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Dune and Gloom
The wind blows hard on the Navajo Nation, and sometimes it blows so hard that it moves sand dunes across the landscape. Those dunes, the result of drought, increasing temperatures, invasive tumbleweeds and human impact, are wreaking havoc on the Navajo people, swallowing their homes and threatening their way of life.

By Kathy Ritchie

portfolio picture
A sand dune threatens Lester and Louise Williams' home near Tuba City. Despite the danger posed by the encroaching dune, the Williamses say they have no plans to leave their house
© John Burcham

On April 16, 2013, the Navajo Nation was slammed by a roaring windstorm. With gusts of up to 60 mph and sustained winds around 20 mph, Mother Nature was relentless that day. Road signs were thrashed and battered. Piles of sand accumulated on roadways. A stretch of Interstate 40 was closed, resulting in a 12-mile backup.

The wind blew so much loose sand into the atmosphere that it could be seen from space — a NASA satellite captured an image of a massive dust plume that covered a large swath of the landscape. The accompanying report from the U.S. Geological Survey read: “Abnormally dry or drought conditions prevailed throughout [most of] Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, with an area of extreme drought stretching across the Arizona-New Mexico border. Many of the dust plumes visible in these images arose in or near that area of extreme drought.”

Howling windstorms have plagued the Navajo Nation for decades. So has the sand. Piles and piles of reddish-brown sand cover nearly one-third of the 27,000-acre land area, which spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“It’s becoming a real issue on the Navajo Nation,” says Jason John, a manager in the Water Management Branch of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources.

John’s group focuses primarily on water monitoring. But when it comes to climate, everything is connected. Water, or the lack thereof, means sand dunes are just as much his problem as they are Leo Watchman’s. Watchman, the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture’s director, describes the sand-dune issue as a “slow disaster” and says the only explanation for the growing sand-dune problem is the climate.

Arizona has been in the grip of a severe drought since the mid-1990s. Although its severity varies across the state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2012
Western Region Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook report shows that much of the Navajo Nation is under severe-to-extreme drought conditions.

In April, the Arizona Drought Monitoring Technical Committee issued its short-term-drought status report. “The dry spring we have experienced so far has caused drought in most areas of the state to worsen,” it read. “There is no longer any portion of the state without drought.”

Drought, coupled with rising temperatures — the average annual temperature could rise as much as 5 to 9 degrees, depending on emission levels, by 2099, according to a report published in the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States — and human impact, has contributed to increased wind events and the propagation of invasive plant species. And the physical manifestation of our changing world can be seen in the formation of sand dunes, sand-dune movement and the reactivation of once-stable dune fields.

Unfortunately for the 15,000 to 20,000 Navajos who live among the dunes, this is a serious problem. They’re on the front line of a changing world.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency article about climate change and its impact on society: “Native Americans are particularly vulnerable to projected changes in climate for a number of reasons. Their communities are closely tied to specific reservation boundaries that restrict their ability to relocate to avoid climate change impacts.

“Their opportunity to change their livelihoods may be limited, and they may have difficulty coping with impacts, including those on water resources, agriculture and ecosystems. For example, tribes located in the Southwest are projected to experience changes in water quality and water availability on their lands.”

In and around Navajo communities such as Tuba City, Leupp, Chinle, Kayenta, Tolani Lake, Many Farms and Teesto, the dune fields shift in the wind and can literally move across the landscape. Data from the USGS shows that dunes move approximately 115 feet per year. However, in a turbulent windstorm, they can move as much as 3 feet in a single day.

That’s a lot of movement, especially if your house sits next to one of the dunes.


One day after the April 16 windstorm, I drive north to Tuba City with Leanna Begay, a wildlife technician from the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife. We’re joined by one of her colleagues and photographer John Burcham. It’s a cold afternoon, and the wind is blowing when we pull up to a small yellow house just outside of town. A pair of dogs stand guard nearby. Begay’s uncle and my translator, Huskie Tohannie, greets me outside with a smile and a handshake. I follow him up the sand-covered steps that lead to the front door.

Lester Williams — a.k.a. “Chee Willie” — and his wife, Louise, live just a few feet from a massive sand dune. The gigantic pile looks to be around 20 feet high. This is the Williamses’ fifth house, and they share it with their children and grandchildren. The very same dune that looms right outside swallowed their four previous homes, along with their sheep corrals.
Inside the tiny home, family photos hang from the wall, along with a calendar from Hank’s Trading Post and a framed poster of the Canadian Rockies. In the middle of the room, a chipped, black metal table is covered with crackers, spoons, sugar and bowls. It rests atop a sandy brown rug. The cast-iron stove, which occupies a large chunk of real estate in the living room, keeps the place surprisingly warm.

