Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
Apache Crown Dancers 1887: http://www.firstpeople.us/photographs2/Apache-Spirit-Dancers-1887.html

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Life on the Rez: America's Crumbling Infrastructure

The article by Eliza Grisworld titled, A Teen’s Third World America, discusses the conditions on, and surrounding Native American reservations, specifically bringing to light some of the issues with infrastructure and the “third-world like conditions” found on some U.S. reservations, through the telling of a story about a boy named E.J. Montoya, a 16 year old member of the Santa Ana Pueblo, who travels nearly 80 miles a day in order to attend a public school called the Native American Community Academy, which is set up specifically for the Native Americans. In the article, the author sums up that sentiment with the following statement,

“Montoya's short life story is the unsung tale of America's crumbling infrastructure—bridges, roads, drinking water, sewage lines, and the list goes on. Essentially, everything we rely on to move through our daily lives, and never stop to consider—until it breaks down.”

This article really hit home with me, eerily reflecting some of my own personal experiences living on the Fort Apache reservation, located in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona. Much like E.J., I also had to tread through some rather treacherous terrain and the harsh conditions in the winter, often exposing the vulnerabilities within our reservations' system. The blizzard-like conditions of winter in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona would make walking to or from school rather tricky, and potentially dangerous if you lost your way. But, treading through the mud, not even muddy roads, but plain mud on a mountain mixed with forest and scary darkness. While the scarcity of street lights makes for some awe inspiring nightscapes of a starry lit sky, it can also induce some seemingly frightful experiences.

This is a picture from last month, which the White Mountain Independent website published for their Winter Reader Photo Contest, showing a place called River Road, located in Whiteriver, Arizona on the Fort Apache reservation.

Photo by "Stevie"

E.J. provides us with a list of obstacles which can keep him from getting to school, including things such as torn-up roads to abandoned buildings, but singles out the most dangerous place to be on the reservation is the “broken down public pool”. E.J. also makes a comment about some of what goes on in there and provides his stance on it with the following,

"Grown-ups take kids down there to get them drunk…Either fix it, or blow it up."

E.J. provides us with another example of how vast the problem of lacking sustainable infrastructure reaches into the everyday life of a teenager. When we can relate to this through E.J.‘s point of view, not only does the need become relevant, the danger behind the process becomes obvious as well. Once again, E.J.’s story sustains the reminiscent quality of paralleling similar events in my own life by sharing his brief survey of the type of landscapes that he finds himself navigating through on a daily basis, as he travels to school. Contextually reflecting upon not just the environment of poverty, but the social plights found nestled throughout the rez as well.

Sadly enough, these events have escalated to cases that are much more apparent and unmistakable in their harm. The sheer darkness of lightless streets and broken down abandoned buildings can pose as a greater threat than just a drug spot.

In January 2005, a man posing as a police officer terrorized girls along a trail behind a neighborhood in my hometown of Whiteriver, for a period of around 3 years.

In the picture, an abandoned house where some reported incidents occurred.

Mark Henle/ The Arizona Republic


Ramona Emerson, a Navajo filmmaker originally from Tohatchi, New Mexico, has worked as a professional videographer, writer and editor for over ten years. Through her short documentary titled, E.J.’s Journey, we are given an opportunity to take a glimpse into the life of the 16 year old, Montoya, as he travels to school.

In the video we see how an average day goes for E.J. as he is driven to the station, rides the train, catches a bus, and then finally walks the last leg to arrive at school. All and all, a 40-mile trip to first period.

Griswold tells us a bit about the neighborhood that E.J. lives in and makes the correlations between the conditions in third-world counties and those which are found in American Indian reservations with the following,

“We were parked outside his [E.J.] trailer in a rented white SUV. Around us in the darkness: a broken baby carriage, a rattletrap Volvo sedan, an anonymous pile of junk littered on the bare ground. I've seen this kind of chaos in refugee camps in Eastern Congo and gypsy settlements in Rome, but not in America.”

Personally, I have been in numerous debates over the severity of the problems that Indigenous people find themselves encountering on a daily basis, such as not having electricity or even clean water. Yes, it may come as a shock for some people to find out that even to this very day, we still have places in America where people do not have access to clean water. I can say this with relative confidence because I grew up in one.

I reflect on the instances of turning on the kitchen faucet to experience firsthand fluctuating water pressure and contamination, as brown water would spray out in bursts or with little pressure at all. When the system would initially start to lose pressure, it was indicating that it was going to go out soon, so we would fill up the bathtub with water in order to refill the tank of the toilet so that we could flush it. Our household would go to the next community down the road to our family or friends homes so that we could take showers. Most people take these things for granted and consider them to be negligible, until the "cha̧a" hits the fan and one of them fails, or as Griswold puts it, "everything we rely on to move through our daily lives, and never stop to consider—until it breaks down." Personally, I have never been able to shake the notions of what I have seen and those conditions which I have discovered through exploring life on other reservations with indigenous people.

