Our Faux Pas in the Navajo Nation
How Easy It Is to Goof
Last weekend, I was in Halchita, Utah, on the Navajo Nation for a service project I helped organize with Utah’s Rotary Clubs. We did a lot of good. I’ll report on that next week. But we also blew it. A little bit.
As we organized thousands upon thousands of books for the library in the community center, one of the locals coached us to exclude any books about snakes or with images of snakes on the covers. I’m not an expert in such things, but a bit of research confirms that Navajo traditions put snakes in a bad place. It may not be an exaggeration to say they are both hated and feared.
While we were there working on converting this unused building that had been empty for about four years into a beautiful, operating community center—with guidance and involvement from the community—volunteers identified two facts. There was a garden area between the sidewalk out front and the building. And, there were a lot of beautiful red rocks scattered around the property.
Volunteers quickly identified that using a small tractor for the project, we could gather rocks and place them as a rock garden in the areas that would otherwise be left empty. In a few short hours, we created an attractive garden.
When one of the local women approached the building with its new garden, she asked one question, and my heart sank. “How are we going to keep the snakes out?”
That question is good if you have a white person’s healthy respect for snakes and want to keep your children safe. It has deeper layers for the Navajo who so avoid seeing snakes that in 2015, all snakes were removed from the Navajo Zoo.
Still, I believe the community is grateful to see the building put back into service. Initially built in the 70s as a movie theater, it has served in various functions, including for about 20 years as the Head Start school. We spoke to adults who remember attending there as young children.
The experience is an essential lesson for me. We organized the project with our Navajo friends—they picked all the colors for building, for instance, and helped with the effort at almost every step. The improvised rock garden, however, scars the success.
It is impossible for me to gauge how big the scar is. The rocks can be removed, but not easily. They can be covered, but that might not help. I hope that snakes will avoid the building to avoid the people coming and going. If no snakes appear, I hope no harm is done.
Most volunteers left, unaware of the snake garden dilemma. I hope that the Navajo will use and enjoy the building. I am glad to have been a part of the project and grateful to have learned a lesson about cultural sensitivity and the need to tread lightly in your neighbor’s yard.
Ok, Devin, this is why you needed to invite me to go with your team and help sometime. I first learned of "unintended consequences" while getting my PhD in Ann Arbor when a professor there cited the term in our course. It was perhaps original with the great Harvard sociologist, Robert Merton. I've used it a lot with my NGO teams as we planned and then intervened in dozens of developing nations through the years. Another phrase I often use with LDS groups is a quote from Paul Dunn. At a young adult conference back east we both spoke at, he worried that in the church (and beyond), we sometimes "want to help in the worst way. And that's exactly what we end up doing!" So I always seek to plan, design and carry out community development and other strategies only with partnership and collaboration within the local community. Indigenous leaders have always guided our efforts with pretty amazing results. But I confess, we messed up a bit in my early efforts precisely because, drawing upon our superior, white academic ways, we thought we knew best:)