Zuni Sanctuary — ER for Eagles

He's called The Inquisitive One.
Published in Indian Country Today in October 2012.

Zuni Fish and Wildlife director and biologist Nelson Luna opened the door to the eagle refuge’s main flyway, a 100-by-25-foot space with 18-foot slatted walls. Shade dappled the gravel-covered floor and made the Zuni Eagle Sanctuary a pleasant haven from western New Mexico’s brilliant high-desert sun. In the refuge, Luna and environmental technician Alfonso Penketewa care for 26 injured eagles—13 golden and 13 bald—that wouldn’t survive if released. Birds bathed in shallow pools. Others sprinted short distances or flew the length of the space, feathers floating in their wake. Occasionally, they shrieked—a wild, piercing cry.

On a shelf-like perch at one end of the flyway, a young bald eagle (above) cocked his head at the sight of strangers accompanying Luna. “What’s this?!” I imagined him thinking. The eagle swiveled his head to make eye contact with Luna—to seek reassurance?—then turned back to scrutinize the visitors.

“I call him The Inquisitive One,” said Luna, at right. “He’s observant and intelligent. I think I can glove-train him to use in demonstrations of traditional eagle husbandry to schools and community groups. He should learn quickly.” The 18-month-old bird is living in the refuge because he broke his right shoulder, and it healed with a droop that doesn’t allow him to fly properly.

A strapping bald eagle standing nearby pivoted her white-helmeted head so her right eye was facing us. “Her name is Liberty, and she’s here because she has partial sight in that eye and is blind in the other one,” Luna explained.

He pointed out a few more blind or partially sighted eagles. The ones that were running instead of flying had broken or amputated wings—the result of gunshots, collisions with vehicles or power lines, or other accidents. One bird had a paralyzed foot Luna said was beginning to respond to massage. Another had nervous-system damage, probably the result of lead poisoning. This happens when eagles feed on the carcasses of game animals or wildfowl that were shot with lead bullets or pellets.

The biggest eagles were from cold regions like Alaska, where their relatively large size helps them retain body warmth. Liberty was one of these, as was a female golden, Ivy, who’d staked out a four-foot cylindrical perch made to look like a tree stump. Eagles from warm areas like Florida were the smallest birds in the aviary.

Along one side of the main flyway were a series of smaller aviaries holding birds that needed special care or were recently arrived from around the country—some of the 40 the sanctuary has accepted since it opened in 1999. These were adjusting to the local climate and getting ready to be moved into the main “convocation,” the term for a group of eagles. “They have to get used to each other and figure out their pecking order,” said Luna.

Sometimes birds go into side mews because they’ve been aggressive and need to be segregated to preserve the safety of all. “It’s their time-out room,” Luna said with a laugh.

He picked up a few feathers from the ground. “They’re collected daily,” he said, indicating a long broken feather as he nodded with a smile toward The Inquisitive One. “We have to get to them before he does. He likes to play with feathers and can end up breaking them.”

In a later interview, the pueblo’s lieutenant governor, Steve K. Boone, remarked on the eagles’ distinctive personalities and the undeniable charm that leavens their fierce majesty. “We Zuni have always considered them members of the family,” he said. “We raised them from fledglings, and they lived among us their entire lifespan. We took care of them, and they took care of us.” He said the Zunis cherish those in the sanctuary, looking after them as they would tribal members who are elderly or disabled.

Zuni’s 12,000 tribal members use eagle feathers to meet religious and cultural obligations—sometimes daily, according to Luna. Because historically Zunis raised eagles within the pueblo, they had the feathers needed to ensure the strength of healing prayers, among other uses. However, starting in 1940, federal law required Native Americans to request feathers and other eagle parts through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Eagle Repository, in Colorado. (Though bald eagles are no longer on the list of threatened and endangered species, they remain protected under other regulations.) Because demand was high, wait times were long—as many as several years, said Joe Early, Native American liaison for the service’s Southwest region, which has offices in Denver.

Such delays were not practicable for traditional Zuni Pueblo. In talking to the service about ways to shorten the wait, the tribe learned in the early 1990s that veterinarians were euthanizing badly injured eagles they believed would never heal well enough to survive in the wild. “At that time, there were no permitted facilities for disabled, but otherwise healthy birds,” explained Early, who is from the Pueblo of Laguna. Zoos weren’t taking them because they prefer to exhibit perfect specimens, nor were rehabilitators, who nurse eagles back to health then might use them for educational demonstrations. The injured eagles weren’t useful for master falconers who hunt with eagles. According to the law, these groups are in line after Native Americans for the species, said Early.

Zuni decided to build the first Native American aviary for non-releasable eagles. “They said, ‘Send them to us. We’ll care for them,’” said Early. As the eagles naturally molted their feathers, these could be collected for tribal members’ use.

The tribe’s architect-designed aviary is made of locally cut, hand-shaped red sandstone and sustainably harvested wood; it cost $75,000 in private funding, along with in-kind donations—mostly time—from community members. The sanctuary received a design award from the American Institute of Architecture the year it opened, 1999; three years later, it got a High Honors Award from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. A testimonial for the Harvard award described the sanctuary as “combining functional aspects of eagle care with an aesthetic that reflects the natural surroundings of Zuni.” And it called the idea behind it a “paradigm shift” in tribal sovereignty, transforming the relationship with the federal government by giving a tribe control over a sensitive need. In this, said the testimonial, Zuni’s sanctuary became a model for efforts of all sorts by other tribes.

Since the Zuni sanctuary opened its doors, more tribes have built refuges. The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma takes both non-releasable eagles and those its specialists think will eventually be able to fend for themselves. “The Iowa program has been very successful,” said Early. “Eight eagles have been rehabilitated and released, and three more are about to be.”