Native American reservations expose just how deep the inefficiency runs when those systems of infrastructure fail. For example, in 2008, a local news station reported an incident on the Wind River Indian Reservation, leaving 400 households without clean water when the “archaic and temperamental water system” failed due to a faulty pump. The news story also goes on to mention some of the other areas of concern regarding infrastructure.

Another incident, which is reported about briefly in this clip with Keith Olbermann, comments about the situation that happened on Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in the beginning of 2010, when thousands were left without power when a ice storm, seen in this clip, ravaged much of the reservation community in central South Dakota, causing them to declare a state of emergency. Much of that damage can be seen in these pictures. This was also around the same time that the Haiti disaster was initially being covered and overshadowed much of the crisis on Indian Reservation. But, I still pondered the notion, “would the media be covering this otherwise?”

A film done by Graham Shonfield titled, Life on the Reserve, depicts what life is like on a Canadian First Nation reservation. The documentary depicts some of the issues First Nation people face on reservation-communities in Canada and includes some of the same problems that we face on our American reserves, such as the lack of clean water.

A study done by Dana Williams, a sociologist with a PhD from the University of Akron, titled Quality of life of North Dakota and South Dakota Native American reservations, shows how reservations compared to one another, and also how they contrasted with the states of North and South Dakota. The reservations used in the study were scored on things such as unemployment rates, level of education completed, and average household income. By using similar methods that researchers often use when determining the categories of “best“ and “worst“ U.S. cities to live in, Williams concludes from her findings,

“Although great differences do exist between the "best" quality of life reservation, [Flandreau] and the "worst" quality of life reservation, [Pine Ridge], Flandreau itself still does not even remotely measure up to the levels of North Dakota and South Dakota. If this were not bad enough, it must be remembered that many of the indicators for these two states are themselves comparatively low by US standards, with high levels of rural poverty…Yet, it has not been quantifiably proven that these differences can be extended to other kinds of indicators, such as social, health, and environmental. They remain only suspected links.”

Maintaining accurate records on Native Americans has been notoriously difficult due the complexity and convolution of the overall process. I am not sure how much of this could also be due to a lack of resources. The data used, as noted in the study, is over a decade old. This is where it becomes evident that in order to expand our understanding into those other social indicators such as health, education, and environment, further research must be done.


One group taking the initiative to take on one of these areas of concern found on reservations in America, are those individuals from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s graduating class of 2012, more specifically known as Mission 2012. Apparently, the Mission program was first offered as a course in the Fall of 2000, and was started by the current Director and Foundation Professor of the School of Earth & Space Exploration at Arizona State University, Kip Hodges. On the website, MISSION 2012: Clean Water: Will there be enough?, a brief history of the class is given,

“It was offered first in Fall 2000, when the assignment (Mission 2004) was to develop a viable mission plan for the exploration of Mars with the aim of finding evidence for the present or past existence of life.”

The course has continued to evolve since it was first implemented, and now finds itself concerned with some of the issues surrounding reservation water rights. According to their final class website, Clean Water,

“Each year a group of first year students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is challenged to develop a comprehensive solution to a complex problem facing the world. This year, the members of Mission 2012 were faced with task of ensuring the availability of clean, fresh water in western North America for the next one hundred years.”

Their provided solution goes over so much, such as agriculture, water reuse, and energy. But, one point of interest concerns this issue of water systems, the Reservation Water Rights Solution.

In a summary of the solution it states,

"With the implementation of the 150 liters per capita per day plan, we hope to make drinking water and a limited amount of irrigation water affordable to all living on Native American Reservations. With the yearly monetary allocations for water projects, we hope to increase water distribution efficiency and decrease the amount of contaminated water. This will minimize the number of health problems associated with unclean drinking water. While Native American living on reservations will have to enter the cap-and-trade system to procure all their current irrigating needs, the water that they receive will be of a higher quality, and thus Native Americans will not have to worry about health issues stemming from contaminated water. Overall, we aim to provide a sufficient amount of clean and affordable water for Native American use."

Once again, pointing to the infrastructure and the need for clean water systems on reservations being an obvious concern, even with the limited data. This type of research takes a large number of people and is expensive, so funding for such programs was considered in this proposal.


Another group initiating change in their community by taking the challenge of tackling some of the social issues which are found on many reservations, offers the additional support of behavioral services such as personal wellness skills and nutritional education. The Native American Community Academy (NACA) is a tuition-free public charter school that serves middle to high school aged students, offering grades 6 through 12. Located in the state of New Mexico, NACA also effectively incorporates the diversity of each unique tribal culture by representing more than 37 tribes. Also, has partnerships with several organizations, universities, and various other community initiatives.

NACA seeks to prepare young individuals to grow from adolescence into adulthood by instilling in them, confidence in their identity. While the overall goal might be to develop strong leaders thereby strengthening the community, academically preparing them for college and life in the future is priority.

Part of the Message from the Founding Principle,

"NACA has found that by integrating culture, language, personal wellness, family support, community connectedness, leadership preparedness, and college readiness into the academic curriculum a child is much more effectively guided and nurtured toward his or her success. This principal becomes the educational journey provided by NACA."

