Disasters signal imbalance in the natural world

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 23, 2011

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

A mule deer looks for forage to eat as flames light up the night June 9 in Greer, Ariz.

Traditional Navajo medicine people view the world's most recent natural disasters, including the human-caused Wallow Fire and other raging wildland fires throughout the U.S., as Mother Nature's warnings of the imbalanced state of the natural world.

"One of the things that are important to life is being in balance with nature," said Avery Denny, a traditional Navajo practitioner and faculty member at Diné College, who also identified the exploitation of natural resources as one of the main reasons for the natural world's imbalance.


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"In the natural world, we have the Holy People," Denny said. "The four elements of life - fire, air, water and earth are the Diyin Dine'é. We have to learn to respect them or else a natural disaster occurs."

Although now 56 percent contained, the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona is a major concern for traditional healers like Denny because of its proximity to holy Navajo sites.

Since beginning at a campfire May 29, the Wallow Fire has become the largest wildfire in Arizona history, charring over 527,000 acres of forest in Arizona and New Mexico. The fire has burned 9,200 acres of forest on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and 12,972 acres on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

"As humans, we do not look at what we are doing to the natural world. We share this world with other beings," said Denny, explaining in Navajo that plants and animals were the first holy beings to live on earth. "We came in later on earth with knowledge to protect the environment. When did that change?"

The change Denny and many other traditionalists allude to is the sacrifice of traditional knowledge systems for mainstream society's culture.

Ramon Riley, cultural resources director for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, agrees.

"Even our children are going crazy - they are not who they are," Riley said. "Their identities are going away. We use to massage our mountains with our ceremonies. Every day we did that.

"As Indian people, we see things. We're all connected and we know what the elements mean to us," he said, adding that he appreciates the Navajo grassroots people for their prayers.

To Denny and Riley, reinstating order within the natural world goes back to reestablishing traditional ties, which both say have lost meaning in the modern world.

The reconnection to traditional knowledge through ceremonies, language and values maintains balance in the universe, and acts as a counterweight to money-driven values that do not protect the natural world, they explained.

Wildlife deaths a concern

Meanwhile, as efforts continue to contain the Wallow Fire, there is fear about the number of wildlife killed from the fire, which Denny says impacts the well-being of humans who inhale the smoke, especially from burnt carcasses.

"When carcasses of animals are burnt, it impacts humans in an unhealthy way," he said, in addition to the known dangers of respiratory problems.

"There is no ceremony to cleanse one from a manmade fire," Denny said. "This is very serious to traditional people."

Bruce Sitko, information and education program manager at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said his agency does not know how many animals and fish have been destroyed by the Wallow Fire. Ground surveys have not yet been conducted because of forest restrictions and closures imposed by the Southwest Incident Management Team, he explained.

"With this huge fire line, very few people are allowed to go into the forest," Sitko said. Once residents start returning to their homes, he added, "We may get some phone calls of injured or dead animals."

Sitko also said if the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire is any indication, game deaths may be low while fish could suffer higher mortality. In that fire, his agency documented 46 dead elk, but Black Canyon Lake was filled with dead fish.

The fish kill resulted from low oxygen levels in the lake's modified environment. The lake, however, was re-established well enough for fish to survive within months following the fire.

On June 14, Arizona Game and Fish officials established a wildlife treatment center at the rodeo grounds in Eager, Ariz. To date, wildlife rehab specialists have euthanized one animal, a young bull elk whose hooves were burned. The carcass was given as food to the predators, including Mexican gray wolves that live in the burn area.

A young redtail hawk with an injured wing is being treated and will be released into its home area once it is well.

"I don't expect a large number of mortalities," Sitko said. "Wildlife has been reported to be moving through the forest for food. There is reporting of an amazing amount of wildlife survival."

Game and Fish also issued reminders to the public to dispose of spoiled food properly to avoid drawing bears into potential conflict with people.

Candy Lupe, public information officer for the White Mountain Apache Tribal Forestry Department, said her agency has conducted controlled burns for the last several years, which reduced the amount of fuel available for a fire.

"The intensity of fire was low on White Mountain Apache land," Lupe said. "There was really no impact to wildlife."

Flood danger looms

She did say, however, that tribal officials are worried the reservation's resident Apache Trout could be in danger once the monsoons arrive. One of the main dangers from wildland fire comes later, when rain hits the denuded land.

Heavy rain can trigger flooding and fill streams with silt, making them uninhabitable for trout and other species that need clear water. When runoff drains into the affected lake systems, getting the trout to another lake will be a priority for the tribal forestry department.

On June 17, Chris Knopp, supervisor of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, said the next priority for forest officials is to try to increase the amount of infiltration into soil to help reduce the flooding that is expected to occur.

Even given the best response efforts, Denny said major catastrophes like the Wallow Fire could be prevented if the human race is environmentally aware and if government takes the lead.

"When you look at government in the ancient world there was environmental protection," he said. "The government respected life in that order and people had a lot to do with the environment. It takes a leader to say, 'My people, let's step out and speak to nature.'"

On Tuesday, traditional leaders and members of various faiths across the Navajo Nation held prayer services for the summer solstice, as well as to pray about the most recent disasters to help restore balance with the natural world.

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