The Comanche Nation of Oklahoma is breeding eagles that will remain in captivity and be used as demonstration birds and sources of feathers for regalia and ceremonies. Both the Iowa and the Comanche programs are doing genetic research, particularly into conditions, like brittle feathers, that have appeared among eagles. “The research benefits the species and the scientific community,” said Early.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma and the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park, in Arizona, have eagles as well. At Jemez Pueblo, two tribal members have permits for small aviaries. The San Carlos Apache Nation has received a grant for a refuge, and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, in Montana, will open the first tribal sanctuary outside the Southwest.

More tribes are considering aviaries, according to Pat Durham, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Senior Native American liaison, in Arlington, Virginia. “We accept the next round of proposals for eagle refuges and other wildlife programs in September 2013,” he said. Having several aviaries in operation has taken some pressure off Fish and Wildlife waiting lists, though they’re still long, especially for certain highly prized tail feathers, said Early. The service is talking to the tribes about ways to expedite the process.

The existing aviaries’ professionals also share ideas and consult with those hoping to start programs, Early said. Luna confirmed, “We at Zuni have talked to at least 12 interested tribes.”

At the Zuni sanctuary, the eagles eat animals donated by the community and a meat-based commercial mix. Occasionally, a small bird has the misfortune to flutter through their airspace. They also get fresh road-kill, which explains the five-foot-wide rack of elk antlers in a corner of the eagles’ examination room. In that room, the birds also receive periodic physicals from Luna and Penketewa, who check muscle mass (an indicator of overall conditioning) and look for foot infections because these eagles spend more time on the ground than they normally would. The birds also see a zoo veterinarian annually and receive vaccines for West Nile virus and other blood-borne infections.

Zuni religious societies helped establish within the pueblo two additional, smaller aviaries where families care for two non-releasable golden eagles. Luna wants to set up more satellite facilities in the community: “Kids would acquire the food, clean the aviary and grow up knowing how to look after eagles.” He knows the relationships developed would be meaningful and lifelong.

According to Early, the injuries of non-releasable eagles mean their lifespan is typically on the low end of the 12 to 20 years they might attain in the wild. Said Luna: “The longest lifespan I’ve heard of for any eagle was one that died at 56 after being cared for by succeeding generations of a Zuni family.” Zuni traditional eagle husbandry made that longevity possible, he said.

Today’s tribal members continue to value their eagles, Luna said. Before turning to go, he surveyed the airy space. The birds were still and quiet, poised on perches and on the rims of pools. Two bald eagles—Reese and Nebraska, above—stood companionably about halfway down one long side of the flyway. The Inquisitive One was eyeing us intently, and Ivy was magnificent on her high perch, gazing at us over her broad golden shoulder.

“When I feel stressed, I come into the aviary and reflect on their lives,” Luna said. “The spirit they emanate lessens my problems and makes me whole. In that sense, they are healers.”

Photographs by Joseph Zummo.

Will Montana Indians Determine Control of the U.S. Senate?

A version of this story appeared on NBC.com and 100Reporters.com in October 2012. For more, go here, here, the judge’s election-eve decision here, and Election-Day voter intimidation here, all published in Indian Country Today.

With control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, a Native American voting-rights hearing in U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, later this week is shaping up to be a riveting spectacle. 

A surprising array of Democrats and Republicans are ranged against the 16 tribal members who have sued for early-voting offices on their reservations. (Attorney Steven D. Sandven, near left, plaintiffs and supporters deliver the lawsuit to the Billings courthouse.) 

“It’s the poorest of the poor versus the billionaires,” said Tom Rodgers, a member the Blackfeet, a Montana tribe.

In late August, Republican powerbroker Karl Rove told a meeting of the country’s super-rich that Montana Democrat Jon Tester’s Senate seat was one of the Republican Party’s best shots at Senate control, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The neck-and-neck race between Tester and Republican challenger U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg was important then. It’s even more so today, now that Missouri appears to be off the Republican list, following remarks about “legitimate rape” by the party’s candidate, Todd Akin.

“Millions are flowing into Montana to influence the Senate race,” said Rodgers, who was the whistleblower in the Jack Abramoff scandal. “And now we have Indians suing for voting rights.”

In the federal suit, filed October 10, tribal members from the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Fort Belknap reservations say that without satellite early-voting offices on their reservations, they must drive long distances to early-vote or late-register in their county seat. This is a burden for destitute tribal members who may not have vehicles or gas money for the trip, and the unequal access is illegal and unconstitutional, they say.

Improved ballot-box access would have real and immediate results, said a local official. With satellite stations in our communities, we could exercise our right to vote, but also important, we could register voters, said Rosebud County commissioner Danny Sioux, a Northern Cheyenne. We could explain voters’ rights. On the Northern Cheyenne reservation alone, our current 400 active registered voters could become 3,000 and impact elections all the way up to the federal level.

Presiding over the hearing later this week will be Chief U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull, a Republican who achieved national prominence earlier this year by forwarding a crude email about President Obama’s mother. After the message became public, Cebull denied accusations of racism, and promised local newspapers that he would no longer send non-work-related emails from his office computer.

The lead defendant is a Democrat: Montana’s top election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who running for re-election.   McCulloch recently told the Associated Press that the Native voters’ claim “has merit,” but they should have started talking to her about it a year ago. As it was, the talks were moving into their sixth month when tribal members filed suit.

On the county level, election officials from both parties failed to set up satellite early-voting offices, and the suit names them as well. “I don’t care if they’re white, black or Chinese,” Republican county elections official Geraldine Custer told Indian Country Today, the national Native-owned newsmagazine. “I just don’t have the staff. It’s not about race. I’m just swamped.” (And, yes, she says her husband is a distant relative of that Custer, whom Indians helped into history in Montana in 1876.)

The negotiations for reservation early-voting offices began May 2 with a request from the Blackfeet Nation. Documents filed with the lawsuit indicate that in July, the secretary of state’s legal counsel, Jorge Quintana, wrote to tribal advisors that such offices were prohibited in Montana.

