(1896 - 1967)
To dích'íí'níí -- Bitter Water People Clan
Aslikii (Navajo for "Boy") sat beneath the juniper tree, watching the water swallow up his pebble, while rings of water grew out wider and wider from the place where his pebble had splashed into the wash. In his eight-year-old world, this time of afternoon by the wash was Ashkii's favorite part of herding sheep. The sheep were scattered like tufts of white cotton along the banks of the Chinle Wash, grazing on small desert bushes.
His world in this sunbaked country of buttes and flatlands near Rock Point included his family's camp of earthen hogans, the small trading post, the rocks and the sheep. His world ended at the horizon, a shimmering blue on this hot August day.
"Where does it go?" he wondered, studying the sky. "Does it end out there beyond the rocks?" He had pondered this many times and had yet to satisfy his curiosity.
A gentle breeze stirred the bushes and rippled the water. Ashkii stood up slowly and hunted for a bigger rock to sail into the water. He knew it was nearly time to take the herd home, but he wanted to make the waves circle out one more time.
He herded the sheep into the small log corral, as the sun was lowering itself behind the western mesa. Then he took a few more minutes to daydream as the last of the herd went into the enclosure. He was dreaming about moving up into the mountains in a few months for the piñon nut picking season.
"Ashkii, bring in some wood," the boy's grandmother called from the brush shelter. The boy walked to the woodpile and whacked off some small logs with the axe.
Of all the relatives in his family's camp, Ashkii had long ago chosen his strict but loving grandmother as his favorite. His parents' hogan was only a few yards from his grandmother's, and he was with them often, but he liked to sleep at his grandmother's hogan. She was a medicine woman and a fine storyteller. He loved to lie by her fire on winter evenings and listen to her tell the old Navajo legends.
Now he carefully placed the firewood inside the fragrant brush shelter, where the slim branches and dry leaves made cool walls for summer living. He looked up and saw his father bringing the horses in, and started out to help with all the others in the camp. They spaced themselves in a large circle around the horses and began driving them into the corral.
Suddenly an unearthly noise blasted through the peaceful camp. The horses reared and snorted, suddenly going wild. The women looked out toward the dirt trail, and through clouds of dust saw a dark monster moving rapidly nearer to the camp. The women screamed and ran into their hogans. The men tried to round up the horses and at the same time comprehend the noisy "beast" that was jolting closer and closer. Ashkii stood transfixed, his eyes wide and unbelieving at the sight. Suddenly, the "monster" stopped in its tracks. As the dust began to settle, Ashkii saw a man emerge from the object, a man with light skin and yellow hair.
Both the large object and the man who had come from it fascinated him. The "beast" looked faintly like a wagon, but it had no horses or mules pulling it! It was dark brown, and seemed to be quite calm and peaceful for the moment. The man, too, puzzled Ashkii, for the boy had never seen a fair-haired, fair-skinned person like that before. The trader, whom he saw occasionally, was almost as dark as Ashkii, not nearly as white as the man walking toward his family.
The women were still hiding, and the men were riding in the nearby desert, still rounding up the horses. Ashkii stood as still as the branches he was peeking through in the brush shelter. He was glad to see his father riding back into the camp now. Once more, the men were going to try to drive the horses into the corral. His father abruptly called the rest of the family out to help, while the stranger stood still some distance away. Finally the nervous horses were calmed and safely enclosed. The stranger moved forward toward Ashkii's father. Ashkii had retreated again to watch from his peephole in the brush shelter and he saw the two men gesturing at each other. In a few minutes, the man went back toward his machine again. Ashkii covered his ears as the noisy thing started off down tile trail. As soon as the stranger was out of sight, babble arose through the camp. Ashkii's father quieted the women, telling them the man was trying to find his way to the trading post. Ashkii learned that the "beast" was a motor car, a machine that could move about and carry people.
While the adults went back to their work, Ashkii puzzled over the experience. He tried to imagine a herder taking a flock of motor cars to graze, and wondered how one could stand the noise of a group of these beasts at once. He tried to envision a camp full of light-skinned yellow haired people, and the thought struck him at first as very funny.
But his mind quickly filled with a million questions. There must be many more kinds of people than he knew of. The sky must go beyond the rocks in the distance. What else was there that he had never seen before? More than anything he wanted to find out. He was to find out sooner than he expected. The next evening when he came home with the sheep, he noticed that his grandmother's loom was empty. Perhaps a trip to the trading post was coming up! But he waited, playing with his puppy while his grandmother flopped a piece of fried bread into the iron skillet. Soon he was tearing off crisp pieces of the hot bread to fill his hungry stomach.
