I should be grateful. But they showed that gratitude to me when I was leaving. On one of the last days, they brought me to a big canyon, off-roading [laughs] in this truck across many fields to this canyon. When they were kids they had a cabin there, a Hogan, and they showed it to me and they said, ‘you’re one of the only people we’ve shown this too. We’re so grateful for how much respect you’ve shown to the sheep and how good you were.’ That meant a lot to me given that I’d only been there for six weeks.
SEE: It seems to me that working on the land, taking care of sheep would be pretty busy, intensive work. Physical work. Did you feel like it was hard work?
DD: No! At least not where I was. I didn’t have to do anything like help give birth – there were goats and sheep, by the way – I didn’t have to do any veterinary tasks or feed them. So I was just walking around, just hanging out with them! That’s why I was confused when they were so grateful. The sheep just walked and I followed them. [laughter] And then, when they were done, they came back. I made sure that they didn’t walk off a cliff once or twice. Throughout the whole process it was very hard to be so isolated but I didn’t think that it was very intense. I sometimes read while I was out there. It was very leisurely.
SEE: How about the other people living there, the family, was their life more physically demanding?
DD: There was one son there who was raising horses and doing other tasks. He had to haul a lot of water, which required driving a truck to where the water is, and getting hay, shoveling it around. So yes, there was more work that I didn’t do. And I think there would be more work to be done. They said that they used to have a farm but, once again, they don’t have the water any more.
SEE: Right. So much is connected to the water. In your blog, you talk about social justice and how it relates to environmentalism, about materialism, and being productive, and how you learned to “just be.” Could you expand on that?
DD: A lot of indigenous peoples have the viewpoint that everything is connected. It’s easier to see and believe the connections between different localities when you have that mentality. And, scientifically, that’s being discovered more and more. Ecologically, everything is connected; the water cycle is connected, the air is connected, so the water being drained in a place, coal ash being put into the atmosphere in one place, is actually connected to the rest of the state. If not through pollution coming directly to the rest of the state, then through the impact on climate change which is affecting the entire southwest and the United States. It is creating draughts and hotter weather, which will make it more unbearable to live in places like Phoenix. I think there are more and more connections between the environmental movements and the indigenous movements. The environmental groups are now getting it. Because at the root, if you believe that everything is connected and respect living things, the kinds of devastation we are experiencing would never have happened.
SEE: Yes. So if you could tell us about some of the most important things you’ve learned from this experience of living with the Navajo, what would they be?
DD: I think one thing that really struck me is that time is not a linear concept in Diné culture. It’s described as a circle. And it very much feels that way. It’s very hard for me to get over my inborn sense from this mainstream American culture of like, ‘I need to be productive,’ ‘one step leads to another, leads to another,’ and, ‘if I’m not creating some kind of progress I feel bad about myself.’ It was a huge lesson in that! Each day was like a circle. You get up and do the sheep and then come back and then do the sheep again and the next day is the same. And there’s no ‘progress!’ It’s not scheduled. It’s very fluid. That was a really big thing that I learned that I wish I was better able to bring back with me.