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This Land is Your Land?
Working with Native American communities in Arizona
to preserve and promote a sustainable way of life
A presentation by Anna Bershteyn (MIT) & Kaia Dekker (MIT)

Jennifer Harbury, lawyer and activist for indigenous people
across the Hemisphere, will introduce our speakers.

7 p.m., Tuesday, November 18, 2003 in MIT Room 66-110

It's Thanksgiving season again. We bear in mind what Native Americans have experienced and what the current hopes and challenges are.

Traditional Navajo and Hopi communities in northern Arizona occupy only a small fraction of the land they once did. Yet even the land they now occupy is extremely valuable to others. Cheap coal and even cheaper water attract would-be developers and users. Because of political pressure, what would otherwise be a sustainable way of life is in danger of quickly becoming unsustainable.

Two MIT students—Anna Bershteyn and Kaia Dekker—spent much of last summer living & working among the Dine (Navajo) in Northern Arizona. They had two goals: to understand what life is like among the traditional Dine; and to see what knowledge and resources they could contribute. They took computers and other equipment with them; they helped raise sheep and bring Churro wool to market; they assisted in a systematic survey of roads and terrain; and they heard stories, and more stories, and even more stories.

Please come to find out what they learned from their Navajo host-families; and see what the rest of us can learn from them.

NB: The summer Anna and Kaia spent in Arizona is part of our continuing outreach and public-service effort. It was funded by the MIT Eloranta Fellowship program and the MIT Public Service Center. Computers and software were donated by the MIT Libraries. And host-family arrangements were made by Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land. We don't know how to thank these organizations for their help and support—without which we could have done nothing.

[Map prepared by Errol L. Montgomery & Associates, Inc]

For more information:

  • Diné bé ííná (Navajo Lifeway) is a non-profit organization of Navajo women founded in 1991 to provide leadership, economic development, & support for traditional lifeways of Navajo sheep-producers & weavers. The organization works to restore status to sheep-herding, wool-processing, & weaving; and to promote the appreciation of these pursuits in the modern world. It seeks to conserve the traditional Navajo-Churro sheep breed; to honor the central role of sheep in Navajo spirituality & daily life; & to bring together people from many cultures who love sheep, wool, & weaving.

  • An illustrated essay on the history of Navajo weaving by Ron Johnson (Humboldt State University): "[The Pueblo] had developed a … tradition of weaving on upright looms often with patterns of simple stripes … The origins of this … tradition extend back several centuries to Peru through Mexico. Among the Pueblo, men were the primary weavers, but among the Navajo women became the weavers and still are today … Also from the Pueblo, and to a lesser extent from the Spanish, the Navajo adopted sheep and horses. Traditionally Navajo women own and tend the sheep while men manage the horses. … Basic weaving techniques were already familiar to Navajo women through weaving baskets. Nevertheless, the character of patterning was different in blankets than in basketry, and it is primarily through intermarriage with the Pueblos that Navajo women learned to weave wool blankets. … The largest cache of early blankets that provides information about early weaving styles was discovered in Massacre Cave … These blanket fragments are from a massacre of defenseless women, children and elderly individuals in 1804 by a Spanish punitive expedition. … "

  • Black Mesa Weavers for Life & Land, a fair-trade non-profit co-op that brings wool & traditional Navajo weavings to market and re-invests in the economic strength of the community (the web-site includes a bibliography and offers wool & woven items for sale)

  • Cultural Survival is a Cambridge-based non-profit that "[promotes] the rights, voices, and visions of indigenous peoples." It has adopted Black Mesa Weavers as a Special Project: "Among the Diné [Navajo], sheepherding and weaving are primarily women's activities, and are important [for] cultural identity and health, as well as a primary means of economic sustenance through the generations: great-grandmothers, grandmothers, young adults, adolescents, and children are all involved. The Diné population of Black Mesa … is the most traditional part of the Navajo Nation. The heritage of caring for livestock — especially the rare and endangered churro sheep bred by and sacred to the Diné … — has been developed and maintained on Black Mesa for hundreds of years. This heritage has been [endangered] by events of the last 30 years …"

  • From an article by Stacia Spragg in the Albuquerque Tribune (September 4, 2000): "The journey to save a near-extinct sheep embodies the struggle to save a culture and pass on its traditions … 'We were real tired, and this old Navajo man kept walking around our truck, just looking at all those sheep,' Sharon recalls. 'He was in awe. He had tears in his eyes. I said, «What's wrong, grandpa? Why are you crying?» And he just said, «Dibé bi Na'ni t'i.» He was saying that these Churro were the old-time sheep, the leader of all the sheep. He thought they had disappeared forever. So I said back to him, «They're not gone, grandpa. We're bringing them back.»'"

  • In October, 2000 the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report: "From a plateau called Black Mesa, in the arid Four Corners region of Arizona, the Peabody Coal Company mines over 1 billion gallons of pristine, potable ground-water each year, mixes it with coal to form a … slurry, and pipes it to a power station in the Mojave desert, almost 300 miles away. But … the Hopi and many of the Navajo who live there must [also] take their water, which they use for drinking and subsistence farming and for religious purposes, from the same source. According to data compiled by the Department of the Interior, Peabody's operations appear to be causing or contributing significantly [to] groundwater-related problems, with profound environmental, cultural, and religious implications for the region's tribal communities."