"My sister will herd the sheep tomorrow," his grandmother announced softly. "You must stay at home with me."
Ashkii anticipated her next statement, "We're going to the trading post?"
"A man is coming to see us," she responded. "He came today to see you. I told him to come again tomorrow." A long silence passed, while Ashkii puzzled over this and waited for his grandmother to explain more.
"I hear there is a school where you can go and learn many things," she finally continued. "I think the man will take you there."
She watched her grandson's eyes shine, and added, "Perhaps now you will find the answers to some of your questions." Ashkii was surprised, and so happy he could hardly sit still. His grandmother was sending him to school while many parents he knew of hid their children when the school people came around.
He knew this, for only a few weeks ago at the horse race, his friend Tsosie had told him. They had laughed until they hurt, over the thought of Tsosie's mother rolling him into a rug and hiding him behind a pile of sheepskins when she saw the wagon rattling through clouds of dust up to her doorstep. No Navajo would drive that east.
"The white man finally went away, and I was glad. It was too hot and itchy in that rug, I almost sneezed," Tsosie had laughed. Other children at the race had gathered around to enjoy the story, and they too added stories about "escaping" the school people.
"Perhaps we will go to the trading post after he leaves," Ashkii's grandmother said smiling. She saw his curious gaze, and added, "The man will tell you all about the school. He said you could learn many things there that you cannot learn here. This is a challenge, Ashkii. Go learn about it and come back and teach us."
It was 1904, and Ashkii's grandmother had seen a great many changes since her girlhood at Fort Sumner. She remembered many hungry years her family had suffered. Like most of her family, she had grown very thin in the bad years during and after Fort Sumner. She remembered as a very young child that the Utes had been dangerous, but aside from their raids, the only people who came near her home were other Navajos - until the soldiers came in 1863.
Now in her later years, it seemed with each passing season, more and more white people hovered around the edges of her land. Trading posts had sprung up, where Navajos could buy shoes and clothing, an unheard of thing in her childhood. She was fairly certain that these changes would not disappear, but rather would increase, until, if she lived long enough, she would not even recognize her country. The boy had better learn how to live with these changes, for he would outlive her by far.
The school superintendent, a white man, came back the next day, after Ashkii spent several long quiet hours wandering around his home with nothing to do. He'd chopped more wood, and he'd played with his puppy. Now the sun was reaching the middle of the sky. If the man didn't come soon, they probably would not go to the trading post today.
Then he heard the wagon. He ran into the shade of the brush shelter, but his grandmother called him out. The wagon stopped near the corral, and a man in store clothes climbed down.
Ashkii walked out into the sunlight. The man smiled and asked his grandmother something Ashkii could not understand. He asked, "What's the boy's name?" Ashkii's grandmother understood the word "name" as the man pointed to the boy.
"Ashkii la," she answered quietly. The man wrote down "Ahkeah," the name he thought he heard. After this name he added "Sam." The school people were accustomed to at least two names for children, a first and a last name. For Navajo children, who usually went by one name publicly, the man had become used to adding a first name - Charley, Jim, John, Sam, or some other name that sounded reasonable to him.
Ashkii savored his last trip to the trading post that summer, breathing in the colorful smells of the store: leather goods, raw wool, dusty shelves of calico, kerosene lanterns, and so many things it took the boy hours just to look at everything. His eyes rested on the selection of hunting knives. He wanted one so much - perhaps his grandmother would get one for him today. She was trading her newly woven rug at the time, so Ashkii didn't bother her. After a while, he followed her into the pawn room, and watched hopefully as she pawned a huge silver belt, a silver necklace, and some other pieces of jewelry. Surely, she would be able to get a knife for him!
But his grandmother had other things in mind, particularly school clothes for Ashkii. He was disappointed, but said nothing as they left the trading post late in the afternoon, with bundles of flour, coffee, cotton material, and store trousers for Ashkii.
A man from the school came for Ashkii, and drove him to Fort Lewis, Colorado, in a wagon. The boy was amazed as the wagon pulled to a halt some distance away from the school buildings. His eyes took in acres of green grass and trees, buildings unlike any he had ever seen, built high and square. He tried to reason out how such buildings were made, what held them together. He tried to understand why the country was so green, so lush with grass and trees. Ashkii was eager to get started and learn about these things. He walked toward the building, behind the white man.
