On the rim of opportunity
LeChee is taking the plunge toward a (hopefully) brighter future
By Cindy Yurth
LECHEE, Ariz., July 11, 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 43rd in the series.)
I f you were looking for unrepentant capitalists, you probably wouldn't look on the Navajo Nation.
But if you were to start your search here in the Nation's far northwestern
corner, you would find at least one.
LeChee Chapter's grazing official, Sarah Dale, is bullish on LeChee, and doesn't care who knows it.
"Education and money is what we're interested in," Dale declared in a Fourth-of-July interview at her home. "We like big boats and big yachts. If the Navajo Nation is still looking for a place for its next casino, we'll take it."
And as for the controversial Navajo Generating Station, it's not generating much controversy here.
"Without the lake (Powell,) the (Glen Canyon) dam and the generating station," Dale said, "there would be no LeChee."
Other communities along N20, which has emerged as a significant detour to landslide-ridden U.S. 89, may be whining about the increased traffic, but not LeChee.
"We want more traffic," Dale stated bluntly, noting that the chapter is rushing through plans to build a gas station and convenience store to capture the even bigger influx of vehicles that will occur after the Arizona Department of Transportation finishes paving the road this fall.
But you're probably still stuck on the "big boats and big yachts" statement. What on earth is a Navajo doing talking about boats?
LeChee is partially bounded by the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Antelope Point Marina, with its shop, restaurant, swimming area and boat rental is located in this chapter. There are also four lucrative jeep and walking tour businesses plying world-renowned Antelope Canyon, all owned by local families.
And of course NGS.
On the brink of change
While all these businesses employ both local and non-local Navajos, the chapter doesn't see a dime in taxes and fees. But that's about to change.
"We got certified Jan. 1, 2012," Dale recalled. "So now we can start seeing some dollar signs."
Certification allows chapters, in exchange for implementing more stringent accounting procedures, to levy local taxes for use on local projects.
It also allows the chapter to change its form of government, which LeChee is working on now.
The chapter is considering a council-manager form similar to that of Page, Ariz., its off-rez sister just a few miles away.
"Our government wants us (chapters) to be more like cities," Dale explained. "Well, we have a city right next door we can pattern ourselves after."
This representative form of government will eliminate the long waits at chapter meetings to achieve a quorum.
Once that happens, LeChee, promised Dale, will take off like a jetboat from the dock. They already have their needs prioritized: more businesses, then security, health, beautification and animal control.
"The stray dogs are really bad here," noted Dale's sister, Pauline Begay.
As a grazing official, Dale also sees a lot of neglected horses, and she would like the animal shelter to include a corral where they could be impounded and brought back to health while they awaited sale.
Growing from nothing
It all seems like a whirlwind to Desbah Tsinigine, the chapter's first secretary.
Now 95, Tsinigine remembers a time when "there was nothing and nobody here."
Tsinigine said her family was the first to start herding their livestock down from Kaibeto to these lower grounds back in the 1920s.
"You couldn't stay more than a few months," she said. "There was no water."
Humans dug sand away from the tiny, slow-flowing springs and imported water for their sheep in 50-gallon drums from sources in Kaibeto, or collected water from red rock pools after a rain.
There were no roads at that time, recalled Dale, 62. "Only wagon trails and horse paths."
But, unbeknownst to the locals, things were about to take a drastic turn. After Hoover Dam was completed in 1936 and Lake Mead filled, the government realized even that huge reservoir would not be adequate in the event of a prolonged drought or flood. It began the search for a place for an upstream reservoir.
The original plan was to build the dam at its present location at Glen Canyon, plus smaller storage projects on the Gunnison, Green and San Juan rivers. But the Sierra Club led a major onslaught on the Colorado River Storage Project, as it was known, and in the mid-1950s the feds and the club compromised on just two huge dams: at Flaming Gorge, Utah and Glen Canyon, Ariz.
A government town
The Bureau of Reclamation needed a place to house the workers who flooded to the site (2,500 at the peak of construction), and in 1958 traded the Navajo tribe the land now known as the Aneth Extensions for a 24-square-mile townsite on the shores of what was about to become Lake Powell. If you look at a map of LeChee chapter, you will see a neat corner cut out where Page now sits.
While the feds were negotiating with the tribal government, the average Navajo in LeChee or Kaibeto had no idea what was going on, Tsinigine recalled.
"They told us they were building a dam," she said, but to the Navajos, a dam was a bar of earth you could shovel up in a weekend to create a stock tank.
"We couldn't even imagine what they were up to," Tsinigine said. "It didn't seem to concern us, so we just herded our sheep and stayed out of it."