Chee Willie sits at the foot of a queen-size bed. His wife sits nearby, holding her grandson’s hand. Chee Willie doesn’t speak English, but he’s incredibly animated when he speaks Navajo. Through a translator, he talks about the difficulties of living in this kind of environment, where the wind whips the sand so furiously that the family can’t leave the house. He says he once tried to remove the sand himself, but it came back. The sand always comes back.

When I ask Chee Willie about getting help from the chapter house, the Navajo Nation’s local governing branch, he says it can’t help. It doesn’t have the money.

Erny Zah, the director of communications for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, says that all 110 chapters are allocated money each year, and a percentage of that money goes into an emergency fund. The catch, he says, is that it’s up to each chapter to decide how to use those funds.

For those who live outside the Navajo Nation, it’s easy to forget that the Navajo people inhabit a very different reality. A harsh reality. According to a 2011 report by the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, the unemployment rate is 47 percent. Thirty-seven percent of the people live below the poverty line. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of Navajo families still haul their water, traveling 10 miles or more to reach a watering station where they can fill their barrels.

“What little money these families have, a lot of it goes into the basic necessity of trying to get water,” John says.

Relocating isn’t always an option for families. In addition to the costs associated with moving, obtaining a home-site lease can take years. And then there’s the spiritual tie to the land.

“Once we establish a home, that’s where we are going to be — come hell or high water,” Zah says. “Home is a sacred place in Navajo culture.”

As Chee Willie and his family share their stories about the sand and the toll it’s taken, I begin to wonder about their health.

During the Dust Bowl, when drought and record-breaking temperatures contributed to intense dust storms, a 1935 health study found that Kansas experienced “its most severe measles epidemic” and that there was a “very marked increase in the other complications of the acute upper respiratory infections, especially sinusitis, laryngitis, pharyngitis and bronchitis.”

My translator asks Louise, Chee Willie’s wife, whether the blowing sand has impacted her health.

“She said when she walks out there, the sand makes breathing really hard,” the translator replies.

Chee Willie’s grandson, Tyrone Stanley, 23, worries a lot about the sand. He’s afraid that it might cave in on their house. Yet, he chooses to stay.

“For my grandpa and grandma, it’s really difficult for them to move because they’re connected to this place,” he says with concern. “For me, I would move, but it’s the safety of my grandparents that worries me right now.”

Stanley talks about how their world is changing — how right now, in mid-April, it should be much warmer than it is, and that the wind … the wind has been howling for more than a week. Just recently, one of their sheep lost its lamb. It’s a devastating loss for a family already on the brink, a family that relies on its livestock to make a living.

So much is going through my mind as I sit inside Chee Willie’s home, listening to the family share its stories about the sand. I can’t imagine what their daily life is like, trying to eke out a living, to fight the wind and the sand. Then, Chee Willie’s daughter, Zella Williams, asks me a simple question:

“If you had a parent living in this condition, how would you feel, and how would you help?”

“I would stay and help,” I say. “What else are you going to do?”


“One might ponder with sadness the Navajo and his problem. The sand dunes of their great land cannot be made more fertile. The slick rock of their deep and mysterious canyons cannot be made more productive. The elements cannot be made more gentle.” — Raymond Carlson, Editor, Arizona Highways, 1938-74


Besides threatening homes, sand dunes pose another serious problem. They block roads. As we’re packing up and preparing to leave Chee Willie’s house, Tohannie tells me that yesterday’s windstorm shifted a nearby dune, causing it to cover part of a road used by the handful of families in the area, including Tohannie’s parents.

“I got stuck with my son,” he says. “We had to shovel our way out.”

This wasn’t the first time a road in the area was covered by sand. A month earlier, Begay and I drove over a huge sand dune that was covering what used to be an access road. We got out of our four-wheel-drive and surveyed the landscape. It was the first time I’d seen a dune of that magnitude, and it was a powerful sight. It looked like a magnificent sculpture shaped from mostly eroded Navajo and Entrada sandstone. But then I remembered what it could do — how it could devastate.

Many of the dunes in the area are unexpectedly tall, some measuring anywhere from 30 feet to 40 feet high. Begay tells me that near Preston Mountain, some 45 minutes north of where I’m standing, the dune field is even higher, possibly 60 feet to 80 feet in places.

Very little native vegetation drapes the surrounding dunes — a crucial element in ensuring that dunes remain stable. Instead, tumbleweed, an invasive plant, dominates the area. As Begay looks out, she is overcome with worry for her grandparents.

“What are they going to do this summer?” she wonders. “This is the main road they take. … Right now, it’s easy to travel on, but come this summer, it’s going to be bad. It’s going to be really soft.”