School was the strangest place he had even seen. Like the trading post, the school had smells of its own: soap, paint, chalk, sawdust, lumber, and disinfectant. Ashkii learned about the last item quickly. Almost as soon as he arrived, he was taken to have his long hair cut off and his head doused with disinfectant.
Soon he was facing the school superintendent, who tried unsuccessfully to say "Ashkii." "Ahkeah" was much easier to pronounce, and Ashkii soon learned to live with it. The sounds of the classroom were harsh, and Ashkii struggled to remember that his name was "Sam" at school. At first, it was the only word he recognized when the teacher spoke, but as the weeks passed he began to add other words to his English vocabulary.
Unlike some of his classmates, Sam liked school. He especially looked forward to the daily afternoon work sessions. He learned to milk cows in the school dairy, to build and repair furniture in the carpenter's shop, to work in the garden and in the kitchen. The students grew most of their own food, and a good harvest meant good food from the school kitchen.
Along with these jobs, Sam and his classmates also cleaned the buildings, sweeping, painting, and repairing as was needed.
Some of his friends that first year were talking of running away, homesick for their families and old way of life. But Sam would not take part in their plans. He respected his grandmother's foresight, and was determined to make her proud of him. That winter one of his friends ran away. When the boy was found frozen to death only a short distance away from the school, Sam was thankful he had refused to take part.
But as the warm days of spring approached, Sam found it harder and harder to keep his mind within the classroom, when green buds appeared on the trees outside and he thought of his quiet afternoons of herding sheep along the wash. The afternoon work period became more enjoyable, now that the boys were put to work preparing the garden for planting. Sam lived out the final days of school thinking happily that he would be home with his grandmother soon.
Summer and vacation time finally came. Sam went home and quickly settled into his happy life, a lively young boy. His grandmother wanted to butcher a sheep, so all the friends and relatives got together in the little camp for the occasion.
Sam especially loved sheep-butchering time because his grandmother always let him take the sheepskin to the trading post and trade it for his favorite treat, raisins. She tried to advise him, "Let this skin dry. Rub it clean, and then take it to the trader. He'll give you something for it."
But Sam never wanted to wait, and he caused many indulgent chuckles and jokes when he grabbed the wet, fresh sheepskin and darted off immediately to get his raisins from the trader.
Before he knew it, summer was over and his grandmother was telling him it was time for school to begin again.
She drove him back up to Fort Lewis in a wagon, and Sam's only complaint was that he would miss the piñon picking season again. But when he arrived at school, he realized how much he had missed some of his school friends. The garden was lush with the plants he had put in the ground the spring before, and the classroom, somehow, didn't seem as strange as it had the year before. His heart went out to the younger newcomers, who knew nothing yet. "Don't worry," he tried to reassure them. "You will learn soon, just keep very still and listen to the teacher," he advised, still remembering the sting of the long stick when he had been looking in a different direction early in his own first year.
Four years passed, and with each passing school term, Sam Ahkeah gained more confidence. He knows now that the sky did not end just beyond the rocks bounding his family's camp. He still was not certain where it did end, but he began to think it might stretch out endlessly, His world had grown, and he was happy in it.
But his health was another matter. His grandmother worried about him because he seemed to grow taller and thinner by the year. "Do you remember to eat at school?" she teased one summer vacation after his fourth year at school.
"Yes, I eat," he answered. Then he teased "Maybe the reason I am so thin is that I don't like the school food nearly as much as I like the food you cook." She smiled at her fast-growing grandson, but she still worried. He was growing taller, but not filling out the way a healthy young boy should. That fall, she told him of a new school, a school at, much closer to home.
"I think that would be good," she said. "You won't be so far away from home." So twelve-year-old Sam returned to school. He was happy to find out that his new school was close to the San Juan River banks. He had grown very fond of water and shady trees, and the San Juan rolled along beneath graceful tamarisks and cottonwoods.
In the fall,was an exciting place to be, for the great trading fair was started in 1909, Sam's second year at the San Juan school. All during October, he and his friends stole longing glances over the fence and down toward the riverbanks, watching the wagons arrive, laden with goods the traders brought from all over to exhibit.
Sam stilled his urge to break away from the school and to wander about the fairgrounds, where more Navajo families arrived every day.