Then McCulloch consulted with the state’s attorney general and head lawman, Steve Bullock, a Democrat running for governor. Bullock advised her on August 17 that the state already has forms of satellite voting. On August 28, McCulloch changed course, issuing an advisory saying the facilities were legal and doable, but discretionary.

McCulloch  told the counties. She didn’t tell the tribes.

Terri L. McCoy, the secretary of state’s communications director, defended the failure to inform the tribes in an email.“This is a local county issue,” she wrote.

Most counties with Indian reservations apparently shelved the secretary of state’s advisory without informing the tribes within their borders. Leaders of the suing tribes said they didn’t learn until mid-September that satellite early voting was even a possibility for their people. In the end, only Glacier County provided satellite early voting and registration, for the Blackfeet.

The Montana Democratic Party appears to be in an awkward spot. Spokesman Chris Saeger described efforts to improve ballot-box access in all forms: on and off reservations, in person and by mail, during the early voting period and on Election Day. “We’re working hard to ensure all Montanans have greater access to polling locations,” Saeger said.

The Montana Republican Party did not respond to requests for a comment.

Historically, the Democratic Party has been hospitable to Indians, said Glacier County Commission chair Michael DesRosier, a Blackfeet tribal member. “Our Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, and Senator Tester have opened many doors and shown they truly recognize us.”

What does voting mean to Native people? “When we come out to vote, more people will have to start to deal with us—about health care for our veterans, access to public transportation and more,” said DesRosier. “Otherwise, all they recognize is our ‘plight.’”

Native people have the highest rate of military enlistment of any group in the country, according to the Defense Department. “When we went to war, whose freedom were we fighting for?” asked Sioux. “Ours? Or just yours?”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph courtesy William Campbell/Four Directions.

Early-Voting Advances in South Dakota—Montana Up Next

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in October 2012.

For the first time, Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation voters will be able to early-vote in a national election in Eagle Butte, their capital and population center. This year, those wishing to cast a ballot ahead of Election Day will drop by the office of chairman Kevin Keckler. Previously, they had to travel long distances to a primarily white-populated town.

“We sat down with the county auditor [the official supervising voting in South Dakota], figured out how it would work, and now early voting and registration are available in the tribal hall, with a tribal member deputized to supervise the process,” said Wayne Ducheaneaux, tribal administrative officer. “We were able to come to an agreement quickly.”

“Dewey County is the gold standard in South Dakota tribal-county relations,” said O.J. Semans, Rosebud Sioux director of the voting-rights nonprofit Four Directions, which has supported, negotiated or litigated all the recent advances in South Dakota Native suffrage. “The county has been not just cooperative but cost-effective, because they don’t require their staff to travel to the reservation every day.”

On the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, early voters are casting ballots in a now-permanent satellite early-voting office in a government building in Mission, said Rosebud Sioux business manager and tribal member Rose Cordier. (For more on Rosebud’s path to early voting, see “Ballot Box Breakthrough in the Badlands,” Indian Country Today Media Network, March 15, 2012.)

For the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, this year’s early voting is in the tribal-council chambers, in the reservation’s population center in Fort Thompson. This is a step up from some voting locations tribal members have had to use in the past, including a dirt-floored structure that appeared to be a disused chicken coop, said Buffalo County Commissioner Donita Loudner, a Crow Creek tribal member.

“The tribe and Chairman Brandon Sazue bent over backward to provide a safe, secure, convenient location,” said Semans. His group, Four Directions, paid for Crow Creek’s satellite-office expenses because the state refused to provide HAVA funds.

Crow Creek’s path to voting rights has not been easy, said Loudner. Until 2004, Buffalo County, where most tribal members lived, packed almost all of its Native population into one district and divided the remainder among two more districts such that Native people did not form a majority in either. This impacted their ability to elect officials of their choosing. An ACLU lawsuit resulted in a settlement that redistricted the county and placed elections under federal supervision.

“This is the first year we won’t have federal monitors,” said Loudner. “I will have an attorney here to answer questions, though. This person will be able to help registered voters exercise their rights.”

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (right) a string of federal-court decisions from March to October increased early-voting access for Oglala Sioux Tribe members. This comes after years of enfranchisement struggles. Since early voting has been available in the state, Oglalas have had less access to it than other voters, or none at all.

Now, several opinions issued by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Karen Schreier indicate that Pine Ridge will likely have early voting until 2018. In early October, for example, the judge denied a motion to dismiss the case by the defendants—South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant and county elections officials.

This was despite Gant releasing Help America Vote Act money to pay for elections on Pine Ridge. Before the suit was filed, he had required impoverished Shannon County, a non-tribal entity within Pine Ridge that is responsible for national elections there, to pay upfront then request a reimbursement. Shannon County didn’t have the funds, so an impasse ensued.

Gant’s action solves the financial crisis for now. However, in 2018 HAVA funds run out, and again there will be no clear way to pay for Pine Ridge elections. “The harm may recur,” wrote the judge.

The judge also kept the case alive, despite promises of full Oglala enfranchisement by Fall River County officials, whom barebones Shannon County hires to handle Pine Ridge elections on a freelance contract basis.

Mostly white Fall River County’s supervision of Pine Ridge elections has made them subject to special Justice Department scrutiny. On Pine Ridge, voter intimidation, requests for forms of ID that were not required, dropping of qualified voters from the rolls and the like were common for years. In 2010, Fall River officials quit their freelance posts on the eve of the election, jeopardizing it.

A recent agreement with the Justice Department says, among other things, that election workers must provide legally required language assistance and may not insult voters. During the March 2012 hearing before Judge Shreier, the Fall River state’s attorney characterized the Justice Department and its oversight as “malicious.”

The Oglala plaintiffs are represented by Sioux Falls attorney Steven D. Sandven, a former Oglala Sioux Tribe Attorney General and Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution of non-Native offenders in Indian country. He calls enfranchisement “the most fundamental right.”

