WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Since taking office in 1995, Navajo Nation President Albert Hale says, he got upset every time he flew in or out of the airport here. Beside the airstrip was an illegal trash dump that has been growing for at least 50 years.
Hale vowed to clean up the dump, and did.
Last May, he contacted tribal and federal agencies, including the
Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and
collected $60,000 to get rid of the garbage.
a month, tribal crews in protective clothing removed 400 cubic
yards of trash, including thousands of disposable diapers, broken
televisions, refrigerators and two cars from the 1930s. The dump
contained layers of garbage in a ravine 40 feet deep and 100 feet
long, about 50 yards from the airstrip.
packed the debris into trucks and transported it to regional
Arizona landfills. When it was over, tribal officials took photos
of tribal lands that may not have been visible to the naked eye
since World War II.
But cleaning up one highly
visible dump hasn't made a dent in the trash problem on the
nation's largest Indian reservation, where the federal Indian
Health Service has identified 450 illegal dumps. Tribal officials
say the war on reservation trash has just begun and that it will
take a major effort over decades to clear the dumps and educate
residents about trash disposal, so Navajos can really "walk in
The Navajo Environmental Protection
Agency estimates it will cost $22 million to clear these dumps, a
crippling sum considering the tribe had to scrape for funds to
eliminate the airstrip dump. And the federal government isn't
offering financial help.
"The cost is the part no
one wants to participate in," says agency director Bennie Cohoe.
"In some areas of the (Navajo) Nation, communities have no access
to (legal) dumps, and someone has to provide an alternative."
Some tribes, including the Navajo, are setting
up trash transfer stations. For a fee of up to $6, families will
have a place to leave trash that will then be taken to a legal
landfill. But the fee, Cohoe says, is drawing complaints on a
reservation where the average family income is a few thousand
dollars a year.
In a 1995 survey, the Indian Health
Service identified more than 650 additional dump sites on Indian
reservations around the country. The study, required under the 1993
federal Indian Lands Open Dump Cleanup Act, classified 97 sites as
a "high threat" to the environment. The study also revealed that
the vast majority of dumpsites are unattended because there are no
funds or personnel to manage them.
generations, tribes have dumped trash - mostly organic waste like
bones and food scraps - on the open land. The practice posed little
environmental hazard until the early part of the 20th century, when
consumption habits among Native Americans began to mirror European
culture. By the 1960s, Indians were buying disposable diapers, as
well as food and other products packaged in metal, glass and
These days, some reservations are
finding that tourists create trash problems, as well. Last April,
the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community closed its side of
the Verde River near Phoenix to tourists because of the tons of
trash weekend visitors had been leaving.
other side of the river, officials for the Fort McDowell
Mohave-Apache Indian Community did the same July 1, but with a
twist. Fort McDowell officials say that by next summer they hope to
have new recreational areas with better garbage disposal
facilities. During the summer, the reservation receives an average
of 1,500 visitors per weekend.
officials agree that the dumping problem comes down to educating
residents. Says Navajo leader Albert Hale, "We're going to have to
get our people to respect the land as our elders have been telling
* Bill Donovan
The writer is a correspondent
for the Navajo Times.