The people bringing exhibits and coming to visit were ferried across the river, and the exhibition booths were set up beneath huge cottonwood trees along the shore. Sam wanted to investigate the beckoning smells and sounds, but the agency police were on watch for any mischief by Navajos. Sam did not want to bring shame on his grandmother, so he contented himself with glimpses from the school garden.
He was happily surprised one weekend when his grandmother arrived at the school to ask permission to take him out for the day. The superintendent spoke so sternly to her that Sam was afraid he would not be allowed to go. But the boy interpreted for his grandmother, and she promised to return him that very evening. Sam had a good record of school attendance and was one of the best students in school. He vowed to work even harder in school if he were allowed to go to the fair. The superintendent agreed and Sam was ecstatic, a whole beautiful autumn day of freedom!
All day, he wandered among the colorful exhibits of Navajo rugs, gleaming silver, fine baskets, and displays of beautiful vegetables. He built a small cooking fire for his grandmother, and soon was eating the hot fried bread that he missed so much when he was in school. Evening came long before he was ready, but he obeyed his grandmother when she motioned to him to prepare to go back to school.
For two more years Sam returned to the San Juan Boarding School, taller and thinner each autumn. During the fall of his fourth year a period of rains set in, rains so continuous thatbecame a muddy bog, unable to dry out. The San Juan River rose beyond its banks and threatened to wash away the fair exhibition booths under the trees altogether.
The rains continued day after day, and Sam became sick and feverish. He developed a terrible cough, which embarrassed him because he could not hold it back no matter how hard he tried. Finally a doctor came to see him, and took only a short time to recognize the disease Sam had, tuberculosis.
Sam's grandmother arrived before the fair was to begin and took the boy home. He was lucky, in a sense, for the San Juan flooded soon after that, and schoolchildren were caught in the terrible deluge of water that swept through the small community. Some were saved by men who threw rafts together and loaded the children on them. Others weren't so fortunate. The traders had barely saved thousands of dollars worth of silver jewelry, rugs, and other exhibition goods by moving the fair to higher ground in the last hours before the flood tore over the fairgrounds.
At home Sam's grandmother watched him closely. She didn't like the cough, which came in great spasms and nearly doubled her grandson over. It sounded painful, and it disturbed her that nothing seemed to cure it. She tried to feed him well, to fill out his gaunt frame, but it didn't seem to help. Sam was glad for the times when he was alone out with the sheep, for at least he didn't have to bear his grandmother's sharp eyes. When he felt feverish, he could dip a cloth down into the cool water and sponge his head off.
One day, the doctor at Teec Nos Pos requested Sam to come north and interpret for him. The doctor quickly recognized the signs of tuberculosis the disease that was killing many Navajos. He knew that Sam would become weaker and weaker with no chance of recovery, unless he left the dusty desert country soon.
"You'll have to go to clean air, to a higher altitude," the doctor told Sam, "if you want to live!" Sam Ahkeah felt sick so much of the time now that he was ready to do anything to get rid of the cough and fever. He was just past sixteen, and certainly did not want to die yet.
He left his grandmother's home, saying little at the parting. He rode his horse northeast with a feeling of adventure, of hope, of curiosity.
The thought that he would not have to go back to school pleased him, too. Nearly eight years of school was more than most of his friends had, and Sam was ready to use some of the lessons he had learned. He searched for work after riding up into the clean mountain air of southern Colorado. He found the Broadhead ranch near Alamosa, and was hired as a ranchhand there.
His job ranged from milking fifteen cows a day to breaking wild horses, and most of his work was out of doors. The days were busy from dawn until Sundown, and Sam's appetite grew bigger with each passing day. By hay-harvesting time, he felt stronger than he remembered feeling in years. When the long, golden days of cutting and stacking the hay were over, Sam returned to his job of breaking horses. This was his favorite work, for he loved to ride up into the tall timber country once a horse had grown accustomed to him. Of all the work he did, these rides gave him more pleasure than anything else. He often rode to the edge of the deep snow, to watch the wild animals that roamed the forest. The cough disappeared, and Sam could sit alone quietly for hours now, studying the habits of the forest creatures.
He realized as the snow began to melt in the early spring, that he was no longer the thin, ailing boy he'd been when he arrived at the ranch. It was time to move on, to find other work, and he said goodbye to the Broadhead family that had treated him like a son.
Sam Ahkeah rode higher into the mountains until he reached the tiny mining town of Silverton, Colorado. Finding no work there, he headed south again to Durango. There, the husky Young man signed on as Foreman of forty other Navajos to work in the Telluride mines. For four years he worked as a miner, saving all that he could of his small wages. He sent his money home to his father, telling him to spend it for farm machinery and livestock. Sam was laying out plans for a bright future, while laboring in the darkness of a Colorado mine.