Sandven noted that the Oglala lawsuit concerns vote denial—when the totality of a situation means certain groups have a more difficult time getting to the polls than others—as opposed to vote dilution, as might occur in a gerrymandering case. He added that a recent federal-court decision established precedents that pertain to vote denial. “The judge in the 11th Circuit applied a practical, common-sense test that asks, ‘Is it harder for some folks to vote than others?’”

A trial date has not yet been set.

“Voting rights have been fought in the South since the 1960s,” said Semans. “The process is only now gathering momentum in Indian country.”

In the Northern Plains, changing demographics may drive white fear of Native voting, as white populations decline, white towns empty out and Native populations grow and develop. Said Sandven: “It’s math. Very soon, we won’t be a swing vote, we’ll be the vote, and that’s scary to some.”
Montana Rematch
Voting-rights group Four Directions has efforts underway in several Western states, most recently in Montana, where a Native early-voting lawsuit will be heard October 29 at 11 a.m. in U.S. District Court in Billings. Four Directions has been advising the plaintiffs, who are tribal members from the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Fort Belknap reservations.

They filed suit after protracted and unproductive negotiations for early voting with Montana’s top elections official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, and the relevant counties. Not being able to early-vote and late-register on their reservations is unconstitutional and illegal, the plaintiffs say. (For more, see “Montana Tribes Demand Equal Access to Early Voting,” Indian Country Today Media Network, October 10, 2012.)

On the 29th, some of the attorneys will be fresh from the Oglalas’ early-voting litigation in South Dakota. Sandven is on the Native plaintiffs’ legal team, which is headed by Montana lawyer Terryl Matt. Meanwhile, the county officials named as defendants have retained Sara Frankenstein, who is representing the defendants in South Dakota.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.

Ramah Navajo Weavers Sustain Ancient Connections

A version of this story appeared in Indian Country Today in October 2012.

Above, elder weaver Katie Henio with a Navajo Churro fleece. Below, she is shown presenting a weaving to former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan during his visit to Ramah Navajo.

Sarah Henio-Adeky recounted the recent preparations for her daughter’s wedding, as a granddaughter smiled shyly. “We butchered a sheep and cooked, didn’t we?” asked Henio-Adeky (at right below), a cultural interpreter for the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association. The little girl nodded, clinging to her grandma’s leg.

We were standing outside one of two hogans (eight-sided Navajo homes) the association built to use for meetings and as classrooms that would provide a home-like context for learning about sheep and the cultural and environmental knowledge that comes with herding them and using their meat and wool. Squash ripened in a nearby garden, and later a horned toad (“a protector,” said Henio-Adeky) scampered by.

Inside the hogan, a wall (shown right) was decorated from top to bottom with a pattern that represented the universe, with the stars at the top, the Navajos’ four sacred mountains in the center and a human being’s lifelong path marked out across the bottom with footsteps between paired zigzags, signifying lightning.

The weavers’ group, headquartered in the Ramah Navajo’s capital in Pine Hill, New Mexico, is working to ensure a future in which caring for sheep remains central to life, said Yin-May Lee (near right) an organizer who’s lived in the Ramah Navajo homeland and worked with the association since it started in 1984. That means passing on both the practice of weaving and the values it represents, she said. 

Over the years, the association has also worked with the Ramah Navajo School Board, a powerful force behind the semi-autonomous community’s long-time local control over its education, health and political matters. The collaboration has been “a big plus” for the association, said Sarah’s mother, elder weaver Katie Henio. 

Henio felt the schools could do even more to teach Navajo language and culture, but that laws and policies unfriendly to traditional lifeways restrict them. “The policies are hovering over our schools,” she said. “But we must pass down this knowledge.”

The association is working against time and the waning participation of its older members, said Henio-Adeky, who mentioned that a stroke has affected one elder’s memory.

Even Henio—the subject of Katie Henio, Navajo Sheepherder, a 1995 biography that celebrated the complex skills needed to sustain her traditional life—is doing less. “I can only advise at this point,” said Henio, who’s in her eighties.

The association’s weavers use two kinds of wool, said Lee. One is from a heritage breed, the hardy, long-legged Navajo Churro, descendants of animals the Spanish introduced to this continent during the 16th century. Navajos prize Churros for their fine-textured, almost sweet-tasting meat, as well as their thick-layered fleece, with its downy undercoat and long, durable outer fibers. The other wool source is the heavy-set Rambouillet, a Merino type with short, soft fleece that was bred by France’s Louis XVI and eventually arrived this country in the 1800s.

Navajo Churros, and their herders, have survived holocausts, including Spanish and U.S. colonization. During the nation’s mid-19th-century western expansion, a U.S. Army scorched-earth campaign against the Navajo began with the slaughter of their sheep and other livestock and the burning of homes and crops. Tribal members were then rounded up for the lethal 1864 Long Walk and four years of incarceration.

During the 1930s, the federal government decided Navajo ranges were overgrazed and tribal members’ herds must be smaller. A chaotic stock-reduction program ensued. Government agents shot and slashed the throats of hundreds of thousands of Navajo sheep and other animals. They beat up and jailed protesting tribal members. In the end, the program had disrupted the sheepherders’ careful stewardship of the desert ecology and decimated their self-sufficient pastoral economy.

Recreating a viable land-based economy has been a struggle ever since. When Henio was younger, she recalled, weavers would barter their virtuosic and time-consuming work for groceries at area trading posts. Nowadays, the weavers are discussing value-added products, including processed wool, yarn or meat. Marketing is done through public demonstrations, museums, Santa Fe Indian Market, the local Highway 53 Ancient Way Art Trail and a statewide New Mexico Fiber Arts Trail.

