Bitter Water: Diné Oral Histories of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute
Edited by Malcolm D. Benally. 2011. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 102 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8165-2898-1 (soft cover).
Reviewed by Charlotte Frisbie, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville
[Review length: 1732 words • Review posted on November 9, 2011]
This extremely important volume makes numerous contributions: for the first time, it presents in both Navajo and English, oral histories or personal narratives of four women from the Black Mesa area, Arizona, women living within and near the HPL or Hopi Partitioned Land area who were/are directly involved in activism opposing the 1974 so-called Navajo Hopi Land Settlement Act, or PL 93-53. The women and their home communities include: Mae Tso, Mosquito Springs; Roberta Blackgoat (who died in 2000), Thin Rock Mesa; Pauline Whitesinger, Big Mountain; and Ruth Benally, a distant relative of Benally’s, also from Big Mountain. While there are important academic studies of the dispute, the 1974 law authorizing the partition of Navajo and Hopi lands, and its resulting disasters—such as works by Brugge, Churchill, Kammer, and Redhouse, besides a 1993 popular book by Benedek, a 1986 movie, “Broken Rainbow,” and the Pulitzer prize-winning investigative article, “The Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Indian Gold,” by Judith Nies (Orion, summer, 1998)—until this publication, we lacked testimonies and in-depth perspectives from Navajos living in the affected area. Malcolm Benally, a Navajo from Forest Lake, was the ideal person to pursue this project, having been born three years before the 1974 act and raised in Forest Lake, another community on partitioned land. During college at Northern Arizona University, in 1994 he began to work with Into the Mud Productions. When they received a grant in October, 1998, from a fund aimed at raising public consciousness about human rights abuses and restrictions of civil liberties, Benally was hired to work with Mary Fish, the producer and photographer, to produce a sixty-minute documentary, Bitter Water: Diné Chronicles of Resistance.
Thus, in the late 1990s, he videorecorded, using a digital audiotape and Hi-8 documentary video camera, over twenty-five hours of personal testimonies and oral histories from Navajo elders affected by the partition of Navajo and Hopi Lands. The plan was to produce the documentary from the interview footage and thus tell the world about the cultural genocide and human rights violations continually occurring in Arizona because of PL 93-53. However, once the interviews were completed, the funding disappeared, technology changed, and digital format arrived. Wanting to share the women’s stories, educate the public about the unnecessary pain, trauma, and suffering continually being caused by relocation, and call international attention to the gross violation of human rights that continues because of this law, yes, in the United States and in Arizona, Benally finally decided to release some of the narratives in book format. He still plans to complete the documentary, his “work in progress,” and he still has misgivings about print format because most of the project’s participants are elderly, monolingual Navajos and most have already had too many horrendous experiences with documents.
After deciding to move ahead in print, Benally first transcribed the audio track, writing the women’s narratives in literal Navajo; then he did numerous re-listenings to find a way of translating their words that would catch their eloquent ways of speaking and expressing themselves. Anyone familiar with the challenges of doing translations will understand his labors of love during this process. Among the contributions made by this volume is the bilingual presentation of all four monologues as well as the section entitled “Sheep is Life.” The content offers a very current look at oral traditions among Navajos, and how the language itself is being used in the contemporary world. Word choices, and ways of speaking and telling stories are only two of the countless elements that will be of interest to linguists and folklorists in this volume; happily, the formatting facilitates comparisons of the spoken Navajo and English translations, and endnotes occasionally offer additional insights about specific words, phrases, translation issues, and/or multiple interpretations. Additionally, perhaps because of ethnopoetics, Benally occasionally uses italics to show what a speaker was emphasizing, or indicates with parentheses that a statement was accompanied by a smile or laugh. Through the women’s personal testimonies, one feels the deep pain and trauma caused by relocation, the prevailing sense of loss—loss of land, animals, family and friends, language, culture, traditions, and the old ways. But simultaneously, one also senses the bravery, strength, and courage expressed daily by these women and their families as they try to deal with the shameful forced removal, relocation, and cultural genocide caused by this misguided legislation.
The volume opens with a contextualizing foreword by Navajo historian, Jennifer Nez Denetdale; Benally’s preface, which explains particulars of the publication, is followed by a chronology of the shameful relocation process with its expired deadlines, governmental and legal maneuvers, the 4/18/2001 Supreme Court dismissal of the class-action lawsuit, Manybeads et al. v. United States, and the continuing horrors. The English text of “The Travel Song” as sung by Carol Blackhorse, Benally’s grandmother, follows, preceding the author’s introduction, which includes a needed map, and the first two of the volume’s stunning twenty-one black and white photographs by Mary Fish. Chapters 1–4 present the four personal testimonies first in Navajo and then in English, with photographs positioned only in the English-language sections, except for one on page 8.