The black tunnel he entered every morning doubled Sam's desire to work out of doors again, in his homeland, where the sun shone, where the clouds drifted, and where a man could see a hundred miles away. But he had to keep money coming in so he could buy what he needed to become a successful stockman. So he pulled on his miner's hat with the carbide lamp attached to it, and headed into the black narrow tunnel.
One morning, he approached the mine entrance, allowing himself the luxury of dreaming about the forest, where spring was sending the snow melting down in rivulets, and where the earth was waking up once again. He watched the silver streams of water cutting their way down from the peaks. Then he walked into the tunnel, set down his lunch bucket, and moved along testing the timbers that supported the mine ceiling. The mine operators had mentioned that the mineshaft might be in poor condition, now that the streams were running. Sam walked along a few paces deeper into the mine, carefully checking each roof timber. Suddenly a thundering crash surprised him from behind. A large piece of the ceiling had fallen and crushed his lunch bucket beneath it. Sam moved quickly back out of the mine, determined that this was his last moment as a miner, for it might have been himself crushed under the heavy timbers. He drew his pay, and left the mines as quickly as he could push his horse along the trail.
Nearly eight years of school and almost five years of hard work had taught the vigorous young man a great deal. He was ready to begin building his own world, and he searched for a place with ample water and plenty of trees. About fifteen miles north of the craggy Shiprock he found it, in a little valley called Cudei. The San Juan made its way through the green oasis, with tall cottonwood trees lining the banks. Sam set about building up a little ranch, felling timber for fenceposts, digging postholes, and buying sheep. He became a conscientious rancher on his small holdings, but his savings dwindled rapidly as he added more livestock and equipment to his ranch. It was the most satisfying work he had done so far, but Sam realized that he needed additional income in order to keep it up.
He learned of a job opening at Mesa Verde National Park, and thought it over. It would mean a steady income, but it would also mean that he would have to leave his ranch, his livestock, his dream, in the hands of someone else. He visited his sister, and she agreed to take care of his sheep for him. Sam packed enough food to last him through several weeks, and rode to Cortez, Colorado, to visit the Park Superintendent.
Sam's interview was brief, but enough for the Superintendent to see that Sam was a serious, hard-working young man. He put Sam in charge of a Navajo crew of Maintenance Workers at Mesa Verde, as a General Foreman. When he found that his work included plumbing repairs, painting, building, and a dozen other jobs, Sam smiled to himself. He had indeed learned a great deal in school, and the most useful of all was turning out to be the long hours of school maintenance work that Sam and his classmates did every afternoon.
As he worked at Mesa Verde, he impressed the Park Superintendent and the Superintendent's wife with his good cheer and great skill as Foreman of the Maintenance Crew. Before he knew what was happening, they found a young Navajo girl and arranged a marriage for Sam. Frances Descheenie was a pleasant and attractive girl, so Sam agreed to the arrangement. Now he had even more reason to plan for the future. He funneled most of his salary back to his ranch, for livestock purchases.
By the time he had worked at Mesa Verde fourteen years, he had built up his herd at home to forty-five goats and 550 sheep. The boy who had nearly died of tuberculosis had become a prosperous stockman by 1933, a respected man in thearea. And he had managed it while holding down a full-time job away from his ranch.
He had three children to think of too. Curtis, the oldest, was six. Eleanor was four, and Robert was three. As they grew old enough, Sam sent them to government boarding school, determined they should have the same opportunity for education as he once had. He kept them in school in spite of the disastrous Depression of the 1930's. The Great Depression that hit the rest of the United States so hard also took its toll among the Navajos, and hard-working Sam Ahkeah could do little to change things. With all the sacrifices he had to make, there was one habit he insisted on keeping. His children continued to receive packages of raisins as treats all the time they were away in school.
Then in 1934, the United States Government's worry about soil erosion in Navajo Country finally came out in the form of an order: Livestock Reduction.
Sam received a personal order to sell eighty percent of his lamb crop for 1934. The traders could hardly afford to buy his lambs that fall, so he sold them at a third of their normal value. No sooner had he complied with this order that then a judge and a policeman came to him with another order: to sell 44 percent of his ewes.
