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VOLUME 9 (2002)

Land, Wind, and Hard Words: A Story of Navajo Activism, by John Sherry, University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

 

Reviewed by Orit Tamir, New Mexico Highlands University.

John Sherry’s Land, Wind, and Hard Words: A Story of Navajo Activism is the story of the founding, activities, and growth of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (CARE), a Navajo grassroots environmental organization whose initial mission was to protect Navajo reservation forests from the organized assaults of industrial logging. Sherry focuses on the group’s ties to Navajo culture. The book is also a tribute to Leroy Jackson and his wife Adella Begaye, the original founders and leaders of CARE – their daily struggles to manage development on the Navajo reservation in a manner that complements the Navajo world view and way of life. It chronicles the mysterious disappearance and death of Leroy Jackson. Sherry provides first hand insight into the lives of CARE Navajo activists, documents the group’s experiences with lawyers and environmentalists from the “outside,” and describes the media frenzy that follows the death of the group founder.


Sherry follows an introduction of the main Diné CARE actors and the setting for their activities (Chapter One), with a brief history of the Navajo people (Chapter Two). The author than describes the careers of Leroy Jackson and Adella – neither of which had formal education in forest management – as forest activists and founders of Diné CARE.


They knew only that they had to do something to preserve the mountains and forests of the Navajo people (Chapter Three). Sherry’s friendship with the couple gave him a unique insight into the daily lives of Navajo environmental activists, the threats to local Navajo communities from industrial logging, and threats to the activists themselves. Diné CARE’s first success, the Huefrano case, was achieved through the personal struggles and financial sacrifice of the organization’s core activists (Chapter Four). Despite the Huefrano success, CARE’s activism and legal wrangles often resulted in local suspicions, but also earned the organization the support and cultural endorsement of Navajo elders (Chapter Five).


Chapter Six addresses the unique Navajo worldview with its close connection between humans, animals, and land that is at the core of Diné CARE philosophy, vis-à-vis the Euro-American tendency to clearly separate the human and non-human worlds. Compounding the problem was the fact that too often contemporary reservation social institutions failed to provide local Navajos with the customary opportunity to voice their concerns (Chapter Six).


Diné CARE’s environmental struggles did not focus exclusively on the logging industry. Indeed, the organization expanded its activities to include organization of a spiritual gathering, radio talks, and participation in the Navajo Nation Tribal Council (Chapter Seven). The cost in time and finances of these activities often fell on the shoulders of the organization’s core activists. As Diné CARE’s exposure grew, so did the financial toll, and the organization had to turn to the cutthroat world of fund raising (Chapter Eight). For the most part Diné CARE struggled alone. National mainstream environmental organization, such as the Sierra Club Legal Defense which supported the Navajo and Hopi tribes’ San Francisco Peaks litigation in northern Arizona, were not eager to risk their reputation in support of a Navajo environmental grassroots organization against its own tribal government (Chapter Nine).


With no outside funding, but with some growing support at the grassroots level, Diné CARE organized a spiritual gathering in the Chuskas, a mountain range located on the Arizona-New Mexico border line. The region has been subject to extensive industrial logging with negative environmental effects, but on the other hand was a source of jobs on an Indian reservation where high unemployment rates are the norm. During the spiritual gathering, Diné CARE activist John Redhouse delivered a poignant message that characterized the organization’s approach: “This is not about trees versus jobs… The real issue here is defending our sacred mountain” (p. 133). Selling this philosophy to disgruntled Navajo loggers and to the Navajo Forest Product Industry, and to the Navajo Nation that tried to push timber sales was a different matter altogether (Chapter Ten).


In 1992 Diné CARE embarked on what was to become its most ambitious undertaking: broadening the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include a greater number of victims of radiation, and make it easier for Navajo claimants to obtain compensation (Chapter Eleven). In 1992 Diné CARE representatives were invited to participate in the World Indigenous People’s Uranium Forum, which took place in Zalzburg, Austria. In Austria, the Navajos encountered “groupies,” mainly European “Indian wannabes” who followed them around, and in Germany they encountered “Hobbyists” who played Indians on weekends. The Navajo contingency was annoyed when these European hosts insisted on treating them as helpless victims; they wanted to cooperate with other groups as equal partners. Thus the trip to Europe was a disappointment. When they returned home, Diné CARE representatives learned that Leroy Jackson disappeared.


The mysterious disappearance and death of Leroy Jackson are the focus of Chapter Twelve. Leroy Jackson was last seen alive and in good spirits on September 28, 1993, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His badly decomposed body was found in his van on October 9, the cause of death was unclear. Diné CARE members bitterly question the circumstances of his death. “Death has always stalked Indian activists” (p. 176). Leroy’s death was followed by a journalistic feeding frenzy (Chapter Thirteen). The resulting journalistic sensationalism underscored the environmental conflict on the reservation, and added to Adella Begaye’s grief. She ultimately underwent a Protection Way ceremony, after which she was able to say farewell to her husband in a culturally meaningful manner (Chapter Fourteen). By the mid 1990s, the visibility Leroy Jackson and the founders of Diné CARE achieved in the early 1990s brought numerous new activists who continue to carry on Diné CARE’s legacy of environmental activism (Chapter Fifteen).


Land, Wind, and Hard Words: A Story of Navajo Activism, is a non-fictional cross between Eichestaedt’s detailed account of If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans, and Nichols’ Milagro Beanfield War. At times Land, Wind, and Hard Words: A Story of Navajo Activism is a tribute to Leroy Jackson, but the book is much more than that. John Sherry effectively combines participant observation, journalistic style, wit, friendship, and an intimate anthropological understanding of Navajo culture, into a book that will be attractive to general readers interested in environmental activism.