Typically the smaller weavings sell best, said Lee. “People tend not buy the larger ones. But no matter the size, the weavings continue to convey of messages of harmony, beauty and balance, the core of Navajo philosophy, and represent the history and world of the Navajo people. The four natural colors represent the four sacred mountains, the dyes come from the land, and the use of the Churro wool is itself part of the story of rebuilding the relationship between the people and the land.”

Henio said she wasn’t impressed by much of what she hears in the name of development these days. She described a local radio program on the future of the Navajo economy: “What I heard wasn’t good planning. They talked about using our nation’s invested monies to finance short-term projects, with the result being luxury living. No one listens to those of us who know how to live off the land. I’ve lived my whole life among sheep. My sheep knew me, as did my horses and cattle. And I’m healthy.”

In contrast, Henio sees disorder all around her—from violence and dependence on government handouts to droughts and unpredictable weather. “The storms are scolding us and telling us we’re not connected,” she said. “We need people, from youth to elders, to connect with the environment, as we did when we grazed sheep by the thousands and knew what plants were good for them. I hope my people will join me in believing this.”

It’s up to the people, said Henio-Adeky. “Many come here and ask a lot of questions so they can help us write grants, but we Navajo people must work things out ourselves, so our new generations can become the society we need.”

To that end, Henio-Adeky is drawing up clan and kinship charts. “We have to figure out how we’re all related in this small Ramah Navajo community, clarify our values and grow from there.”

Asked Henio, “Who will go to the horizon, see the world is beautiful, then come back and say, This is what I saw?”
Find the Weavings
To see or purchase the work of the Ramah Navajo weavers, contact their association at 505-775-3254.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.

Tribes Fight to Prevent Youth Suicide

Versions of this story appeared in October 2012 on NBCnews.com and 100Reporters.com and in Indian Country Today (print and online). 

It feels like wartime,” says Diane Garreau, a child-welfare official on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota (shown left), speaking of the youth-suicide epidemic sweeping Indian country. “I’ll see one of our youngsters one day, then find out a couple of days later she’s gone. Our children are self-destructing.”

Native teens and twenty-somethings are killing themselves at an alarming pace. For those 15 to 24, the rate is 3.5 times that of other Americans, according to the Indian Health Service (IHS). Tribes have declared states of emergency and set up crisis-intervention teams. The federal government included 10 tribes or tribal organizations in a recent round of 23 youth-suicide prevention grants; most will receive nearly $500,000 per year for three years. That brings to 43 the number of indigenous groups that have received this funding.

That’s good, but hardly enough, says former North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan (below). Dorgan chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for 18 years. Since leaving the Senate, he has founded the Center for Native American Youth, which promotes Indian child health, with a focus on suicide prevention (below from left, program associate Josie Raphaelito and director Erin Bailey). Dorgan claims the IHS, which serves the nation’s 566 tribes, is chronically underfunded.

“We need more mental-health funding and services to save the lives of our youngest First Americans,” Dorgan says. “Tribes and nonprofits may get two- or three-year grants to address an issue that cannot possibly be resolved in that amount of time. We fund programs, then let them fall off a cliff. The perception may be that tribes have a lot of gaming funds, but that is simply not true for more than a few.”

The suicide risk factors for Native youth are well known and widely reported. In their communities, many Native kids face extreme poverty, hunger, alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and health disparities. Diabetes rates are sky-high and untreated mental illnesses such as depression are common. Unemployment tops 80 percent on some reservations, so there are few jobs—even part-time or after-school ones. Bullying and peer pressure pile on more trauma during the vulnerable teen years.

Native youngsters are particularly affected by community-wide grief stemming from the loss of land, language and more, researchers reported in 2011. As many as 20 percent of adolescents thought daily about certain sorrows—even more frequently than adults in some cases, the researchers found.

“Our kids hurt so much, they have to shut down the pain,” says Garreau, who is Lakota. “Many have decided they won’t live that long anyway, which in their minds excuses self-destructive behavior, like drinking—or suicide.”

Suicide figures vary from community to community, with the most troubling numbers in the Northern Plains, Alaska and parts of the Southwest. In Alaska, the suicide rate for young Native males is about nine times that of all young males in the United States, while Native females kill themselves 19 times as often as all females their age, according to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). After a cluster of suicides in 2001, the White Mountain Apache Tribe wanted to develop a prevention program. They mandated reporting of all suicides and attempts on their Arizona reservation and discovered that between 2001 and 2006, their youth ended their lives at 13 times the national rate.

The trauma behind the numbers is excruciating. “When my son died by suicide at age 23, I didn’t even know how to think,” says Barbara Jean Franks, who is Tlingit and was living in Juneau, Alaska, at the time. “I couldn’t imagine that hope existed.”

The tragedies ripple through entire communities. Reservations are essentially small towns, and tribal members are often related, whether closely or distantly, says Garreau. “People are overwhelmed. Sometimes they’ll say, I just can’t go to another funeral.”

Because suicide is so common in some Native communities, it’s become an acceptable solution for times when burdens build up, says Alex Crosby, medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s injury-prevention center: “If people run into trouble—a relationship problem, a legal problem—this compounds the underlying risk factors, and one of the options is suicide.”

“It crosses your mind,” says Jake Martus, whose mother is Cahuilla and Tongva and whose Yupik/Eskimo/Athabaskan father was born in a tiny, remote village on the Yukon River. “I’ve never acted on suicidal thoughts, but they’ve been there my entire life. It’s sad, it’s shocking, but in our communities it’s also somehow normal.”

Martus, who is 26 and a patient advocate at the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, says suicide is so frequent among his people, he has to ask, “Is it in our blood?” He inherited this terrible legacy from his father, who died by suicide when he was taken to jail for drunk driving. Behind his dad’s alcoholism were overwhelming memories of sexual abuse by his village’s Catholic priest, Martus says. A similar story is reported throughout Indian country, and lawsuits against the Catholic Church have detailed sexual, physical, and emotional abuse by clerics in parishes or on staff at the notoriously violent boarding schools Native children were forced to attend until the 1970s.

