Friday, October 29, 2010

Non-Native Sheepherder, A Direct Action to Defend Human Rights at Big Mountain

An Interview with a Sheepherder: Volunteered Stay from December 2009 to April 2010 at Big Mountain
By Jen-E Johnson, September 2010, A Sheepherder's Almanac-Zine (ASAZ)

ASAZ: Where do you stay and with whom?

SheepHerder: I go to the Hopi Partioned Land (HPL) part of the Hopi reservation in the northeast corner of Arizona (see map). I stay with a Dineh (Navajo) grandmother who is resisting Public Law 95-351 a relocation law that was passed in 1974 by the US government. This law was the last to finalize the redrawing of reservation lines between the Hopi and Dineh and it just so happened that many Dineh ended up on the wrong side of the fence. The law was passed due to a so-called land dispute between the tribes associated with mineral rights and leasing of tribal lands to energy corporations. I encourage those who would like to know more about the history of Black Mesa to read articles on the Black Mesa Indigenous Support (BMIS) website and to view the documentary “Broken Rainbow.”

ASAZ: What is it that initially drew you there?

SheepHerder: I heard about it at Antioch College my first year when some friends were doing a speaking tour from the east coast to Black Mesa for the Fall Caravan in 2006. I ended up driving them to their next destinations because their bus broke down and by the time I’d heard the third presentation my interest was peaked. My friend was organizing a caravan for the winter of 2007 and I was a part of that. I think my original interest was purely curiosity and concern in terms of what my friends had shared with me and wanting to experience it myself. When I got there it showed me a lot of things I didn’t know to expect in terms of a work ethic and the extreme state of nature that was not mediated in any way, there’s not even power lines in a lot of places. It was very different from what I’d ever experienced and I was welcoming that at the time.

ASAZ: You stayed a week the first and second times you went, stayed for five months this past winter, and you’re planning your fourth time for another winter. What draws you to go back now?

SheepHerder: I go because of health, work, learning, solidarity, and community.

Health; because I’m a clearer person with less distractions from technology, like cars, power lines, and white noises (pun not necessarily intended).

Work; because it’s healing for me to use my body in a very active way and it’s healing a lot of the biases and prejudices that I was taught to believe about myself as woman in this culture. Such as I can’t fix things, move heavy things, or take responsibility for things other than the household. I am given those responsibilities and my help in this way is greatly appreciated.

Learning; because it teaches me skills like how to chop wood, how to have my own animals, and how to haul water. Everything I do while out there is a learning experience for me. I want to learn how to survive post-industrial collapse because fossil fuel dependency in our culture is unsustainable and fossil fuels will either run out or the Earth will collapse because of all of the pollution. I want to start learning these ways as soon as possible before it’s too late!

I am not stealing their ways because I am assisting them. I am living and fighting with them thus learning from them rather than asking really aggressive and obtrusive questions as a way of obtaining knowledge. That is one thing that is very different about their culture and ours is we ask a lot of questions. On Black Mesa it’s different in that one doesn’t ask questions rather one observes over time to learn something. Especially if one doesn’t know Dineh bi'zaad' [Navajo language] then how can one ask a question?

There’s a phrase that I’ve heard some people from BMIS say that going to Black Mesa is solidarity work not charity work. The difference is giving somebody a check and staying for a day, versus staying with them day to day and feeling the pain that they feel in terms of government harassment, economic strangulation, and cultural genocide.

As far as humans there’s my partner and grandma, the people who bring us food and check on us, as well as BMIS. There is also a community created by sitting with the sheep and making friends with the juniper trees, sand, rocks, the little bit of water that is there, cows, coyotes, jack rabbits, and lizards. It’s getting to know all of these things that make it a community.

What is one day in your life while on Black Mesa?

We wake up at the crack of dawn or with the sun which in the winter is around 7 AM. We stand up from the ground which we sleep on, roll our bed up, get dressed, start the fire, make coffee or tea, start making breakfast, turn the radio on, get wood from the pile if needed, and feed the dogs. We eat breakfast at about 8 and take out the sheep at 9. One of us would go with the sheep until about 4 PM, come back to the hogan, and the other person who stayed there would have food made. The sheepherder would relax if possible because it’s a long day for them. We’d eat dinner at about 5 or 6 in the winter, keep the fire going, and get ready for bed at about 8 PM.

