- Bitter Water: Diné Oral Histories of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute
One day in the summer of 1997, very early in the morning, I, my wife, and our youngest daughter, who was then ten, along with Marybeth [End Page 118] Sage, a Diné friend of ours, took a walk on Big Mountain, the focal point of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, with Pauline Whitesinger, whose testimony and photographs appear in Bitter Water. Pauline stayed well ahead of the rest of us so that, alone, she could perform a specific ceremony at a specific site. When the ceremony was completed she rejoined us, and we all took the walk back to our car, down the rough terrain we had just climbed up, past grazing sheep, the center of Diné life: “Sheep is life [Dibé bee iiná]” is the recurring refrain of the testimonies in this text. Then over the dirt tracks that pass for roads on Big Mountain, we drove back to the homesite of Pauline’s sister and our friend, Katherine Smith, whose testimony also appears in this book. When I showed my daughter, who is now a photographer and videographer, the photos of Pauline in Bitter Water, which she admired, she remembered that day vividly and how Pauline had teased her about her lack of stamina over what was for my daughter a very long walk.
From that moment, whenever I think of stamina and strength, both physical and spiritual, I think of Pauline and the other Diné women represented in this book and representative of their peers, who have for almost forty years led the resistance to what is known in the legal literature as the Navajo-Hopi land dispute. For them and, indeed, for the entire Navajo Nation the Long Walk, of which the dispute is a recent leg, begins with what Jennifer Denetdale describes in her foreword as
Kit Carson’s brutal scorch-and-burn policy. Over ten thousand Diné were forcibly marched to the Bosque Redondo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico, where they were to be inculcated with American beliefs and values. The forced removal was extremely traumatic and still lives in the collective Navajo memory. In 1868, Diné leaders signed a treaty, the last they would sign with the American government.(xii) 1
This treaty marks the formal colonization of the Diné, of which the Navajo-Hopi land dispute is an extension. The name itself, Navajo-Hopi land dispute, is an act of colonization, not only because it erases the crucial motivator of the dispute, the United States government, [End Page 119] but also because the dispute and the relocation of thousands of Navajos it forced was and is resisted by certain Navajo and Hopi elders, who joined to insist that traditional—that is, precolonial—relationships between the two peoples should prevail. Both comity and conflict are recorded in the traditional narratives of both communities. Hopis and Navajos formed alliances against colonial invaders, first the Spanish and then the Anglos. Historical trading relationships and intermarriage continue. Marybeth Sage, who accompanied us on our walk on Big Mountain, is the child of a Navajo father and a Hopi mother, and we visited her Hopi relatives without the slightest tension. In her formative study of the land dispute, The Wind Won’t Know Me, Emily Benedek quotes Albert Yava, “a Hopi-Tewa, [who] wrote in his book Big Falling Snow”:
The well-off Hopi has special interests. If he owns a lot of cattle for example, that land we have been contesting with the Navajos is much more important to him than to a poor family in Shipaulovi [one of the Hopi villages]. The average Hopi isn’t going to benefit very much from the land settlement.2
In her one-room home on Big Mountain, Katherine Smith has hung a drawing of a coyote Uncle Sam, who holds in each hand a marionette, one labeled “Hopi Tribal Council,” the other, “Navajo Tribal Council.” That drawing sums up succinctly the...