Mesa with its famous arch is an iconic symbol of Tonalea Chapter.
Tonalea Chapter members are documenting the stories of elders
in the community. (photo by George Hardeen
Feet sits along U.S. 160 and north of Red Lake Trading Post.(photo
by George Hardeen
TONALEA, AZ The Tonalea Chapter recently launched a project
to safeguard the voices, stories, teachings and wisdom of its older
citizens to benefit its younger citizens.
With a $4,500 grant from the Navajo Generating Station, the
Tonalea Archive Project is tape-recording interviews with elders,
collecting photos and seeking documents that refer to the pastoral
The chapter plans to dedicate a special room in its new chapter
house that chapter officials hope to build and open in 2017.
"These are some of the things we want to put in the archive
to let our younger generation know what has come about and how long
Tonalea has strived thus far," said Tonalea Chapter President
Darryl Jim. "It's what we're trying to do to make it turn around
and have people live in a better community."
The grant has allowed the chapter to buy recording equipment
and several computers to edit and maintain the collection.
The archive project focuses on learning about past community
leaders, colorful personalities and interesting events, how the
earliest chapter government was formed and operated, what it was
like when the trading post was the only store people went to, and
how life changed when the first school was built.
But chapter officials have found that documenting history is
"There are many stories that we're losing, some of the
traditional ceremonies," said Tonalea Vice President Colbert
Dayzie. "It's a losing battle. But we hope to preserve some
of the oral histories, some of the practices, some of the culture."
Dayzie said the goal of the project is to interview 100 citizens
from age 80 and older.
"It's at their convenience," he said. "So we're
not moving as quickly as we'd like to."
To date, Franklin Tohannie has interviewed only 15 elders. The
chapter assigned Tohannie as volunteer researcher and interviewer.
Tohannie, a former chapter official who now works for the Navajo
Nation Division of Social Service, loves history and has a bachelor's
degree in elementary education and a master's degree in educational
"It was supposed to be a really simple project," Tohannie
said. "I just turn the recorder on and they talk."
But simple it isn't, he said.
"I do it when I find someone to talk to that is willing
to be recorded," he said. "Most of the people don't want
to be recorded. That's the unfortunate thing about gathering stories."
According to Tohannie, the idea for the archive project dates
back to 2005 when former Tonalea President Chester Claw inquired
whether a written history of the chapter existed. The idea is to
document where the community is headed based on where it's come
At first, Tohannie said he could find only general information
from non-Navajo sources but almost nothing from Navajo sources.
When he looked up Tonalea Chapter on the Navajo Nation Chapters
website page, the information was unhelpful.
"Under Tonalea it said, 'See Red Lake,'" he said.
"Under Red Lake it said, 'See Tonalea.'"
So Tohannie began painstakingly researching histories from Mormon
settlers, the Babbitt Bros. Trading Co., searching through archives
at Northern Arizona University and reading the logs of Spanish explorers'
earliest visits to Navajo Country.
Eventually, his research included whatever he could find on
the histories of trading posts in Kaibeto, Shonto, Dinnebito, Kayenta
and Marble Canyon - now all gone with the exception of the Cameron
Interesting records still exist, however. Among the famous visitors
to Tonalea - also once known as Red Lake - was novelist Zane Grey
in 1913. Grey popularized the Southwest and its landscapes with
thrilling Western adventures.
Grey opened the first chapter of his book "The Rainbow
Trail" at the Red Lake Trading Post.
"Suddenly, Shefford became aware of a house looming out
of the barrenness of the slope," Grey wrote. "It dominated
that long white incline. Grim, lonely, forbidding, how strangely
it harmonized with its surroundings! The structure was octagon-shaped,
built of uncut stone, and resembled a fort."
Another likely visitor was Theodore Roosevelt who traveled to
the Navajo Reservation in 1913 to visit Rainbow Bridge with Zane
Grey. Roosevelt, a prolific writer, described his visit in his 1916
book "A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open."
After leaving Tuba City on a two-day journey to Kayenta to meet
his guide, Roosevelt apparently stopped at the Red Lake Trading
"We rested the horses for a day, and then started northward,
toward the trading-station of John Wetherill, near Navajo Mountain
and the Natural Bridge," Roosevelt wrote. "The first day's
travel was through heavy sand and very tiring to the teams. Late
in the afternoon we came to an outlying trader's store, on a sandy
hillside. In the plain below, where not a blade of grass grew, were
two or three permanent pools. and toward these the flocks of the
Navajos were hurrying, from every quarter, with their herdsmen.