Many of the roads on the Navajo Nation aren’t paved. And in areas where sand dunes are a threat, summer is a challenging time of year. Moisture evaporates, and the sand becomes dry. Families who live in those areas must know how to navigate through the soft, loose sand, or they risk getting stuck, sometimes miles from help in hot weather.

“The reality is, they find a way around it,” John says. “They will find another way, even if it means making a new access [road] where it’s not cleared, archaeologically or otherwise. They just make their own road.”

Kee Tohannie, Begay’s grandfather and Huskie Tohannie’s father, always carries a shovel, chains and sometimes a hatchet in case he or one of his neighbors is marooned in the sand. “I’ve been stuck in the sand many times — it’s a lot of digging,” he says. “You just have to know how to drive in sand. Like you learn to drive in snow.”

Kee Tohannie adds that he’s adapted to life with the sand dunes, and even though his hogan — the traditional home of the Navajo people — isn’t in any imminent danger of being swallowed by one, his attitude is really no different than Chee Willie’s.

“You have to live with it. ... You cannot change Mother Nature,” he says. “[She’s] going to do what [she’s] going to do.”


“Their environment, the sparse land and the harsh elements have given them courage, pride and have made them self-sufficient. They have conquered their own world; so all the world is theirs.” — Raymond Carlson, Editor, Arizona Highways, 1938-74


The Navajo Nation is rapidly changing, and the only way to mitigate that change is for its members to adapt. It’s a skill set that’s ingrained in the Navajos, and the proof is in their numbers. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, roughly 169,000 of the more than 332,000 tribal members live on the Navajo Nation. That’s in spite of the enduring struggles that could have decimated the tribe, from the Long Walk of 1864 and the Stock Reduction Program of the 1930s to the disastrous effects of the 1966 Bennett Freeze. The Navajos have endured.

Margaret Hiza Redsteer is a research scientist with the USGS. For 14 years, she has studied the effects of climate change on sand dunes, and she talks a lot about the importance of adaptation.
“The way people have survived is by confronting issues that they know are affecting them and by being a cohesive group that works together to overcome adversity,” she says. “That’s the foundation for being an adaptable society.”

But in modern society, where layers of red tape and bureaucracy can impede even the best intentions, Hiza Redsteer worries that the sand-dune problem might be swept under the rug by an already-overwhelmed tribal government. Environmental issues, she says, tend to take a back seat to other very serious issues, such as water, education and health care.

“I’ve had people come and tell me, ‘Don’t give us another problem; we don’t need any more problems,’ ” she says. “And I couldn’t agree with them more.”

That’s why Hiza Redsteer tries to focus on solutions, rather than remind the tribal government what it already knows. She’s partnered with Northern Arizona University’s Tribal Environmental Education Outreach Program to stabilize dunes by protecting or re-establishing native vegetation, providing stable surfaces for those plants to grow in and eliminating invasive plant species, such as the tumbleweed. Still, it’s an uphill battle.

When it rains — even for a brief period — tumbleweed explodes. Native plants tend to require multiple wet seasons before they can reproduce again, but the tumbleweed, according to Hiza Redsteer, does not. Because the tumbleweed germinates earlier than native plants and grasses, and pillages available moisture and nutrients, other plants don’t have a chance to grow. And because the tumbleweed propagates by detaching itself from its root system, it fails to hold down loose sand, increasing the likelihood of sand-dune mobility.

“Tumbleweed is a major blow to rangeland conditions,” Hiza Redsteer says. “It is amazing how huge the areas are that are affected by tumbleweed.”

I think back to my meeting with Kee Tohannie. When I asked him about the effects of tumbleweed on the land, he told me: “When you see tumbleweed, you don’t see grass; you don’t see much of anything.”

Later, he said that he spent that morning burning dry tumbleweed — “to make room for more tumbleweed.”


Although the story of the sand dunes and the people who live among them might sound hopeless, it isn’t. “Will the Navajo, one day, become climate refugees?” I asked nearly everyone I spoke to.
The answer was repeatedly “No.”
“But no matter what the years and decades will bring, theirs will be a Navajo world and in it there will be the Navajo, proud, aristocratic and unafraid,” wrote former Arizona Highways Editor Raymond Carlson, capturing, I think, the Navajo way.

And now there’s a new generation — Navajo youth — that’s learning to embrace and care for its world. Thanks to many determined teachers across the Navajo Nation, students are learning to ask questions, to plan and to approach real-world problems and devise solutions to life’s challenges.

Some of those students are working with Hiza Redsteer and NAU’s Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals to stabilize sand dunes that are threatening homes and roads on parts of the Navajo Nation. Others are learning about the Navajo way of life by interviewing elders and documenting the sessions on video.

“The [Navajo] president says these children are our most precious resources,” Zah says. “They hold our dreams and hopes, and they have the power to realize our dreams and hopes for them. They are the living example of our elders’ prayers.”

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