Tonalea Chapter Launches Archive Project to Preserve History, Voices of Navajo Elders

Elephants FeetPublished November 5, 2015

TONALEA, ARIZONA ­– The Tonalea Chapter has launched a project to safeguard the voices, stories, teachings and wisdom of its older citizens to benefit its younger citizens.

With a $4,500 grant from the Navajo Generating Station, the Tonalea Archive Project is tape-recording interviews with elders, collecting photos and seeking documents that refer to the pastoral community.

The chapter plans to dedicate a special room in its new chapter house that it hopes to build and open in 2017.

“These are some of the things we want to put in the archive to let our younger generation know what has come about and how long Tonalea has strived thus far,” said Tonalea Chapter President Darryl Jim. “It’s what we’re trying to do to make it turn around and have people live in a better community.”

The grant has allowed the chapter to buy recording equipment and several computers to edit and maintain the collection.

“NGS and SRP (Salt River Project) is big on preserving history, so this fit right into what our guidelines are,” said Regina Lane, NGS Community Relations director.

The archive project hopes to learn about past community leaders, colorful personalities and interesting events, how the earliest chapter government was formed and operated, what it was like when the trading post was the only store people went to, and how life changed when the first school was built.

But documenting history is not easy, chapter officials have found.

“There are many stories that we’re losing, some of the traditional ceremonies,” said Tonalea Vice President Colbert Dayzie. “It’s a losing battle. But we hope to preserve some of the oral histories, some of the practices, some of the culture.”

Dayzie said the goal of the project is to interview 100 citizens from age 80 and older.

“It’s at their convenience,” he said. “So we’re not moving as quickly as we’d like to.”

To date, only 15 elders have been interviewed by Franklin Tohannie, whom the chapter has assigned as volunteer researcher and interviewer. Tohannie, a former chapter official who now works for the Navajo Nation Division of Social Service, loves history, holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in educational leadership.

“It was supposed to be a really simple project,” Tohannie said. “I just turn the recorder on and they talk.”

But simple it isn’t, he said.

“I do it when I find someone to talk to that is willing to be recorded,” he said. “Most of the people don’t want to be recorded. That’s the unfortunate thing about gathering stories.

The concept for the archive project began in 2005 when former Tonalea President Chester Claw inquired whether a written history of the chapter existed, Tohannie said. The idea is to document where the community is headed based on where it’s come from.

At first, Tohannie said he could find only general information from non-Navajo sources but almost nothing from Navajo sources.

When he looked up Tonalea Chapter on the Navajo Nation Chapters website page, the information was unhelpful.

 

“Under Tonalea it said, ‘See Red Lake,’” he said. “Under Red Lake it said, ‘See Tonalea.’”

So Tohannie began painstakingly researching histories from Mormon settlers, the Babbitt Bros. Trading Co., searching through archives at Northern Arizona University and reading the logs of Spanish explorers’ earliest visits to Navajo Country.

Eventually, his research included whatever he could find on the histories of trading posts in Kaibeto, Shonto, Dinnebito, Kayenta and Marble Canyon – now all gone with the exception of the Cameron Trading Post.

Interesting records still exist, however. Among the famous visitors to Tonalea – also once known as Red Lake – was novelist Zane Grey in 1913. Grey popularized the Southwest and its landscapes with thrilling Western adventures.

Grey opened the first chapter of his book The Rainbow Trail at the Red Lake Trading Post.

“Suddenly, Shefford became aware of a house looming out of the barrenness of the slope,” Grey wrote. “It dominated that long white incline. Grim, lonely, forbidding, how strangely it harmonized with its surroundings! The structure was octagon-shaped, built of uncut stone, and resembled a fort.”

White Mesa with its famous arch is an iconic symbol of Tonalea Chapter. George Hardeen photo

White Mesa with its famous arch is an iconic symbol of Tonalea Chapter. George Hardeen photo

Another likely visitor was Theodore Roosevelt who traveled to the Navajo Reservation in 1913 to visit Rainbow Bridge with Zane Grey. Roosevelt, a prolific writer, described his visit in his 1916 book A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open.

After leaving Tuba City on a two-day journey to Kayenta to meet his guide, Roosevelt apparently stopped at the Red Lake Trading Post.