The person who would “stay home” would do all the chores. I’d either get wood by chopping down trees/limbs or go with the truck and chainsaw, then split or chop the wood, and fill the box in our hogan. I also filled up the five gallon water bucket by siphoning with a hose out of a 55 gallon barrel. In the winter we were melting snow for dish water so I’d scoop up some snow in a pot and put it on the stove to melt and then start some food for later. I would shovel snow, repair the hogan with mud, shovel snow out of the sheep corral or fix the sheep corral. Then I’d go to grandma’s which is a few minute walk up the hill and I’d do all these same chores for her. Chop her wood, organize her wood pile, start a fire, bring wood inside, fill up the water, maybe cook for her, although she’s pretty picky about how she likes to cook. I would give her massages sometimes and keep her company by listening although that was harder for me because I don’t know Dineh bi'zaad'.

ASAZ: Where did you stay?

SheepHerder: We stayed in the sheepherder’s hogan, an eight sided octagon shaped dwelling with big juniper posts about the width of your body. There are eight posts vertically and posts that go along the top that overlap each other and between that is mud and juniper tree bark which helps it stick together and is an insulator. It’s very small and cozy, about the size of a large bathroom, and it has a low ceiling so you can hit your head on the posts if you’re not careful.

ASAZ: Did you keep warm in the hogan with it being so cold outside?

SheepHerder: This past winter it was very windy and cold with lots of snow and rain. It can get down to 0 degrees or colder at night and during the day it can be about 20- 30 degrees.

The heat that is created in the hogan with the wood stove is very different from the heat that comes from a furnace. The first time I went out there I realized how comforting it was because I worked really hard and the sound of the wood cracking in the stove lulled me to sleep. I was like, “What more could I ask for right now?”

ASAZ: How do you bathe yourself?

SheepHerder: I bathed very infrequently. I already limit myself to how many showers I take when I’m not on Black Mesa because I understand how precious water is. It’s not possible for me to go to Black Mesa and live the way I once did because the awareness and consciousness that I now have is hard to be careless with. It is quite an ordeal to bathe because we have to retrieve water from grandma’s where on her modern house she has a roof with gutters that drain into rain barrels that we scoop out and carry down to the hogan in plastic containers. I think I would rationalize the need to bathe in terms of how dirty I knew I would soon get.

ASAZ: Do you think you are making a difference in grandma’s life?

SheepHerder: I do feel like I’m helping. Many resistors are elders in their 80s or 90s whose families are in the cities far away and can’t come visit that often therefore they have all the responsibilities that a whole family would usually take care of. Some elders will get sick in the winter or slip on ice and have to go to the hospital so it’s very helpful to have young, able bodied people to move things and help them walk or shovel snow. Grandma can do all these things but it’s probably not good for her because she’s getting weak. Being an on land supporter and living with a family has a very direct effect in terms of keeping them company and by assisting with all the daily chores that are very strenuous and overwhelming. She shows appreciation by saying thank you to me in Dineh bi'zaad', "Aahxe'he'!" I knew she was very grateful, she didn’t have to speak it although it was mostly communicated with body language and eye contact.

ASAZ: Do you think the farm work you do is harder than the work on Black Mesa?

SheepHerder: I think the farm work may have been harder for me but it was the difference in what I was bringing to the two experiences. I didn’t need to do my hobbies on Black Mesa because I wanted to be fully immersed in the experience, but on the farm it was different because the environment offered me more personal space, the convenience of electricity, and socializing opportunities.Some of the tiredness on the farm came from social stimulation, even though I really liked that, it’s nice to have a break to enjoy nature. I think this is harder in our civilized culture which says, “I’m bored, I need music, I need stimulation, or conversation.” I find myself wanting these things and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that but there’s also nothing wrong with experimenting without it. That’s what Black Mesa is for an outsider, one big experiment without modern forms of stimulation. I did get a little numb and quiet from lack of these things, not necessarily in a negative way. There simply is a different work ethic on Black Mesa than most other places I have ever been. Since the work I am doing on Black Mesa is rooted in traditional and ancient wisdom I get the sense that wholeness is preserved over all else. The emphasis on structuring one’s day to provide time for rest and regeneration is refreshing. I think we need to work harder on this in our modern culture and it’s beliefs and cultural practices that follow us everywhere, even to the country on an organic farm.On Black Mesa I was learning, absorbing enough energy, and was enriched by the sky and the trees, the sheep, grandma, and the peace and quiet of the experience. All of these things kept my energy levels up and my spirit going. I would mostly get emotionally frustrated on Black Mesa; I’d cry and yell at the sheep sometimes.
ASAZ: Why did you do that?

