Courtesy Orlando Begay
Community joins walkers at prayer ceremony at their destination on Tsoodził or Mount Taylor.

Walkers Conclude ‘Journey for Existence’ – 225-Mile Trek to Mount Taylor

Lyla Johnston
2/12/15

On February 1, 2015, the walkers of Nihígaal Bee Iina (pronounced ni-hi-gahl beh ee-nah, meaning "Our Journey for Existence") completed their quest to walk over 200 miles in the name of their children, land and ancestors. The walk was in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of The Long Walk, whereby over 9,500 Diné (Navajo) were marched at gunpoint for hundreds of miles into Bosque Redondo—a concentration camp where they would stay for four years. Only 7,304 survived the internment to return back to Diné Tah, the original Navajo homeland. In addition to honoring the resilience of their ancestors, the walkers also set out to raise awareness about issues surrounding oil and gas extraction in Diné Tah. Ultimately, the group walked the entire span from Dził Naa’oodiłii (Huerfano Mounatin) to Tsoodził (Mount Taylor) in 26 days, a total of 225 miles.

RELATED: Young Navajos Stage 200-Mile ‘Journey for Existence’

“It was awesome to be walking up that mountain, carrying those prayers, to feel the stillness of Tsoodził and just for that day it was really calm, sunny, bright,” commented Kooper Curley, one of about 70 walkers who joined for all or part of the journey.

“My favorite part of the journey was when I saw that picture of Tsoodził. It really brought tears to my eyes and made me think, ‘They did it. They did it,’” said Libby Williams, an elder Diné woman who assisted the walkers on their journey.

“They kept singing that song, ‘Sheenaashaa,’” stated Enoch Endwarrior, of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I’ve always heard that song but I never knew what it meant. I learned that this is the song the ones who survived Hwééldi [“The Place of Suffering,” or Bosque Redondo] sang when they burst into joy, relieved to leave that place and go back within the four sacred mountains. To see the peak reminded me of my great-great-great-great grandmother. She was just a little girl during the round up, during Hwééldi. It was a family of five and only two survived—my grandma and her sister. I will never know the true degree of that suffering but it was such an overwhelming feeling of joy just to see the peak of Tsoodził. Just to know that she stuck it out, she survived, she endured, just for me to see that.”

According to the walkers, their journey leading up to Tsoodził was full of sobering experiences. Along the way they spoke with children in Lybrook, New Mexico whose schools had been shut down due to water contamination from surrounding oil wells. At another point they walked along miles of idle cars that were held up due to a gas tank explosion. One local resident they encountered experienced a murder in their family, incensed by lumps of money offered by the oil industry. One young woman they met reported that she could no longer run alone in the evenings because of the countless oil and gas workers that pepper the land.

Walkers are given horses by local residents on their journey past White Horse Lake Chapter House, Diné Tah (Courtesy Orlando Begay)

Cheyenne Antonio, a young woman from Torreon, New Mexico—the heart of the Dine hydraulic fracturing industry—joined the walkers after they visited her community. “It felt good to finally have people come and really talk about how the violence has gone up. It’s hardly ever discussed and it needs to be discussed. There’s so much violence among our children, our women. Once that oil money comes in there is a whole new person in front of you. Money is controlling them. And that’s new in my life, dealing with greed.”

“This is about addressing the issues with fracking, coal mining and the gas extraction around the four corners that NASA can see from space,” says Leslynn Begay of Flagstaff, Arizona. “When people see the walkers they become interested, they ask questions and they become more aware.”

Seeing a great herd of walkers along the road laid the foundation for many discussions and conversations with local residents, according to the walkers. “Someone was always pulling over asking, ‘What are you guys walking for?’ Even a Peabody employee pulled over and said, ‘I work at the coal mine, but it’s just a job and I support you guys.’ Things like that put everything into perspective. That these workers, they’re not just people, they’re family,” stated Curley.

Walkers are joined by youngest generation (Courtesy Orlando Begay)

Despite the continuous hardship they encountered through the oil and gas corridor of Dine Tah, the walkers indicated that each day ended with a note of hope.

According to Kim Smith of St. Michaels, Arizona, “The plight of the people was the most memorable thing throughout the journey. Really seeing how poor our people were and how beaten down. But the most beautiful part was when we told them about our prayer walk, that we didn’t have to accept that the only jobs for us are in oil fields and coal mines. It gave them a pep in their step. That’s what leadership does. And it was a group of people that did that. It wasn’t just one person, one savior that came in to give people that hope. It was a group of young people.”

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