The lasting effect of the abuse and the loss of land and culture is often called historical trauma. Martus called it genocide. “They set us up to kill ourselves. The point of all the policies was ‘take them out.’”

In some communities, suicide is so ordinary that boys in particular may dare each other to try it, says Ira Vandever, a Navajo chef in western New Mexico. He works with Music Is Medicine, a local group that brings guitars, drums and lessons from rock and traditional musicians to Native youngsters. Speaking after dinner at his restaurant, La Tinaja, he said, “Around here, some who have died by suicide weren’t depressed. They were just responding to a dare.”

Incredible as it sounds to adults, adolescents may not fully understand that shooting or hanging themselves can have permanent results, says social worker Patricia Serna, who helped develop a nationally recognized suicide-prevention program for a New Mexico tribe. “Youth who survived suicide attempts would tell us they just wanted a break from their problems, a little time off.” She explains that important decision-making parts of the brain are not fully developed in adolescents—of all population groups, not just Native youngsters. As a result, they don’t necessarily foresee the consequences of their actions.

Part of the boys’ difficulty is misunderstanding the warrior tradition that makes up much of Native male identity, according to Alvin Rafelito, Ramah Navajo and director of his community’s health and human services department. “We have a prayer that describes a warrior as someone who goes the distance spiritually for his people. Nowadays, that ideal has been reduced to fighting and violence. In teaching kids to be modern warriors, we have to convey the term’s full, traditional meaning.”

Tradition is key, says Anderson Thomas, Ramah Navajo and director of the community’s behavioral health program. On his reservation, he points out, it’s typically young men who are dying by suicide, not young women. “I’d say more than 90 percent of girls here go through their traditional coming-of-age ceremony,” he says. In contrast, little is done for young males. In large part, he says, that’s because traditional male activities like hunting have diminished, so rituals related to them have dropped off as well. Though Ramah Navajo men and boys can obtain conventional therapy, they also need ceremonies, Thomas said.

 “It was my tradition that brought me to safety,” says Franks. As time went on, she went back to school, got a degree and these days promotes suicide prevention statewide on behalf of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “Now, I can move forward. Instead of saying my son died by suicide, I can say he gave me 23 years of his life.”

According to Crosby, tradition is one source of all-important protective factors that effectively counter the risk factors—even the deeply embedded ones that afflict tribes. For indigenous people, the protective factors are distinctive and powerful, say researchers. These include family and clan relationships, reverence for elders and a deeply held spiritual life. Supporting these culturally based positives makes Native kids feel valued and able to seek help, U.S. and Canadian scientists conclude in study after study. 

Bottom line, it’s about connectedness, Crosby says: “How strong is the person’s social network? In the case of adolescents, how connected are they to family, to adults at school, to positive peers?”

You don’t have to be a scientist to figure this out. Alaska Native Tessa Baldwin was a 17-year-old high school student when she learned that connectedness is vital. At age 5, she had lost an uncle to suicide and in succeeding years, several friends and a boyfriend. “I finally realized it wasn’t something affecting just me,” she says. “It was a lot bigger.” In 2011, she founded Hope4Alaska, one many small grassroots suicide-prevention groups in Indian country.

Through Hope4Alaska, Baldwin worked with student governments to travel to schools in Alaska Native villages, tell her story and find out what other teens thought would help. “We had youth–elder discussions, and the kids said they felt useless. They wanted to better their communities but saw no way to make a contribution. The elders were touched, and the kids felt they’d connected with them in an important way,” recalls Baldwin, who has just started her freshman year at the University of California, San Diego.

To make sure Cheyenne River’s children feel part of a community that values them, Diane Garreau’s sister, Julie, shown above left, runs the Cheyenne River Youth Project, a busy after-school facility offering fun, meaningful activities. Kids listen to elder storytellers, play basketball and tend a two-acre organic garden. They get healthy meals and homework help. They study in a library, go online in an Internet café, stage fashion shows and organize local beautification projects. In 2011, a youth-leadership group visited the White House. (Art and business classes shown left.)
“Everything we do—from serious to seemingly frivolous—is about letting our kids know we care,” says Julie Garreau.

“You could define many things—a school camping trip, a traditional dance group—as suicide prevention,” says Zuni Pueblo’s Superintendant of Schools Hayes Lewis, shown below. He is co-creator in the late 1980s of the Zuni Life Skills Development curriculum, one of the first suicide-prevention programs designed for Native Americans. The school-based lesson series includes coping skills like stress management, as well as role-playing for dealing with suicide threats. It was created in response to rising youth-suicide rates at Zuni—thirteen deaths between 1980 to 1987, according to a paper Lewis co-wrote in 2008.

After the curriculum was put into place in 1991, youth suicide stopped almost immediately, according to Lewis’s co-author, Stanford University education professor Teresa LaFromboise. Fifteen years later, the pueblo’s schools shelved the program. Suicides crept back, and the shocked community asked Lewis to resume the post of school superintendant and re-establish the curriculum. Over the past two academic years, he’s done just that, he says.

When the Zuni school system ended its program, the officials there didn’t realize “how fragile the peace was,” Lewis testified to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2009, telling then-Senator Byron Dorgan and other members: “Suicide prevention and intervention require constant vigilance.”

Numerous federal agencies and foundations provide grants and services to programs trying to maintain that vigilance. Yet many of the programs struggle to keep their doors open. That’s because the funders lack the co-ordination needed in a time of shrinking budgets, says Dorgan: “They are doing extraordinary work, but in isolation. When I left the Senate, I wanted to tear down the silos among these organizations and figure out how we could address Native children’s issues in a sustained and sustainable way.”

