Greater Chaco Region
Fracking Tour with Daniel Tso-
Counselor Chapter House
Discussion with Samuel Sage
*I would like to acknowledge and thank Samuel Sage for inviting us to speak with him. This recollection of our visit has been recorded from my own notes and memory and so I take full responsibility for the content.
After going on the Fracking Tour with Daniel Tso and then spending a day visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park, we traveled to the Counselor Chapter house to meet with Samuel Sage. In our conversation, he updated us about the steady influx of oil and gas operations in his region over the past couple of decades. He also spoke of the serious cultural shifts and gaps that he has witnessed as a result.
One example he offered, is that a large percentage of his community are struggling with diabetes but lack the resources to curb their lifestyles and eating habits. One major limitation is that a lot of families are locked into food deserts relative to the BLM land and industrial sites that surround them. Most communities have a single gas station that serves as a local food market and meanwhile, the nearest grocery store could easily be more than an hour away. People that don’t have transportation or lack the funds to commute back and forth are forced to subsist on gas-station fare for most of their sustenance. Samuel even shared a grim anecdote. He has become dismayed at the increasing sight of young Navajo families in the checkout line at the local grocery store with their shopping carts filled “with a full case of ramen noodle packets, 3 cans of spam, a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey.” Rather than consider this an over-generalization, I understood that he was offering this image as a metaphor to better understand the limitations that have been set in place.
Samuel went on to reconsider the USDA food subsides programs which is an older factor in the larger web of confounding influences. The subsidies programs, which were first implemented as he was coming of age, were originally offered to help mitigate during a time of proliferating economic struggle. But in Samuel’s experience, they have offered unforeseen imbalances as well. He recalled that as many people started traveling further to find work and began relying more on the subsidies as the most convenient ways to feed their families, the traditional practices of hunting, desert farming and the harvesting of plant-based medicines, began to gradually decline. Alongside the communal decline in these practices, grew a void in the generational passage of such knowledges and histories. He lamented that the gap that now exists in these traditions has warped his peoples’ sense of land-based values in disabling ways.
Samuel explained, that when he was a child, the land was a lot less damaged and there was less community fragmentation as today. A child brought up in those times would have been seen and valued by a much larger and more intentional community than in the present. The communities then had a scope that critically assessed not only the present, but how the effects and actions of any one individual would also extend into the distant future, projecting out as far as multiple decades and generations to come. In that reality, most children were given the tools and knowledge to fully realize who they were in the world and what their roles in their communities would be by the age of twelve.
Currently, Samuel mentioned, the younger Navajo generations are faced with more and more unforeseen struggles and are lacking the language/knowledge/support that existed before as ways of perceiving, mapping and dealing with such high levels of grief. The pollutions and toxins received from living in close quarters to industrial oil and gas sites as well as the introduction of industrialized pharmaceuticals and food sources have brought on cancers and other illnesses that are causing their elders to pass much earlier than times past. In traditional Navajo cosmology, it is believed that the spirits of the ancestors are forever laying witness to the living’s actions in the present and are to whom prayers are placed for future guidance. In the recent present though, most children are now growing up without ever getting to know their grandparents because they have already passed. On the other end, the youth are now being born with diabetes as well as contracting an array of allergies that were also unheard of before. As a result, whole communities are experiencing a higher rate of traumatic situations due to the changes and fragmentation they are experiencing in their culture as well as the physical landscape from which they have traditionally gained their livelihood. This situation leaves individuals more susceptible to negative coping mechanisms such as substance abuse which in return leads to further neglect of their families and ties to the land.
Samuel then went on to explain the Navajo perspective of wellness, the Health Impact Statement that is currently being drafted in relation to the continued fight against the growth of fracking sites in the region. In their perspective, a single individual’s illness is not understood to affect them in a vacuum, but rather is seen to have a rippling effect that the entire community must bear. If a community member is ill, then the entire community that they are part of is equally seen as ill. Such a perspective offers a dynamic critique towards the Westernized diagnoses of “depression” and “mental illness.”
In our previous travels, Sunny Dooley had explained that in the traditional structures of knowledge there are distinct coming of age ceremonies that every community member would participate in. For example, a child is first considered to become human when they cry for the first time. They then receive their human name and inclusion into various clans depending on who was the first person to witness them cry or laugh etc. This type of non-linear organization of family is different from the West’s more biological-based, family tree-style genealogy and is more rhizomatic in nature. Instead of a child having just their immediate parents and kin to depend on as far as caretaking, they also gain many other affinities and advocacies from other role models in their broader community. They gain communal aunts and uncles whose roles are to discuss and give advice on the more intimate emotional hurdles that come up in a growing adult’s life. They also further fulfill the roles of teaching and passing on more specialized knowledges and practices.
This land-based view is due to the much deeper understanding their culture has of the networks of physical spaces/practices and plants that are used by healers in medicinal and spiritual ways. The present struggle that is now faced, is the growing divisions and disconnections due to diminishing access to resources due again to outside contact and development. Now, such land-based values/morals are lacking in communities that are being divided in the face of outside capitalistic interests that have been steadily seeping in for centuries.