“We rested the horses for a day, and then started northward, toward the trading-station of John Wetherill, near Navajo Mountain and the Natural Bridge,” Roosevelt wrote. “The first day’s travel was through heavy sand and very tiring to the teams. Late in the afternoon we came to an outlying trader’s store, on a sandy hillside. In the plain below, where not a blade of grass grew, were two or three permanent pools; and toward these the flocks of the Navajos were hurrying, from every quarter, with their herdsmen. The sight was curiously suggestive of the sights I so often saw in Africa, when the Masai and Samburu herdsmen brought their flocks to water. On we went, not halting until nine in the evening.”

As Tohannie began the recorded interviews, he found the elders cautious to the point of being vague. Usually, one person’s story about an event was different from another’s. Tohannie said his interview subjects didn’t use specific dates but instead refer to something that can be remembered.

“When I talk to our elders in Tonalea, they don’t put timelines on it,” he said. “They just relate it to the season or the time when the snow was big.”

Things people remember best are the1960s and 70s when U.S. 160 or the Tonalea school was built or when the chapter house was constructed, he said.

Some remember hearing stories from their grandparents about the Long Walk or Livestock Reduction of the 1930s.

 

Still fresh in everyone’s mind was the establishment of the 1966 Bennett Freeze Area that put hundreds of chapter residents’ lives on permanent hold. Then, in 1978, a fence was built seemingly overnight to create what first became the Joint Use Area and later renamed Hopi Partitioned Land and Navajo Partitioned Land.

By then, thousands of Tonalea residents were impacted by events far larger than their remote community whose landscape is dominated by a majestic White Mesa. These are traumatic events that physically divided the community 40 years ago and keep families separated today, Chapter President Jim said. And it’s the memories they left he hopes are captured for the future generations.

Among the obstacles Tohannie finds is the cultural reluctance among elders to discuss any bad event, such as a battle, or even to have their words recorded. Others recognize the value of recording because they can no longer pass their stories to their grandchildren because of the Navajo-English language barrier between the generations.

“Grandma is fluent in Navajo and can only speak Navajo,” Tohannie said. “One was telling me, ‘You know I have all these stories from when I was a little girl when I was growing up I could share with my grandkids, how we used to take the sheep down to the Tonalea valley and do the dipping. It’s so unfortunate I can’t tell my stories to my grandkids. My daughter’s become my interpreter when I talk to my grandkids.”

Simple things among families that were once commonplace are quickly fading, he said. Today, the younger generation may know significant locations within the chapter, such as land forms and buildings, but they don’t know the names of the places where their grandparents and parents played as children, or where events occurred that hold important teachings. Those Navajo names are becoming lost to time, he said.

For example, Tohannie pointed to a place in Tonalea called “Where the Cows Ate.” He explained this is not just a cornfield that cows got into and consumed that year’s crop.

More importantly, it’s where the cornfield’s owner and the cows’ owner were able to come together to talk about the situation.

Today it’s a place that holds a teaching about the positive nature of conflict resolution, he said. That’s what makes it important. That’s what he wants remembered.

Tonalea has renowned landmarks that Tohannie is eager to gather information about such as Wildcat Peak, Middle Mesa and, perhaps best known, Elephant’s Feet.

One version of a story he’s been told is that in the oldest days the sacred Wildcat Peak is where some animal guardians were ceremonially sacrificed so they could return to be among the deities.

That event consecrated Wildcat Peak. Ever since, a person is not supposed to climb it for fun or mere entertainment, he said. It teaches that one is to have deep respect for the land and its natural formations, Tohannie said.

“You go up there for a reason,” Tohannie said. “If you go up there, the deities understand that you’re going to do something. People are not supposed to climb to the top of the peak unless they have a sacred duty to do so.”

He was told that the twin rock pillars that resemble an elephant’s feet were placed there to prevent a giant reptile that emerged from the Tuba City reservoir from proceeding farther north and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction.

“So the Elephant’s Feet blocks the path,” he said. “And the big reptile is the Middle Mesa. So if you get an aerial view of Middle Mesa, it’s positioned like a reptile. For that reason, you do not live around Elephant’s Feet. You do not live in the path of Middle Mesa.”

Countless more stories exist, Tohannie said. The challenge is finding the elders who are willing to tell them, he said.

“These are the kinds of stories they tell me,” Tohannie said. “I wish I could collect more.”

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  1. Sean Hanns 2 years ago