Roberta Blackgoat’s narrative is followed by a reprint of a biographical note (37-38) written for the Navajo Times (4/25/2002) by reporter Marley Shebala after Blackgoat’s passing. A section entitled “Sheep is Life” (Chapter 5, pages 62-83) follows the four narratives, again in both Navajo and English, being constructed from vignettes provided by nine individuals, eight women and one man: Carol Blackhorse, Emma Bahe, and Katherine Smith provide multiple vignettes, while single contributions are quoted from Oscar Whitehair, Maize Begay, Mary Lou Benale, Elvira Horseherder, Pauline Whitesinger, and Manygoats Daughter. While photographs of only four of these nine individuals are included in this section, again in the English translation portions, traditional life on the land with the sheep is thoroughly documented by Fish’s outstanding pictures; the chapter or community residence of each contributor is identified in the endnotes. A poem, “The Mutton Hunger,” by the author, follows “Sheep is Life,” and then, in an epilogue, Benally updates events through the summer of 2010, identifying nonprofit advocacy groups and a new lawsuit. The website for the Black Mesa Indigenous Support group which provides current information about the people who remain on the HPL, was given earlier, in the preface (xv) as www.blackmesais.org.
A very important essay, “Natural Law and Navajo Religion/Way of Life,” coauthored by Roman Bitsuie and Kenja Hassan, follows as an appendix, and predictably precedes endnotes, bibliography, and an index. Bitsuie, the executive director of the Navajo Hopi Land Commission Office, reportedly gave “Natural Law . . .” as testimony on 6/20/2006 before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources during hearings on the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Amendments of 2005; however, Benally (xvi), indicates that Hassan, a student from Japan who lived with a family in the HPL and became a friend of Bitsuie’s, also deserves coauthorship credit. I wish the entire book had been printed bilingually, so that the foreword, preface, introduction, poetry, epilogue, and this important appendix essay could have been presented in Navajo too, as were the four narratives and “Sheep is Life.”
The four narratives are individually powerful, as are their supporting photographs. While only one touches on persecution and being arrested for activism, the voices in “Sheep is Life” provide more references to confrontations with the law, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and rangers, and going to jail. Throughout the four personal histories, there is a shared tone of sadness and worry about loss, loss of everything from the old ways, the land, and the sheep, to the Navajo language, traditions, and culture. The women worry about their grandchildren and the need to teach them their history, traditions, and beliefs, their Navajo language, and traditional ways to use and care for the land. There are many references to the need for discipline in child rearing and the importance of Blessingway. Throughout the thinking about everything being gone—the animals, the people, the old ways—it is clear that most devastating is the loss of human rights.
Only a few criticisms are warranted. While it is not surprising to have different, yet correct, ways of translating a given Navajo word, there are places in the text when Navajo words and/or expressions are left untranslated, without explanation. Examples can be found on pages 14, 21, 23, 50, 51, 68. In Mae Tso’s narrative, there are two endnotes numbered 16, on pages 13 and 14 in the Navajo part, but only one number 16 on page 21, in the translation and in the endnotes on page 96. There is an extra line of space in the Navajo text on page 55, but not in the translation on page 58. Sometimes nonverbal behaviors such as smiles are indicated in one place but not in translation; likewise, the use of italics for emphasis is not always the same when comparing the Navajo and the translation. In places (see page 77 for one example) where the translation is given as “ceremony basket,” in my opinion “ceremonial basket” would have been better. Other errors: on page 10, the third note at the bottom of the page, third line, word 7 should say 1986 instead of the Navajo printed there. Page 11 includes two bottom-of-the-page notes, neither of which appears in the translation on pages 18–19. Both of these are important and should have been included. The second discusses the translation of “an endangered word,” of interest by itself but also because Benally refers to the “archaic terms” the women often used in their monologues, which he came to enjoy as a nice change from the boarding school Navajo his parents speak. One example of Navajo slang is noted, page 67. On page 35, there is a typo in line 13 from the bottom of the page. On page 97, note 7, line 2, the size of the Council needs to be changed since it has now been reduced from eighty-six to twenty-four. Two additions to the bibliography would be helpful: Judith Nies’ 1998 article mentioned above, and the article about this book done by reporter Cindy Yurth for the Navajo Times (March 3, 2011: A-7), “New Book Gives Voice to Land Dispute Victims.” Yurth’s article is based on conversations with Benally which include further information about the author, the project, and the book which then was due to emerge in May.