SheepHerder: Because there are many different ways of herding the sheep and I don’t think any grandmother or family wants to tell you how to do it because they probably feel it’s something you have to learn on your own. There’s a lot of paranoia around supporters coming in and losing the sheep, it’s the story the family tells, “Some lazy sheepherder came in and lost the sheep and they were going to get eaten by coyotes!” They tell you that because they don’t want you to do that and it worked because I had a lot of fear of being with the sheep at first. There’s a lot of ways that control plays out when herding sheep, but all you are really doing is staying with them to make sure they don’t get eaten by a predator, stuck somewhere, or separated. They often don’t separate except upon very dire situations such as this past winter when they weren’t doing well with two feet of snow. They couldn’t walk and everything was covered in snow so there wasn’t much to eat and they were wandering all around. It was really stressful to manage all on my own in a place where only two other people were that could help me. There’s a lot of personal responsibility for the sheep and what they symbolize in terms of food and as spiritual beings.

ASAZ: Your main source of interaction with humans was grandma and your partner so what did that do to your relationship?

SheepHerder: We didn’t have much energy to be together in a way that wasn’t just as friends. I think it’s good for us independently of each other to be on Black Mesa together. I feel like I grew so much from my time there last winter in terms of confidence in my ability to do things on my own and in connecting really strongly with the land, the elements and myself. The reason I wanted to be with him is I knew it would be too much for me to handle on my own. He was there the year prior by himself and I asked him how he did it all on his own and he said he didn’t know and that it was so much better having another person to help. We’re going together this year again because we thought it worked out really well, that grandma really appreciated it, and because I think there are things that we can do better this time.

ASAZ: What kind of qualities and behaviors does someone have to have if they are considering going to Black Mesa because it’s not a quick return if they change their mind?

SheepHerder: A lot of supporters who come to Black Mesa overestimate themselves in terms of how long they want to stay. I think its fine to go for a week to begin with, that’s what I did two years in a row and then decided I wanted to stay longer. I didn’t want to get involved in something that I was unsure about, especially knowing that the people on Black Mesa want strong commitments from supporters. It is good to feel the waters out and see if you want to stay longer rather than just saying, “I’m ready!”

ASAZ: How long do most supporters stay?

SheepHerder: People come and go, some staying a couple months others come for a month, a week here and there, or three days and some people do it consistently if they live nearby enough. A lot of the people who come to the caravan are from across the country, like me from the Midwest, and it would make sense to stay for a longer period of time rather than using all the gas and money to get out there every November. The major problem with this struggle is that people can’t deviate from their lives, it’s very hard for them to commit to staying a month or longer, and that’s why a lot of people are attracted to the caravan.

ASAZ: Do they get any help from the government when they move into the city?

SheepHerder: Yes, they get meager relocation benefits but also have to pay bills that come with home ownership which many did not have to deal with before relocating. I hear stories about poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, depression, and poor health once they have relocated. I think a lot of these things were apparent right after the relocation law was passed and probably a lot of those elders are gone by now. It’s now the second generation of relocates who didn’t get to know their grandparents, don’t have their sacred land base anymore, and may not even know their language.

ASAZ: For the people who live there now have they ever bought that land and have they always lived there?

SheepHerder: Why would they buy it, they are indigenous! It goes back generations to generations! Like white people are from England or Scotland, that’s our ancestry, that’s where our ancestors lived for 20 generations. That’s what their relationship is to that land. White people in this modern day and age have a very hard time comprehending the fact that indigenous people could have rights to their own land before any kind of official papers or money was involved and I find this extremely problematic. It means that we don’t realize whose land we are on and what the consequences of that are on the native people who were here before us! We all need to educate ourselves on our local and global indigenous history that we never learned in history class at school.

ASAZ: What would you do for entertainment?