Page started out as little more than a cluster of trailers, and some construction workers opted to live in the more peaceful environs of the reservation.
Dale recalls her parents renting out their hogan to a group of construction workers during that time. Fearful for her naive young daughter's safety among the single men, Dale's mother forbid her to go anywhere near the hogan. Which, of course, piqued the girl's curiosity until she couldn't stay away.
"I peeked in the window one time," she recalled, "and saw a real bilagáana-type table and chairs, right in our hogan! I was so amazed, I told my mother, who of course punished me for going around the hogan."
The missions arrive
Right behind the construction workers came the missionaries, unable to resist the dual challenge of taming the rough young construction workers and saving the heathen souls on the other side of the reservation line.
Fifteen different denominations applied for building permits on the road still known in Page as "Church Row."
"It was the missionaries who really made Page into a town," said Dale, her sister nodding agreement.
Perhaps because the competition for heathen souls was so stiff, everyone forgot to be racist. Dale and her siblings had multiple offers to stay with missionary families while they attended school in Page.
"The white people were nice to us," Dale said. "I didn't even really think of them as white people, just people."
"If you asked me if I ever experienced racism from the whites in Page," echoed Begay, 48, "I would have to say no."
The kids of LeChee, who often alternated between several mission families during their school careers, could browse all sorts of Christianity. Dale chose the Latter-Day Saints, but she hangs on to some traditional beliefs: Don't even try to get her to reveal her grandmother's special songs and prayers, lest they lose their power.
This blending of faiths is not uncommon in LeChee. Free to window-shop religions, the LeCheeites mixed and matched, often to the chagrin of their Christian pastors.
Birth of a chapter
Meanwhile, more and more Navajos were getting jobs on the dam or in the new town and moving to LeChee, which at that time was a part of Kaibeto Chapter known as Na'ayaa (Lowlands). The BIA carved LeChee Chapter out of Kaibeto in 1955, reportedly without informing the folks at Kaibeto, who were not happy to see what was suddenly their most promising real estate whisked away with the stroke of a pen.
They didn't know the half of it. Now LeChee has a power plant — albeit with an uncertain future as the feds hammer out new pollution rules — along with a thriving tourism industry, and soon, a paved road from the south.
"We're going to be big," predicted Dale. "We WANT to be big."
Contact Cindy Yurth at email@example.com.
LeChee at a glance
Name - Most people who speak Navajo assume that LeChee (from the Navajo lichíí, "red," refers to the stunning red rock formations and canyons of the area. In fact, it is for a medicinal plant with burgundy-colored leaves. Some say the plant is now extinct in the area, but others say you can find it if you know where to look. Before LeChee became a separate chapter in the 1950s, the people of Kaibeto knew it as Na'ayaa (Lowlands).
Population - 1,443 at the 2010 census
Land area - 293,000 acres
Attractions - Antelope Canyon, Antelope Point Marina, Horseshoe Bend (just outside the chapter boundaries)
Interesting facts - LeChee's elected chapter officials are all women, and have been for some time. Grazing Official Sarah Dale theorizes it's due to the abundance of well-paying but physically demanding jobs, such as welding and carpentry, at the Navajo Generating Station and the nearby tourist town of Page, Ariz. The men, she said, go for the paying jobs and leave the women to run the chapter.
Common ancestors - Many LeCheeites are related to each other, thanks to some very prolific early ancestors. LeChee's first Council delegate, Charlie Young Sr., had four wives and at least two known mistresses, and by now has probably hundreds of descendants. Many families who have deep roots in the LeChee-Kaibeto area can trace their ancestry to Asdzaan Biwóóh ("Tooth Woman"), named for her overlapping front teeth. So strong are Tooth Woman's genes that, according to Sarah Dale, the females of her line are orthodontically challenged to this day. Then there was "The Smoker," a wayward Hopi who settled here and took three Navajo sisters as his wives. When the U.S. Cavalry was rounding up Navajos for the Long Walk, The Smoker's wives and descendants were allowed asylum on the Hopi mesas because of their Hopi blood (for a story on how others escaped, watch the video of Sarah Dale on the Navajo Times website). Amazingly, some families can even trace their lineage to the great Barboncito of Canyon de Chelly. "He used to take long pack trips," explained Dale, "so he married a woman at every town along the way, so he would have a place to stay. He had a family in Gadi'ahi, another in this place, another in Piñon, Blue Water Lake, Grey Mountain too. They used to call him 'Leading the Horse Man.'"
Clans - Tl'ízí Lání and Tsin'aajinii are the big clans here, but there are also Táchiinii, Kinyaa'áanii and Tábaahá