In early 2011, he founded the Center for Native American Youth with $1 million in leftover campaign funds and housed it in the D.C. offices of the Aspen Institute think tank. This past July, CNAY hosted 50 representatives (shown left) from the White House, Congressional offices, federal agencies, the National Congress of American Indians, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Northwest Area Foundation, Casey Family Programs and more. In the interactive session that followed, the attendees described their Native-youth programs and began the search for new ways to collaborate on Indian-country issues.

In addressing the meeting, Dorgan said, “We will never know the names of those we save, but we will make a difference.”

Personal diplomacy is central to CNAY’s efforts. Dorgan travels to reservations to learn first-hand what people, including kids, are thinking and doing; he also lets them know how CNAY can help. He and his staff recently traveled to New Mexico to tour two Navajo communities and San Felipe and Zuni pueblos. One stop was Pine Hill, New Mexico, the capital of the Ramah Navajo reservation, where CNAY staffer Josie Raphaelito (shown below with Dorgan) grew up. Speaking to an enthusiastic group of teens in the school gymnasium, Raphaelito, now 25, reminisced about playing sports there as one of the Ramah Navajo Warriors. “I love being back!” she exclaimed. She introduced Dorgan, saying, “This is your chance to tell him what concerns you and what makes you proud.”

After Dorgan’s homily—about growing up on the North Dakota prairie, life in the Senate, starting CNAY and more—he stayed around to chat and listen to kids’ plans for the future. He then toured tribal offices to see their many innovative projects—traditional gardening for health, fitness and heart-healthy programs and more. He talked to the tribal dentist about budget shortfalls he’s facing. He met with student council members, who said they wanted more law enforcement on their reservation, among other things. Meanwhile, CNAY director Erin Bailey was quick to hand students her business card, exhorting them, “Call me! Email me!”

Later, Bailey explained, “We can make connections to internships, explain ways to pay for college. And we enjoy balancing positive things that can happen today with our long-term goals.”

Agencies, nonprofits, foundations and others can partner with tribes in the effort to protect Native children. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the communities, says Lewis. “We adults have to practice our core cultural values of compassion, respect, cooperation and concern for our children. We have to talk to youngsters about relationships, clans, societies—all the connections they’re a part of.”

“We have to tell our kids how wonderful they are,” adds Julie Garreau. “We have to give them safe places to learn and have fun and reassure them that they can have a productive life with healthy relationships.”

Franks recently participated with grieving family members in a memorial walk. The group circled a lake in one direction to honor those they’d had lost lost, and the other direction to express support for those who remain. “Prevention includes acknowledging the bereaved and helping them talk about what happened,” Franks says.

Rafelito was hopeful. He was standing in a Ramah Navajo community garden, surrounded by ripening squashes, corn and other heirloom crops. He noted that today’s Native people and their traditions endure, despite centuries of depredations and violence. “Look at our history,” Rafelito said. “It’s been survival of the fittest. We’re the smartest and the toughest anyone can be. Our message to our kids should be, ‘We’re OK.’”
Stephanie Woodard wrote this story, the first in a series on preventing Native youth suicide, with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism (fij.org) and The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships (reportingonhealth.org), a program of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

• 1-800-273-TALK is a free, confidential 24/7 hotline for anyone who is in crisis about any issue and wants to talk to a trained counselor. You can also call if you know someone in crisis and want advice about what to do. 
• SAMHSA administers youth-suicide prevention funds provided by the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, named for a senator’s son who killed himself in 2003. The agency hopes that going forward more tribes will apply for them, says Richard McKeon, chief of SAMHSA’s suicide prevention branch. “We want to help as many as possible reduce their suicide risk factors, such as substance abuse and depression, and increase the all-important protective factors.”
• SAMHSA offers technical assistance for grant-writing and more, through its Native Aspirations program (www.nativeaspirations.org) and publishes a prevention guide, To Live to See the Great Day That Dawns (http://www.sprc.org/library/Suicide_Prevention_Guide.pdf). The agency maintains a registry of evidence-based (scientifically tested) suicide-prevention practices. Those directed toward indigenous people include the Model Adolescent Suicide Prevention Program and American Indian Life Skills Development.
• For Indian Health Service (IHS) resources, check the agency’s website or call area offices. The IHS is launching a telebehavioral health project; this supplements counselors available to communities, says Cheryl Peterson, spokesperson for the IHS behavioral health department. The agency’s Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative (MSPI) supports youth camps and other activities: Caring for horses means Gila River Indian Community kids in Arizona learn traditional values and build self-esteem. Meanwhile, St. Regis Mohawks in New York have filled local airwaves, newspapers and roadside billboards with exhortations that “it’s ok to seek help.” “We also want to help tribes get their own successful practices on the SAMHSA registry, especially holistic ones that include traditional activities,” says Peterson.
 • Two nonprofits, the One Sky Center (www.oneskycenter.org) and the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board (www.npaihb.org), offer much helpful information.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo and Stephanie Woodard.

New Gardening Challenges Mean Innovative Solutions for Ramah Navajo

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in September 2012.

This has been a great year for gardening,” said Randy Chatto, left, coordinator of the ERNEH Project: Empowering Ramah Navajos to Eat Healthy Using Traditional Foods, in northern New Mexico’s high desert. “Last year was dry and gloomy, with only three good rains. But this year, the summer monsoons came early, and everything’s growing well.”

Driving along two-lane roads to visit gardens on a bright August day, we could see that the grass in the piñon- and juniper-dotted fields was bright green and high-desert wildflowers painted the roadsides yellow, purple and vermilion. When we got to the plots, we found them laden with squash, melons, tomatoes and peppers, drooping from vines and hiding under leaves. Blossoms on the plants promised more bounty in the weeks to come.

Chatto, a tribal member, described the project, which started four years ago with just four 4-by-4-foot box gardens. Since then, it’s burgeoned to include 82 box, raised-bed and in-ground gardens at homes and offices and a one-and-one-quarter-acre community garden on the Ramah Navajo reservation, a semi-autonomous entity that’s separated geographically from the main Navajo reservation.