People all over the reservation felt the pressure of the first reduction, and many complied. But in 1935, they were ordered to reduce their herds even further. For Sam Ahkeah the Rancher, the order meant financial ruin. He had to sell eighty percent of his new lambs again, and eighty-four percent of his remaining ewes.
When it was all over, he had thirty-nine sheep left from his original 550. His family was soon eating the goats, for lack of means to buy other meat. Thousands of Navajo stockmen told a similar story.
The tribal council meetings rang with urgent debate as the 1930's progressed. The Navajo people who had rebuilt their lives out of ashes with two or three sheep each after Fort Sumner suddenly faced total poverty again, and as in 1863, they were completely helpless to change things. From 1931 to 1934, more than $12,000,000 was cut back from the money Congress set aside for the United States Indian Service.
John Collier, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, broke the news to the Navajo Councilmen himself. There were school facilities for less than half of the 12,000 Navajo children already, and now two boarding schools were going to be shut down. While the Councilmen were asking for more schools, the government was saying that money was too tight even to operate the schools already built.
Day schools were proposed as less expensive to operate, and Jacob C. Morgan of(Later Tribal Chairman, 1938-1942) rose to speak to the Council in 1934:
It is a general feeling of the Navajos today ... that when you speak about closing the boarding schools you are simply slapping the boys and girls in the face because that is where they got their start . . .
But our people atmet the other day and they approved of the day schools, those . . . that are in operation and those that are under construction. When they are completed, they say it will be enough . . . because we want to try those out. If any are not a success we will throw them out, and keep those that are a success. . . .
The time has come when we have to think about higher education for our boys and girls. . . . It may be all right to save some money, but saving money does not educate many Indians at all. . . .
But while the councilmen were thinking about improving education, the United States government was still thinking of stock reduction. This program, detested by the Navajo people, jolted the tribe further into economic misery, and the shock waves continued well into the 1940's. The Tribal Council agreed with the idea of conservation, but not at the expense of outright starvation of the families who would have to subsist on the new stock quotas.
In 1938 the Council members were still arguing their case. Commissioner Collier rose to speak:
I would like to ask a question and have Mr. Fryer (Superintendent of the Navajo Agency) answer it.
I have been told repeatedly that if . . . the non-productive stock were removed from the reservation, there would be no need of any more reduction. That is, if the wethers and old cattle and the surplus horses, useless horses, were removed, then there would be little or no need of any more reduction . . . for example, the surplus horses are consuming an amount of foliage equal to about 200,000 sheep. If this is accurate, then the problem of grazing control ought to be very simple.
Superintendent Fryer replied quickly with astonishing news:
. . . By making the reduction on the Navajo Reservation, we can perhaps double the Navajos' income - total income . . .
The council wore on, with questions and discussion from worried Navajos. There was no way out of the stock reduction program it seemed.
Now, a dollar a head was the going price for cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. If livestock reduction doubled the Navajo income, Sam was hard-pressed to see it.
Meanwhile, his children were growing up with a chance for elementary school education in thearea, but Sam knew that there would be little chance for them to go beyond. The world around him had changed drastically as his grandmother had foreseen years ago, and Sam Ahkeah wanted to give his own children the same chance his grandmother had given him, an education that would help them deal with the constantly changing scene in Navajoland.
When he was ordered to remove more of the little livestock he had left, he lost his temper, an unusual thing for the well-liked Sam Ahkeah. But he sold off his horses, and reduced his sheep herd again rather than go to jail. Selling his horses was like selling his life, for he often thought it was the wonderful horseback rides up into the Colorado mountains that had cured him of tuberculosis.
He began speaking out at local meetings, and he became known as a hard-working, thoughtful man, who wanted the best possible for his people. For eighteen years, he had worked at Mesa Verde, but now, as 1940 approached, he turned his attention to his own people. Before long, he became widely known as a spokesman for reasonable consideration of matters.
In June 1940, the Tribal Council was still pleading its case, and Frank Bradley from Navajo District Eight puts the Navajo case clearly:
My personal opinion as to the amount of sheep needed for the support of a family runs between 400 to 500. 1 am just referring to where a person absolutely depends on livestock alone . . . for support of a family of six to ten children . . . I think the number that has been allowed in the several districts on the permits is sufficient for one person.
Over in my district we are allowed 154 as the highest number anyone can own. I am thinking of myself as an example. I have 154 sheep, and supposing I had a job on the side, I am wondering if that would be sufficient to support my family. . . . I must pay my herder and it will not be long until my herder will have taken all my sheep away from me. I want you to consider this proposition thoroughly. You know for yourselves, and I know and our Superintendent knows from A to Z everything regarding our livestock.
