A future envisioned
California students continue Bennett Freeze work
Weekend edition 1/15/2011
By Shelley Smithson
The 55-year-old grandmother is looking forward to sitting in her warm home, helping her grandkids with homework and telling them traditional stories of the Dine, just as her mother did.
“I’ve never had a home of my own. This means a lot to me,” Riggs said, as she watched a work crew of students from the University of California at Berkeley complete her home’s foundation. Twenty-four Berkeley students traveled to the Western Agency during their winter break this week to help residents with home projects.
Riggs’ new home, just outside Tuba City, almost slipped away before construction ever started. Although Navajo Veterans Affairs workers delivered materials to build a new home in October, Riggs was unable to find helpers to get started on construction. VA officials told her if she didn’t start building right away, they would take the lumber back, so that it wouldn’t ruin. The student volunteers showed up just in time to help Riggs, whose deceased husband was a Vietnam veteran.
The students were assisting Forgotten People, a non-profit organization that works to improve living conditions for Navajos in the former Bennett Freeze area. Because of a land dispute with the Hopi tribe, Congress froze 1.6 million acres from development in 1966 until a settlement between the tribes could be reached.
Although a settlement was approved in 2006, most of the estimated 12,000 people living in the far western portion of the Navajo Nation still lack electricity, running water or adequate housing. Many people have died of cancer from drinking uranium-laden water that has been contaminated by mines that were never cleaned up.
To students from the affluent university near the San Francisco Bay, conditions here are sobering. “It’s amazing how neglected this area has been, right here in the United States,” said Jay Garg, a 22-year-old biology student who recently graduated from Berkeley.
Garg and others spent last week building, repairing and painting homes near Tuba City, Cameron, Black Falls and Box Springs, Ariz. He is a volunteer with Berkeley’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The group partnered with Project Pueblo, another student aid organization that began working on the Navajo Nation two years ago.
“I’m acutely aware that my generation is the ‘Facebook Generation,’ that we’re really self-absorbed,” said 20-year-old Anthony Rodriguez, a Project Pueblo coordinator who has made eight service trips to the Navajo Nation. “If a whole generation is like that, what happens to the world, to the ones who aren’t privileged?”
Elmer Woody, a VA carpenter who inspected the student work, said he was impressed by how hard and how fast the young people worked. Elmer has recruited fellow Vietnam vets to continue construction on Riggs’ house after the students leave.
Many of the students said they plan to come back in March during spring break, and they hope to bring more friends with them.
Marsha Monestersky, program director of Forgotten People, said last week’s projects are just the beginning of a rebuilding campaign, now that the Bennett Freeze has been lifted.
She said the formation last week of a Habitat for Humanity chapter in Tuba City – Hogans for Humanity — will aid in the reconstruction of the region. Forgotten People is applying for grants to build energy-efficient homes of sustainable materials, weatherize existing homes and bring solar electricity and clean water to homes.
“We are rebuilding! The Bennett Freeze is lifted,” Monestersky said. “It’s a new day!”
Students from the University of California, Berkeley, raise one of the walls of Jorita Riggs’ new home outside Tuba City. Riggs, fourth from the right, said she has never had a home of her own.
Kristina Hart, left, and Maria Patanwala, both students at University of California, Berkeley, connect studs the frame of Jorita Riggs’ new home just outside Tuba City, in the former Bennett Freeze area.