The multi-year venture — one of 17 the Centers for Disease Control has supported in Native communities nationwide — is among many creative activities the tribe has undertaken to support well-being. Chatto works through the tribal health center, where his collaborators include ERNEH project director Louise Ingraham, evaluator Louis J. Lafrado and, until recently, administrator Carolyn Finster.

The CDC funded the endeavor through its Native Diabetes Wellness Program. The driving idea is that traditional gardened, gathered, hunted and fished foods help indigenous people prevent and control this devastating illness. Diabetes affects them at twice the rate of the white population and is increasingly appearing in children as well as adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

However wonderful this year’s weather has been for the Ramah Navajo, its long-term unpredictability, presumably due to climate change, adds one more challenge for horticulturists in a region that already offers plenty of them: high altitude, alkaline soil, low soil fertility, scarce rain in typical years and a short growing season (the first hard freeze is usually in mid-September). Add to that a drop-off in gardening activities among younger generations in recent years, and the ERNEH Project had to figure out a veritable Rubix cube of issues in order to grow, for the most part, the community’s heirloom crops.

“Our bodies know the heritage varieties,” said Ramah Navajo health and human services director Alvin RafelitoThe heirloom seeds are also acclimatized to the local altitude and climate—as unpredictable as that has become—and seeds from elsewhere aren’t necessarily an option. “We tried growing Hopi corn last year, and it turned out like grass.”

So, how could the Ramah Navajo help their heritage crops thrive in a changing world? “Water and soil were the first issues we addressed,” said Chatto. “If you don’t deal with those issues, nothing else will work.” After that, he considered how to handle the dearth of winter snow in recent years (which means the soil is less moist at spring planting time) and hotter summers.

Chatto started small, with box gardens, which feed families in a manageable way and allow improvisation when necessary. “Some suggested plowing big fields from the get-go, but the elders advised me to start slow and build from there,” he recalled. “Smaller gardens meant we could irrigate and hand-water if conditions required.”

During the project’s second growing season, the community garden got underway. In it, an ingenious drip-irrigation system collects rain in a barrel held high by a stack of old tires, and gravity sends the water trickling through long rows of robust squash plants. “The system saves water by directing it where it’s needed,” said Chatto.

Composting is another technique Chatto added to the mix. “In years past, we Ramah Navajo lived in a more fertile area but were pushed out in the late 19th century,” he said. “So now we need to take advantage of non-traditional ideas to help our gardens.” He had soil tests done, then looked around the community to see what would provide missing nutrients at little or no cost.

“I was driving along and saw a pile of lawn clippings,” recalled Chatto. “Then I spotted a bale of shredded paper an office was discarding. Those are carbon sources. I visited sheepherders and asked if I could have manure for the nitrogen the soil needed. ‘Take all you want!’ the grandparents replied.” To make up for minimal spring snowmelt, gardeners soaked seeds before planting them, noted Rafelito.

Things fell into place. The gardens we visited had already supplied four squash harvests, with some of the bounty distributed to elders, diabetes patients and needy families. Gardening provides more than wholesome food, though, Chatto said: “It’s a good workout. You bend and move and sweat.”

According to Rafelito, working the soil also contributes to emotional well-being: “Gardens draw people out in a positive way. While gardening, folks bring up things it’s hard to talk about elsewhere.” And in the sunshine, surrounded by vibrant blossoms and ripening vegetables, they’re optimistic.

Even complaints have a sunny side. A gardener reported to Rafelito that someone was stealing her chilies. “That’s great!” he responded. It meant they were showing an interest. “Have patience,” he counseled. “Soon they’ll start their own garden.”

Rafelito didn’t want those assigned to community service in the gardens to see digging and weeding as punishment. He made sure they knew their labor was appreciated, then went a step further, ensuring they had plots for their own plants. “Soon they were coming to the garden on their own, because it was a place of healing for them,” he said. When we visited the community plot, there were quiet smiles from those hoeing between the rows.

The gardens have potential economic spinoffs. “By next year, we should be producing enough to sell to an area restaurant, La Tinaja.” Rafelito envisions a financial-literacy project for school kids that would involve them growing and selling produce. This would mean more money turning over in the community, rather than immediately flooding out to bordertown stores, as happens on most reservations. “The kids could then start savings accounts and learn to manage money,” said Rafelito.

As the 17 Centers for Disease Control traditional-foods projects, including the one at Ramah Navajo, move into their last year, CDC scientists Dawn Satterfield and Melinda Rose Frank, Navajo, reflected on the program. “The experience has been so rich,” said Satterfield. “The tribal representatives who advised us at the start were spot on. They told us to involve kids and to support culture and traditional foods as sources of health.”

At biannual meetings, the 17 communities have shared both stories and seeds, said Frank. “I grew up on a ranch, and when I told my father about this, he recalled swapping seeds with Utes, Pueblos and other people.” These kinds of exchanges create enduring connections and strengthen communities and the program, she said.

As we were leaving the Ramah Navajo community plot, we walked around its edge, just inside the surrounding fence. Rafelito, far right, pointed out non-domesticated food and medicine plants flourishing there, including purslane, which diabetics, including his mother, have found appears to control blood-sugar levels.

“Everyone knows about the Three Sisters,” Rafelito said. “But here, beyond the cultivated area, you’ll find the Three Wild Brothers—purslane, amaranth and lamb’s quarters. And don’t forget Cousin Chile. It’s an extended family that works together, along with our human community.”

“It shows that to keep the entire community healthy, we must be stewards of the land,” Chatto said.

Said Rafelito: “Then we will heal ourselves.”

Photographs by Joseph Zummo. For more on CDC diabetes programs and Native grantees, go to www.cdc.gov/diabetes/projects/diabetes-wellness.htm. c. Stephanie Woodard.