Non-profits work together to rebuild Bennett Freeze

By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times

PINON, Ariz., November 15, 2012

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T he clock started again in a place where time stood still for 43 years. All it took was the unlikely mix of hundreds of student volunteers from around the United States, a Hollywood icon and his fans, and the persistence of one woman.

We'll start with the persistent woman.

Marsha Monestersky is the Project Director for Forgotten People, a non-profit organization that focuses on rebuilding the areas where time froze on July 8, 1966 when the Bennett Freeze was first imposed. Roughly 10,000 Navajo people covering some 1.5 million acres were impacted by the federal legislation that froze all construction projects, from new outhouses to telephone poles, within the freeze area.

When President Obama repealed part of the legislation in July 2009 allowing construction for the first time in 40 years, Monstersky was thrilled.

"I thought we'd be the talk of the town," she said.

They weren't.

The Navajo Nation and Hopi tribes had no plans to rehabilitate the areas - at least not a plan they were willing to share with Forgotten People or the resisters still living in the impacted areas.

The clock remained still.

That's where the hundreds of student volunteers came in.

In June 2009, one month before the Bennett Freeze thawed, an average southern California college kid named Ryan Wycliffe met Monestersky.

Wycliffe, who had wanted to help those in need throughout his whole life, had visited the Navajo Nation before for various service projects. First, he wanted to help in Bangladesh, but couldn't afford the trip. He settled on the more affordable option – the rez. When he met Monestersky it was a match made in heaven.

"Marsha started showing me article after article about what was happening," he recalled, "She told me 'I've been looking for a group like you for a long, long time' and she asked us what we could do to help. It was a perfect fit for what they wanted to do and what we wanted to do. So we started planning upcoming trips."

Wycliffe and his brother Sean had just started their own non-profit called Project Pueblo. The idea was to find college students just like them – broke but with a powerful spirit of service.

The two brothers recruited students at their respective California universities – University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles Sierra University, then worked with Monestersky to find projects throughout the Bennett Freeze.

"The last four years," estimates Wycliffe, "over 400 students come out on week-long service trips. We have done 15 different trips total. In addition there are interns that come out for two to four weeks at a time to collect data and plan projects. It is 100 percent student and volunteer led, there is no salary and it's all part time."

The collaboration between Forgotten People and Project Pueblo grew quickly. Each won grants to continue their work meaning more complex and expensive projects with each visit. That was up until July, when they got a birthday surprise, Hollywood style.

"There's a Johnny Depp fan club online, called JD Zone," Wycliffe said, "every year on his birthday the fan club donates to a charity in his honor. Since he was filming Lone Ranger on the Navajo Nation they looked for a charity online where the movie was filming. Fortunately, they were able to find us. They donated close to $8,000. That was huge for us. It was one of their largest, really a huge blessing."

Days after the JD Zone donation they got a letter from Tonto himself, Johnny Depp.

"Once he was alerted that they sent the donation," said Wycliffe, who would not disclose the exact amount, "that same exact week we got a donation from him in the mail."

Wycliffe continued, "For someone of his celebrity to acknowledge that people of the rez have to fight for basic needs, but to also go out of his way to give says a lot about his character and resolve to help people who really need help.

"I've never heard of any political figure or celebrity to get involved on the Navajo Nation. The families are already seeing the benefit."

Project Pueblo members had already planned to install water systems for five different families. The extra donations allowed them to completely finance the projects.

In September, they completed projects in two homes in Big Mountain, Ariz. and another three on Black Mesa. Each home was impacted by the Bennett Freeze and for elders who resisted relocation the past 43 years.

They built 300-gallon outdoor tanks outside each house. The tank sends running water to a kitchen sink they also built inside.

Two other homes received outdoor solar lights to help elders get around safely at night, which was part of a grant called Eagle Energy.

"It was really an important thing," said Johnson Tohannie, a Red Lake, Ariz. resident who led the student teams. "It's a hard life on top of the mesa. There's no water up there. A lot of people don't have vehicles and it's hard to ask relatives to haul – you still have to pay them. With these systems they can put water in them for a month or so."

Leonard Benally, 53, grew up on Black Mesa watching his home become part of Hopi Partition land. He was the youngest of those who received a water system.

"Organizations like this, it's encouraging to see what they do for you. It kind of eases your feelings about this area and all these polices and laws," Benally said.

"The Navajo Nation could care less to help the people here," Benally added, "the attitude that they have is they can stay out there and can starve or they just sign themselves away. At least these kids brought me a big tank of water and a sink here but I've never seen nothing like that from the Navajo Nation."

Rena Lane just turned 90 and lived on Black Mesa her entire life. Her daughter Zena said Forgotten People and Project Pueblo have started building her mother a house in addition to the water system they installed.

"They've been doing it over four years now," Zena said. "A house with a bathroom. Marsha's helping a lot of people in the HPL and has been with us for a long time…Changing a lot of things for us."

Zena admits frustration with each tribal government.

"We never get anything from them," she said. "They don't even fix the road. There are a lot of washes and places where the road is washed away. It's hard to haul water through there."

"It's about restoring human dignity," said Monstersky, "these water systems are a triumph. These people are not victims they are survivors. The water systems are a way to honor them and their great strength in enduring all manner of civil and human rights violations. It's a way to recognize and honor them."

The projects are proving to have an even wider impact.

"People got really used to living under the Bennett Freeze," said Asa Benally, a 29-year-old winner of the Gates Millennium Scholarship, who grew up in Big Mountain, but is currently a student in New York City.

"That sort of mindset really took away everyone's hope. Now we're having a reawakening. Worrying about relocation and getting thrown off the land has been a cloud over people's head for the past 40 years," she said. "Families and supporters are waiting for the government or the mining companies to just get people out of the way, now it's a sense of replanting our roots to the land."

Project Pueblo and Forgotten are not waiting for vision or leadership from the Navajo Nation or Hopi Tribe when it comes to rebuilding the Bennett Freeze.

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