The sight was curiously suggestive of the sights I so often saw
in Africa, when the Masai and Samburu herdsmen brought their flocks
to water. On we went, not halting until nine in the evening.
As Tohannie began the recorded interviews, he found elders cautious
to the point of being vague. Usually, one person's story about an
event was different from another's. Tohannie said his interview
subjects didn't use specific dates but instead refer to something
that can be remembered.
"When I talk to our elders in Tonalea, they don't put timelines
on it," he said. "They just relate it to the season or
the time when the snow was big."
Things people remember best took place in the 1960s and 70s
when U.S. 160 or the Tonalea School was built or when the chapter
house was constructed, he said.
Some remember hearing stories from their grandparents about
the Long Walk or livestock deduction of the 1930s.
Still fresh in everyone's mind is the establishment of the 1966
Bennett Freeze Area that put hundreds of chapter residents' lives
on permanent hold. Then, in 1978, a fence was built seemingly overnight
to create what first became the Joint Use Area and later renamed
Hopi Partitioned Land and Navajo Partitioned Land.
By then, thousands of Tonalea residents were impacted by events
far larger than their remote community whose landscape is dominated
by a majestic White Mesa. These are traumatic events that physically
divided the community 40 years ago and keep families separated today,
Jim said. And it's the memories they left he hopes are captured
for the future generations.
Among the obstacles Tohannie finds is the cultural reluctance
among elders to discuss any bad event, such as a battle, or even
to have their words recorded. Others recognize the value of recording
because they can no longer pass their stories to their grandchildren
because of the Navajo-English language barrier between the generations.
"Grandma is fluent in Navajo and can only speak Navajo,"
Tohannie said. "One was telling me, 'You know I have all these
stories from when I was a little girl when I was growing up I could
share with my grandkids, how we used to take the sheep down to the
Tonalea Valley and do the dipping. It's so unfortunate I can't tell
my stories to my grandkids. My daughter's become my interpreter
when I talk to my grandkids."
Simple things among families that were once commonplace are
quickly fading, he said. Today, the younger generation may know
significant locations within the chapter, such as land forms and
buildings, but they don't know the names of the places where their
grandparents and parents played as children, or where events occurred
that hold important teachings. Those Navajo names are becoming lost
to time, he said.
For example, Tohannie pointed to a place in Tonalea called "Where
the Cows Ate." He explained this is not just a cornfield that
cows got into and consumed that year's crop.
More importantly, it's where the cornfield's owner and the cows'
owner were able to come together to talk about the situation.
Today it's a place that holds a teaching about the positive
nature of conflict resolution, he said. That's what makes it important.
That's what he wants remembered.
Tonalea has renowned landmarks that Tohannie is eager to gather
information about such as Wildcat Peak, Middle Mesa and, perhaps
best known, Elephant's Feet.
One version of a story he's been told is that in the oldest
days the sacred Wildcat Peak is where some animal guardians were
ceremonially sacrificed so they could return to be among the deities.
That event consecrated Wildcat Peak. Ever since, a person is
not supposed to climb it for fun or mere entertainment, he said.
It teaches that one is to have deep respect for the land and its
natural formations, Tohannie said.
"You go up there for a reason," Tohannie said. "If
you go up there, the deities understand that you're going to do
something. People are not supposed to climb to the top of the peak
unless they have a sacred duty to do so."
He was told that the twin rock pillars that resemble an elephant's
feet were placed there to prevent a giant reptile that emerged from
the Tuba City reservoir from proceeding farther north and leaving
a trail of chaos and destruction.
"So the Elephant's Feet blocks the path," he said.
"And the big reptile is the Middle Mesa. So if you get an aerial
view of Middle Mesa, it's positioned like a reptile. For that reason,
you do not live around Elephant's Feet. You do not live in the path
of Middle Mesa."
Countless more stories exist, Tohannie said. The challenge is
finding the elders who are willing to tell them.
"These are the kinds of stories they tell me," Tohannie
said. "I wish I could collect more."