Delegates lead charge to clean up cemetery

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz., January 31, 2013

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Navajo Nation Speaker Johnny Naize, left, watches legislative assistant Eldridge Anderson fix a flag Friday morning during a cleanup of the Navajo Nation Veterans' Cemetery in Fort Defiance.

SECOND FROM TOP: Navajo Nation Council delegates Edmund Yazzie, left, and Leonard Tsosie team up to stand up a tombstone during a cleanup of the Navajo Nation Veterans' Cemetery in Fort Defiance.

THIRD FROM TOP: Former Council delegate and Marine Corps veteran Larry Anderson carries a bag of trash he collected along Navajo Route 12 near the Navajo Nation Veterans' Cemetery.

A s fog settled over the veterans' cemetery here, Larry Anderson walked along the cemetery's barbed wire fence in search of debris.

The fog reminded him of the seaside mist that covered the combat bases near the demilitarized zone in Vietnam, where Anderson was stationed as a U.S. Marine.

Anderson was part of an effort Jan. 25 by members of the Navajo Nation Council and the Office of the President and Vice President to clean the cemetery.

Having served from 1966 to 1970 and served in Vietnam in 1968, Anderson said his participation was a way to honor his fallen comrades.

"Freedom is not easy to have and that's why they lay there in peace today," Anderson said adding that his wife Victoria Masaquetewa and their son Elridge Anderson were also helping with the cleanup.

Earlier in the morning, school buses passed and some members of the group paused to wave.

Anderson hopes the students who saw the group were inspired to help the community after seeing the cleanup effort.

"We want to show them that we respect our cemetery, we respect our veterans and we respect our land," he said.

Being part of that community spirit was one reason Bessie Yellowhair Simpson was here.

"It's a good feeling to know that I am a part of this cleanup and for all our veterans just showing respect," she said.

Community service projects like this do not have to be organized by tribal leaders, she said, then added that this could be seen as an example of what can be accomplished by a community.

Simpson, who is an executive staff assistant for the Office of the President and Vice President, placed United States flags on graves that did not have one and replaced those that were tattered.

The president's office purchased the flags, along with one to fly on the flagpole near the cemetery entrance.

Simpson's uncle, Frank Keahne, is buried here. He died in 1944 during World War II.

As she walked to her uncle's burial site, she explained that he died before she was born and through the years she has visited his final resting place.

"Every time you go by, you automatically look this way," she said. "It's peaceful."

The cleanup effort was brought on by Council delegates Edmund Yazzie (Church Rock/Iyanbito/Mariano Lake/Pinedale/Smith Lake/Thoreau) and Leonard Tsosie (Baca-Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake).

During a discussion at the Naa'bik'iyati' Committee meeting on Jan. 24 about placing a statue at the Veterans Memorial Park in Window Rock, Yazzie and Tsosie issued a challenge to fellow delegates to clean the cemetery.

"It is an honor to do this," Tsosie said, adding the duo would continue to keep the cemetery in the spotlight, including requesting assistance from the state for fencing, having the cemetery federally recognized, and since the cemetery is near capacity, withdrawing additional land.

For Yazzie, the challenge was a way for delegates to use action instead of words when addressing the issue.

"Instead of driving by and talking about the cemetery being dirty with trash...why don't we clean it up and stand behind what we talk about?" he said. "Talk is cheap."

Yazzie is not a veteran but he understands the challenges veterans face, which he heard about through the stories shared by his late father-in-law Navajo Code Talker Joe A. Silversmith.

"To me, a small part of sadness came out, because from what I saw there it was neglected and, of course, showing my respect," Yazzie said about visiting the cemetery.

Yazzie and Tsosie were joined by Speaker Johnny Naize (Blue Gap-Tachee/Cottonwood-Tselani/Low Mountain/Nazlini), Delegate LoRenzo Bates (Nenahnezad/Newcomb/San Juan/T'iistoh Sikaad/Tsé Daa K'aan/Upper Fruitland), legislative staff members Darrell Tso and Jarvis Williams, and local resident Ed Becenti.

Near the front of the cemetery, Becenti was busy gathering artificial flowers that had been discarded in sagebrush.

Becenti said his participation was one way he could give back to the veterans.

Debris collected included artificial flowers that were either discarded or blown by the wind, Styrofoam from floral arrangements, empty bottles, and paper. The clean up generated about 15 trash bags.

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