Recession on the Navajo Reservation

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Just after formulating the lofty generalization of an American propensity for wandering in search of opportunity, untethered to any particular geography, I met someone who reminded me that the nation's cultural mosaic represents a vibrantly intricate pattern not easily defined with such broad absolutes. Alvin Yazzi's ancestors lived on what we now call American soil long before the colonists, pilgrims or European explorers journeyed to the "new" world. Laid off two months ago, Alvin does not entertain thoughts of moving away from the Navajo Nation, though unemployment on the reservation surpasses 40  percent.

"I'd just rather live off the land here, than go somewhere else to look for a job," Alvin tells me, as we're talking under the shade of his canopied craft stand--one of a small cluster set up next to the dinosaur tracks off US-160 near Tuba City, Arizona.

"Living off the land" in the context of Alvin's life means more than simply inhabiting shelter constructed with naturally available materials and subsisting on nourishment sprung from cultivated soil or carved from raised or hunted animals, though the members of his Many Goats Clan could endure a total national economic depression by doing just that.

Alvin points to the verdant oasis nestled against a rusty backdrop of mesa in the distance. Moenave. The place called home by his mother, grandparents, great-grandparents, and more distant generations he can't enumerate.

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Natural spring water extracted from deep underground makes the red, pink, blue, gray and orange of the painted desert bloom into a pocket of lush green enveloping the couple dozen households of Moenave. Wooden aqueducts transport water through fields to the peach and apricot orchards, grape arbors, plots of corn, melon, squash and other hardy plants that can survive a kind of heat that makes me wonder if an aggressive tentacle of the sun's corona hovers just above the clouds. Raised catfish, bluegill and bass populate the small man-made reservoir, until someone catches them for dinner.

Since being laid off two months ago from his job as a tire technician in Tuba City, Alvin has drawn on his surrounding resources in order to earn the dollars required to fulfill needs beyond the most basic required for human survival. In order to make the jewelry he sells at his little roadside stand, Alvin collects red and green jasper and other stones polished to a sparkling shine by the winds that tumble them for miles across the sandy desert floor. Little blue berries from cedar trees become wood-like brown beads when dried and strung on a filament of cotton.

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In addition to his craft work, Alvin offers informative tours around the area's dinosaur tracks, pointing out differences between the dilophosaurus, velociraptor, T-Rex, pterodactyl, giganotosaurus, and other footprints frozen in place since being buried under sand and silt during the Jurassic period. Or if tourists are interested in more recent history, Alvin takes them to see "newspaper rock"--a collection of petroglyphs scratched into the desert varnish of soft sandstone by the Anasazi civilization a few thousand years ago.

Though rich in archeological, paleontological, and geological resources, a lack of modern infrastructure leaves the reservation an unattractive candidate for business investment and development. Electric poles and wires are a recent addition to Moenave, for example, though most of the houses have yet to be plugged into the grid. Some people drive the hour to Flagstaff for work, but gas prices can make that an expensive commute. "You have to go off the reservation to find a decent job," Alvin explains, "So I just try to do what I can here."

Right now, this is what Alvin has to do to get by, but he can't say he particularly enjoys it: "I would rather be working than hanging out here." I can understand that sentiment, particularly considering how wildly scrawled my notes are from the conversation--a result of heat-blurred vision and mind.

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During the summer months, tourists--tracking a route made famous by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider--can create a steady flow of business, though Alvin does worry about what winter might bring if he can't find another job as the traffic dies down. Still, he doesn't entertain any thoughts of moving. He lived outside the reservation once and it did not suit him. "City people could move here and not survive," he says. "If I was to go to a big city, I wouldn't survive."

If you'll be traveling in the area and want to reserve one of Alvin's tours of the dinosaur tracks and petroglyphs, contact his wife Xania at hooverxane@ymail.com.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.
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