The chapter with a town
Kayenta combines beauty with economic muscle
By Cindy Yurth
KAYENTA, Ariz., June 13, 2013
(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the 37th in the series.)
A ccording to Shonie de la Rosa, Window Rock's got its politics.
"Chinle's got Canyon de Chelly. Shiprock has ... Shiprock. But Kayenta has a little bit of everything."
If Kayenta were a high school girl, she would be the one with brains and beauty who was also captain of the basketball team ... but was too nice to hate.
On the threshold of Monument Valley, it's studded with red rock spires and black volcanic plugs like playing pieces on a giant chessboard. It boasts the highest number of Gates Millennium scholars of any community in the country, and a stellar high school basketball team.
Business is thriving — both permanent and the impromptu flea market that is now a daily occurrence in front of the rec center. A new justice center and IHS hospital are both scheduled for completion next year.
But the main thing that distinguishes this chapter is that it has two forms of government.
It is the only chapter on the Navajo Nation with an actual incorporated town.
In 1985, the chapter withdrew 3,606 acres for a bold economic experiment: a township that could levy its own sales tax and fund its own projects, just like every other town in Arizona.
Over the years the success of the pilot project, which was never duplicated, has been much debated. There have been multiple moves to revoke the township status, mostly by local businesses tired of paying taxes no one else on the Nation has to pay.
But, driving around the township, there is no doubt there are advantages to the system. Kayenta has amenities no other reservation community has. There is a town center, a recreation center, a library, an animal shelter, sidewalks ... even residential trash collection and a beautification initiative.
"People say the township doesn't do anything," said de la Rosa, the township's IT guy. "I'm like, 'Look around!'"
Just up the road from the Kayenta Township's spotless office is the chapter house — home of Kayenta's other government.
Although the chapter originally authorized the township, relations between the two entities have always been strained. From the chapter's point of view, the township took all the prime commercial real estate for its tax base, leaving the chapter with the rural area and its far-flung, expensive-to-serve residents.
It's the same tension that exists between counties and municipalities all over the country, but with a major difference. Counties get to levy property tax. Because no one on the Navajo Nation owns real property, so chapters are forced to rely on handouts from Window Rock.
Recently, however, there's been a warming trend. The chapter and township have held a series of meetings.
"We're going through the process, trying to get some collaboration initiated," said Chapter Manager Albert Tinhorne.
The chapter and township are partnering with Soul Dog Rescue on a free spay-neuter clinic at the chapter house June 22-23, "the first time I've seen them collaborate on anything," said Kayenta Animal Care Center Director Charletta Begay.
Meanwhile, said Tinhorne, the chapter is working on getting certified so it can collect its own sales taxes. The chapter house will be rebuilt to include a "community business complex" to help businesses get off the ground.
Tinhorne is drafting a template resolution that can be passed by all the Western Agency chapters to support state Rep. Albert Hale's legislation to get Arizona's Indian tribes a cut of the transaction privilege tax. When there's more money to go around, Tinhorne reasons, there will be less to bicker about.
The chapter is also collaborating with the Utah chapters to the north. They have formed the Upper Colorado River Diné Water Users Association, of which Tinhorne is president, to extend the San Juan River water line into Arizona.
So impressed was the Navajo Nation Council with the joint effort, it actually, in these lean budget times, gave the association more money than it asked for.
Even as the Navajo Times was meeting with Tinhorne Thursday, the lights were going on for the first time on Skeleton Mesa, seven miles west of here.
"As we speak, people got smiles from ear to ear," said Tinhorne, adding a grin of his own.
Other chapter projects in the works: a new Head Start building, bathroom additions at West Laguna Creek, the extension of the Manymules Water Line Project from Forest Lake, and a diversion dam that will allow the chapter to start an irrigated community farm.
Tinhorne also believes civil servants should serve as role models, and he and four other chapter employees have put together a team for the Special Diabetes Project's "20,000 Minutes" initiative, in which the team must collectively log 20,000 minutes of physical activity between May 28 and Oct. 1.
"I've already lost 10 pounds," he boasted.
The township, meanwhile, is focusing on road improvements, a drainage system and recently completed an attractive fence around the cemetery to keep out livestock.
It also recently posted a link on its Web site to "Offender Watch," a computer application that tracks registered sex offenders.
"I think we're the first entity on the Navajo Nation to do that," de la Rosa said.
Kayenta is also home to a number of special events, including its famous Fourth of July Rodeo. There's also a film and music festival and the Monument Valley Balloon Festival — speaking of which, being the largest community in driving distance of the famous tribal park has its perks.
"Lots of movie stars come through here," de la Rosa said. "We put most of them up in Kayenta when they're filming out there."
In short, said de la Rosa, perhaps coining the next township slogan, "Kayenta is cool."
Kayenta at a Glance
Population — about 6,000
Name — According to the book in the Images of America series "Kayenta and Monument Valley," "Kayenta" is a corruption of "Teehindeeh" ("Where Animals Fall into Deep Water") for a bog three miles west of the present town. The Navajos, however, have always known this area as Tó Dineeshzhee, "Fingers of Water," for the way water runs down the rock formations when it rains.
History — Kayenta grew up around Marsh Pass, the only safe route through the rugged countryside around here. It was the domain of the revered headman Hoskininni, who led his people into the rugged canyons around Navajo Mountain to avoid the Long Walk. In 1910, John and Louisa Wetherill moved their trading post from Oljato to Kayenta and started leading tours into Monument Valley — a business that sustains the community to this day.
Assets — breathtaking scenery, a winning high school basketball team, the ability to collect sales tax to fund local projects, thanks to the creation in 1986 of the Kayenta Township. Kayenta also boasts the only movie theater on the reservation, a private enterprise.
Problems — A high crime rate, hopefully to lessen soon with the creation of the Kayenta Justice Center and the recent cross-commissioning with county and state officers. But "the thing the tourists complain about the most is the stray dogs," said township employee Shonie de la Rosa. To alleviate that problem, the township established its own animal shelter in 2010, combined with a non-profit veterinary clinic whose income is used to fund the shelter. The facility recently became self-supporting and is now looking to expand.
Clans — Most Navajo clans are represented in this fairly densely populated area, but if you can trace your ancestry to Kayenta before the 1900s, chances are one of your four clans is Tachiinii, Hoskininni's clan. The old headman reportedly had more than 20 wives and dozens of children, and so did his son, Hoskininni Begay.