Not only are we just being told to own so many, but are being told to improve the number of sheep we have so they will produce a higher price wool and heavier mutton; that we must improve the rams. . . . My personal knowledge about improving livestock is that where we are just given rams to improve our sheep, it is not sufficient. It cannot be done! I know through my own experience the result of having good rams. These rams when they have offspring four times, they don't stay up to standard. They go back below again.
We are not being told what will be substituted for the livestock we had. We are not told if we do this thing with our livestock we will have sufficient support. We are just being asked to reduce all the time!
. . . Inasmuch as there is no help to be expected from the government, we must depend on our livestock alone. . . . Why not, for the time being, inasmuch as no help is coming from the outside, why not delay the stock reduction? The reason I am saying this is this: an event took place last winter in Land Management District Four. We had always considered the Black Mountain people to have the fattest sheep and mutton, but one day I heard that many truckloads of relief supplies were being taken . . . to be exact, 10,000 pounds to be given in District Four. Compare that with what might happen when the stock reduction goes into effect and there is no relief money to be had from the government.
We cannot expect anything else but one thing, and I don't blame the old women and men for crying about it now. I am saying this with a pleading heart to our superiors . . . I want these land districts to have sufficient livestock to support a family.
Sam Ahkeah felt the same way, at least he hoped for more time for the Navajos to search for solutions to the overgrazing problem. Many Navajos had cooperatively reduced their livestock in 1934. Surely they would cooperate again, if the government allowed them time to find a satisfactory way out of the problem.
He was chosen to represent the Navajos who shared his views, and he traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1941, to speak these views to Washington officials. Many Navajos sent their hearts with him. Though he returned home with no promises for stopping the stock reduction, their hearts stayed with him. He was elected Vice Chairman of the Navajo Tribe in 1942, working with Chairman Chee Dodge.
The Stock Reduction Program left the Navajo people at rock bottom economically in the 1940's. Then as an added strain on the tribe, many young Navajo men volunteered to fight for their country in World War II.
Sam Ahkeah studied harder than he ever had in all his years of school. He had a great deal to learn about tribal government, about solutions to Navajo problems, about non-Navajo operators who were ready to drain the Navajo country of its mineral wealth. Though gasoline was in short supply during the war years, Sam Ahkeah used his gas ration to drive all over the reservation, comforting poverty-stricken families whose sturdiest sons were across the oceans in the United States Armed Services. He drove to Phoenix to bail out Navajo people who were jailed for refusing to comply with the livestock reduction orders, and when his gas ration ran out, he went on horseback among his people.
In 1945, an ironic tragedy struck his family. His oldest son, Curtis, an eighteen-year-old, had just come home from Albuquerque where he had spent three years recovering from tuberculosis. Though the boy was cautioned against strenuous activity, Curtis could not be held back from enjoying his favorite sport, basketball. Three months after he returned, he died of the disease that had nearly struck down his father.
Vice Chairman Ahkeah immersed himself even more deeply in his work. He learned his lessons well, and was elected Chairman of the Navajo Tribe in 1946. Then Chee Dodge, who was elected as Vice Chairman to Sam Ahkeah, died, another blow to the new Chairman. Another great sorrow came from knowing that his grandmother, who had given him a strong push into the new life of the Navajo Tribe, was no longer alive to see how well he had mastered his lessons.
But strength and determination, not sorrow, became Chairman Ahkeah's standard.
As he took office, the tribe was on the way to becoming prosperous again, through mineral land lease money. But a great many Navajos still lived as they had since Fort Sumner, herding a few sheep and tending small fields of corn, beans, and squash. Sam Ahkeah began to think of ways to help their children.
His first job was to improve the Tribal Council. It gained the stature of an important legislative body, and began meeting 100 days a year, instead of for only four days as in the past. With Sam Ahkeah, the office of Tribal Chairman began to take on national importance, and Chairman Ahkeah found that he had to be an ambassador for his people, as well as a guardian of their rights.
Non-Navajos, who pressed for quick decisions on mineral-rich Navajo land, found themselves cooling their heels while Chairman Ahkeah carefully considered the prospects of lease money for the tribe. His people desperately needed money, for even as 1950 approached, many Navajo families still suffered from the effects of the livestock reduction. When a curious Anglo visitor to the Chairman's office asked him if the stock situation had been remedied, and if the Navajo people now had plenty, Sam Ahkeah answered with a bitter question:
What is plenty? Is it plenty that a working man tastes meat twice a month, or that a child makes a meal of piñon nuts and sucks the hide of a dead sheep?
