Drought Threatens Navajo's Crops, Culture A drought in the southwestern United States is having serious effects on the Navajo Nation. Not only are their crops at risk, so is their culture.

Drought Threatens Navajo's Crops, Culture

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Drought has settled across the southwestern United States, and because of global warming forecasters say dry days could be there to stay. Climate change is happening along with a rapid change in the culture of the Navajo Nation.

NPR's Richard Harris visited a Navajo ranch as part of our Climate Connection series with National Geographic and sent this report.

RICHARD HARRIS: One thing you notice right away when you travel to Wheatfields, New Mexico, there are no wheat fields. But there is a sign by Charles Chi's(ph) ranch, advertising fat sheep for sale. And that's true.

(Soundbite of sheep bleating)

Mr. CHARLES CHI (Ranch Owner): Hello.

HARRIS: Chi greets us in his front yard, next to a 55-gallon drum on springs that his son uses to practice rodeo moves. A long ponytail snakes out of the back of Chi's brown cowboy hat. He has both feet in the modern world, but he's still feels the twinge of the old ways. He doesn't want his picture taken and he puts up at least a nominal fuss about being taped as we sit in the breeze under a cottonwood tree.

Mr. CHI: Okay, the deal is if you're going to record me, you better do the snow dance or the rain dance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Okay, but I can't promise results.

Mr. CHI: No, no, no, no, no. The dance you're going to do has to have results.

HARRIS: His choice of asking for a rain dance or a snow dance is deliberate. This area has been in deep drought since 1999, and that's helped accelerate a trend away from agriculture for these Navajos.

There used to be 300 ranchers and farmers in these parts, Chi says. Now there are about a hundred, and that decline matches the lost of precipitation.

Mr. CHI: Oh well, if you look at this yellow house behind us, you will have snow packed all the way down from the roof to that white car sitting (unintelligible) - and you can walk up that snow, put a sled up there and slide down. That's how it was.

HARRIS: What do you think is going on?

Mr. CHI: Me, thinking about what's going on? People are messing with Mother Nature. And just like my forefathers - my grandpa used to say one of these days, there's only going to be two weathers - fall or summer. Today, I think that he was telling the truth.

HARRIS: Now, droughts are a fact of life for the West and have been for centuries. Are there traditional ways that Navajo people have dealt with droughts and do those still work today at all?

Mr. CHI: Probably in the old days they had ceremonies that they used to do, but now we don't even know how to do it.

HARRIS: The climate feels out of balance in these parts, but that's not the only imbalance that Charles Chi struggles with. He sees change everywhere he looks. People these days are giving up their traditional ways such as living off the land to seek regular jobs. Chi feels those changes right down to the roots of his culture - the language.

Mr. CHI: When they put me in school, they told me never to talk my native tongue. I had to speak English. Now I have to turn around and tell my kids to speak their native tongue. You know, if I talk to my son that's sitting here right now, he'd probably won't even understand half of the words that I say to him in native language. It's probably been my fault not teaching him when he was young, too. And the only babysitter I had was Elvis. So it was hard out. Technology ruined us.

HARRIS: As Chi talks, a young Navajo woman stands quietly nearby. Rachel Novak(ph) grew up here and is now a graduate student at the University of Arizona. She knows just enough of her native language to introduce herself.

Ms. RACHEL NOVAK (Graduate Student, University of Arizona): (Navajo spoken)

HARRIS: That's right. She said Jewish. That's her grandfather's clan. Novak is studying how climate change is affecting the Navajos. Since it's coming on top of a profound change in their way of life, it's proving tricky to tease out.

But Novak has been thinking about the role of traditional ceremonies like the rain dances Charles Chi talked about. They were part of a fading philosophy in which people thought of themselves as being part of the balance of nature, not above it.

Ms. NOVAK: Of Navajo culture, the idea and concept of balance is very important, and so in the past, people very much did when they find imbalance that there was need for a ceremony - something to kind of correct that imbalance.

HARRIS: And something like a rain dance was actually seen as practical as, say, digging an irrigation ditch. It was an attempt to address the root cause of the problem.

Ms. NOVAK: And I don't think before that there was such the divide between what, you know, might consider practical, physical, or tangible and something less tangible like your thoughts.

HARRIS: The Navajo, it seems, are losing that concept from their culture. So like everyone else, they'll have to struggle to find new ways of dealing with the changing climate.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: You can discover more about the effects of climate change at npr.org/climateconnections and in this month's National Geographic magazine.

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