The Native American Community Academy holds a philosophy which incorporates the idea that, "to preserve one’s language is to preserve one’s culture". Recognizing the language components required by colleges,

"NACA offers classes in Navajo at both the middle school and high school levels, as well as Dine Government specifically for High School students. We also offer Lakota language classes at the middle school and high school. Students can also take Spanish I, II and III, and NACA is currently working on incorporating Keris language classes as well."


Not many schools offer such programs like those found at NACA. For example, in Arizona, our public schools have recently taken away ethnic studies courses with House Bill 2281. Banning programs for the notions that they,

1. "Promote the overthrow of the United States government."
2. "Promote resentment toward a race or class of people."

3. "Are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group."

4. "Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."


Ethnic studies program covers African-American, Mexican-American, Native American and pan-Asian studies. These courses were designed with the intentions to help students better understand, not only their own culture, but the cultures of others as well. The program provided specialized courses focused on things like history, literature, civil rights and social justice.

I say that American History classes negate Native American History enough already. Some critics, such as Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, say that these ethnic courses lead to “not trusting the system.” The notion that Native Americans might develop a distrust of “the system” after learning and being able to place the social, economic, and environmental conditions into context with a deeper understanding of how they got that way, never struck me as being controversial. Nevertheless, I can sort of follow this line of reasoning.

When I was studying Native American history in college for my research papers, I was enraged because I felt lied to and cheated out of learning real American History, not the legend of it. In the version of history that I received while in the public educational system here in America, the Native American tribes that once scattered the country were merely ghosts. Notions of civilizing the savage, or saving the devil worshippers by converting them into Christians, was a common theme echoing throughout my historical journey. While at the same time, I was gaining insight into the background of how the situation on the reservation came to be, and how the people of such a rich and proud culture of individuals lost their identity. You could say that there might have been some feeling of resentment there, but it was for the complacency and lack of concern for doing anything about these circumstances found on reservations that bothered me. I can see how some could very easily not take that route and develop resentment towards a particular group or become susceptible to ideologies that promotes similar ways of thinking. But, it wasn't until I went off of the reservation that I became aware of notions that I didn't belong and was really conscientious about my ethnicity. When I got to the public school in the big city of Phoenix, Arizona, the education system had painted an entirely different outlook on Native cultures, filling me constantly with reminders that I was different, to them.

It's a very confusing time and sort of an identity crisis that young First Nations people find themselves in when they are going through that stage of teenage adolescence with those feelings of not knowing who they are through their own culture. That is where the notions of having to learn how to become civilized through "white education", comes back to haunt us.

But, it seems that Native American culture and tradition has always been adaptive to change. The incorporation of these types of values are reflected in the schools' mission statement.

For instance, take the following definition for Indigenous thinking,

"Indigenous thinking and learning is a reflective process involving a deliberate looking inward, self-awareness and contemplation of deeper meanings. We support this reflective practice to encourage thoughtfulness, personal growth, profound learning and meaningful change."

The science curriculum surrounds the entire notion that inquiry is priority. Emphasizing a hands-on approach to problem solving and discovery, including projects inside and outside the classroom. An example of the 6th grade course,

"The 6th Grade Science course is designed to introduce students to the scientific process, inquiry, and concepts in the areas of Earth and Space, Physical, and Life. In this course, students use inquiry to investigate various science phenomena and follow the scientific process to develop their own scientific investigations."

Again, using an analytical process for developing strategies to learning. This following statement from the background of the curriculum, even slightly resembles an explanation for a scientific consensus, within the scope of the community.

“Teachers create quarterly backward plans that include Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions, formal and summative assessments, cultural connections and specific knowledge and skills that the students will master. Teachers publish and share these plans and receive specific feedback from the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, the Instructional Coordinator, and through Professional Learning Communities, to insure that we have high academic standards and our entire academic program is aligned and integrated.”

By establishing various connections and collaborations in the community, NACA is able to provide these services for students. Some of that cooperation helps to build a bridge across the gaps between the students and their communities, while others provide resources for things such as academics, projects, activities, and other initiatives.

Lead by example, walk the talk, and be the change that you want to see in the world

Even when the efforts from organizations like NACA are surrounded by such depressing issues, they are too busy brightening up the world. Not only do they reflect an optimistic attitude, but they focus on the improvements and contributions to continuously build upon them, and they are already seeing the improvements from their endeavors, as they state under the Student Support and Behavioral Health Services,

"Our most significant contribution to our community is easily accessed, high quality comprehensive mental health services free of charge to hundreds of Native American youth and families in Albuquerque."


While it is conventional wisdom that it is easy to point out the flaws, we can often find ourselves getting caught up in the emotion that these topics invoke. But, while it is dire that we find out just how bad the situation is before it gets any worse, we also need to make sure that we point out the successes that we make along the way. Those gems are imperative to those people like me who see the change and acknowledge it as a indicator that people are concerned and want to help. Much like when skeptics receive a letter from a person discovering skepticism or finding a love for science, it makes all the work and effort seem worthwhile. It's those bright rays of light who manage to spill through the dark clouds that keep us going. When enough of us get through, we get a clearer glimpse of reality and the world.