He was re-elected for a second term in 1950. By this time there were fifty-one oil wells on the reservation, bringing in $41,771 in royalties to the tribal treasury. (By 1959, nearly $9,000,000 was flowing in from oil production.) Chairman Ahkeah watched this source of income increase by leaps and bounds during his term. And he finally realized a dream, the Navajo Tribal Scholarship Fund.
This program would help to solve one of Navajoland's most pressing problems, employment at home for the young people. Many of the important programs in Navajoland were staffed by non-Navajos - education, health, law, and many others. There were not yet enough educated Navajos to operate these programs in their own homeland, and many young people were returning after elementary and high school to the same way of making a living that their grandparents had known.
"We must encourage our young people to go on in education," Chairman Ahkeah urged. "They are our future. We need thousands of young Lawyers, Doctors, Dentists, Accountants, Nurses, and Secretaries. We need young men and women who have majored in Business Administration. We don't want them to get an education and take jobs off the reservation. We need them here!"
"We older ones will do all we can, with the little education we've had, but it is up to the young ones of the tribe to step in, as we step out, and do a much better job than we've done," he insisted.
In the school year of 1953-54, Chairman Ahkeah's last year in office, thirty-five young Navajo people received Navajo scholarship grants for college. The following year, eighty-three students received grants. By 1959, the scholarship fund would rise to $10,000,000, a considerable increase from the original $30,000 fund in 1953.
During the early 1950s, his wife Frances had died. By this time, Sam Ahkeah had three more of his own children to think of too: Margaret, Eva and Roger, born in the mid-1940s. But as long as he was Chairman, he had little time to mourn or worry about his personal life. Thousands of Navajos needed his energy and talent, and he was determined to give them his best.
During Sam Ahkeah's time in office, the Navajo Tribe gained more and better health facilities, more school facilities, and housing for tribal employees. During the twelve years from 1942 through 1954, which Sam Ahkeah gave in service to his people, the tribe grew in many ways, like the ever widening ripples around a pebble tossed into the water. Chairman Ahkeah was fascinated by the waves of progress, but he knew it was time to go home.
When Paul Jones was elected Tribal Chairman in 1954, Sam Ahkeah was ready to go home. He said goodbye to his many friends at the Tribal capital,.
He returned to his home near, thoughtfully surveying the changes. The way from to was still a bumpy dirt road, but at the end of it the neon signs of progress were beginning to cluster. He watched a new boarding school go up in in 1957, and wondered, as filling stations and stores grew up around it, what his grandmother would think. She would hardly recognize the Shiprock Fair, for wagons, horses, pickup trucks, and cars carried thousands of visitors to the giant attraction each fall.
Sam Ahkeah remarried and he and his wife Doris delighted in seeing their world through the eyes of a new little daughter, Edith, born in 1960. Laura, an adopted daughter, was also warmly welcomed into the family. The little valley where Sam had his first ranch became a favorite family gathering place, where Edith and Sam's other children grew to love the quiet San Juan, the old cottonwoods, and Navajo life as it had been in Sam's early days.
Back in his valley, Sam Ahkeah had a lot to remember. He laughed, thinking of the first time he'd seen an automobile. The recollection of his friend hiding under a pile of sheepskins to avoid going to school brought more smiles to his face. He thought with satisfaction of the thousands of Navajo children who now went to school, and of the hundreds who attended college. He spent hours with his own beloved children and grandchildren telling them stories of his youth, and reminding them of how fortunate they were to have so many advantages. These young people would be the ones to sail bigger rocks into the river, he thought proudly, and the waves would circle out farther than he could imagine now.
His rich life ended in December, 1967, but Sam Ahkeah's contribution to the Navajo people is a lasting monument, as enduring as(Tsé Bit'Ai - Rock with Wings) which towers south of his home.
Will Rogers Jr. wrote a tribute to the late Chairman, revealing the kind of admiration many people felt for this great man:
The death of Sam Ahkeah brought a great sadness to me. He was Chairman of the Navajo Tribe when I was a member of Congress. It was a time when the Navajo people were not doing so well, but I remember his confidence in their future, his dignity, his bearing, and his leadership. The Navajo Tribe has been very fortunate in the caliber of its leadership. It has lost one of the great in Sam Ahkeah.
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