SheepHerder: We didn’t have entertainment, we just went to bed. Is there anything wrong with that? Why would we need entertainment, to digress from the hard day’s work? Maybe in this culture we work a hard day and then come home, sit on the couch, and watch the TV to zone out. So did we zone out? Neither the work nor the person is separated from the life and this is healing coming from a culture where the only work we are taught to value is the kind we get paid for and often times could care less about. Herding sheep is very entertaining because they’re funny, cute, and each have their own personalities just like people and become your friends and teachers very quickly. I want to go back to see more baby goats because they are so adorable! They make the cutest bah-ing noise, are so soft, have so much energy, and have a really intimate relationship with their mothers. Herding sheep is fun because you can look at the clouds or draw in the sand while you sit on a hill looking at the San Francisco Peaks in the background.
But for the most part our entertainment was the radio. I can honestly say one of the greatest things about being on Black Mesa was it forced me to listen to the news every day and I grew so much more educated about the world and how ridiculous it all is! We made a lot of jokes about things people said on the radio, like when the Senate was trying to pass the Universal Health Care Bill last winter, they had some guy on and he said, “Trying to pass this bill is like trying to get a bowling ball through a straw!” It made me wonder why so many newscasters use these stupid analogies. It must be what the public understands.

We also made fun of commercials and the songs we heard over and over again because many of the radio stations are so tight on funds that they play the same soundtrack every week. We listened to Prairie Home Companion on Saturdays which gave us a lot of good laughs. We also made a lot of jokes about things that we thought we were really funny, like sweat pants. We’d give each other massages or soak our feet sometimes. We’d read, write, or play cards but usually at this time of night I was too tired to do these things. We had a kerosene lamp, imagine trying to read by one when you are already really tired, you’re going to fall asleep! And we’d play Uno by the lamp but we couldn’t tell which color was which in the dim light!

ASAZ: The Thanksgiving Fall Caravan of Support is November 20-27th, 2010 how do you get people to come on board?

SheepHerder: I usually reach out to whatever community I am living in at the time. The ideal communities to organize in are those that are open to hearing about what is happening on Black Mesa and in which there are people who don’t have too many commitments in their lives if they wanted to come. What I really want to do is become rooted in a community so I don’t have to keep moving around and reaching out to people who barely know me. Another thing I want to do is reach out to certain communities of people like farmers, outdoor types (travelers, bikers), those studying primitive living skills, and activists who care about human rights issues, environmental justice, and native rights.

ASAZ: How much money does it cost one do this for a week or if it’s an extended stay?

SheepHerder: If you are fortunate enough to be involved with a group of people who want to go you can do fundraising, like hold benefit concerts, have a raffle, ask for money at your local co-op/small business/ grocery store, or apply for a grant at a local college or university. It takes money for the travel expenses, food and supplies while you are there. I do think that one could go there with very little money and be fine; it’s just a matter of personal preference. I find it important for me to have the right kinds of food to eat while I am expending so much of my energy every day. Money is important in providing for yourself so that you are prepared for your stay. I don’t think many people that go to Black Mesa are prepared even if they read the twenty page Cultural Sensitivity and Preparedness Guide on the BMIS website, because the life on Black Mesa is so drastically different from the life many of us are accustomed to these days.

A lot of people have been telling me lately that it is a very privileged thing to be able to go to Black Mesa because not everyone can afford to leave their job/kids/school/etc. Being of assistance on Black Mesa takes a certain level of personal sacrifice and relinquishing of privilege and material comforts that I wish more Americans would be willing to consider. A certain level of sacrifice is a necessity for something to be actually done in any of the struggles to protect Mother Earth. Our culture needs to start looking at what deep lifestyle changes we can do to help situations in which people are being sacrificed for profit and energy extraction. One example is decreasing your energy dependency which many people don’t know how to do beyond little tips given in green guidebooks. There needs to be a more radical shift, by first asking the question why do we need electricity to begin with?

I think a huge solution to these problems is if we all had our own gardens or a garden for each community. If you have a garden then you’re not going to the grocery store where the food comes from Mexican workers in Florida who were paid only .20 cents an hour to pick tomatoes. Nor are you dependent on GMO corn, large scale industrial farming, and on all this food that is shipped an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate! Shipping is dependent upon gasoline, which is a fossil fuel, as is coal which is a major reason why all this is happening on Black Mesa.

It’s true that there is a privilege to be able to go to Black Mesa but it’s also not a joy ride! It’s very clear to me that I’m there to work! I don’t goof around for five months, I become very serious. Some people may think of Black Mesa as a vacation, well it’s not!

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Posted by Sheep Dog Nation Media, 2010