- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2000

GALLUP, N.M. When Santa Claus dropped by a one-room home 26 miles south of this western New Mexico city last week with a Christmas basket, he found Selena, a shy 13-year-old Navajo girl, and a 4-week-old baby boy.

Selena King is one of eight children crammed into this tiny home on a 24,000-square-mile Navajo reservation.

On this particular cold and sunny day, she has been pulled out of school to mind her newborn brother, Tye, while her mother, Nancy, works at an elementary school a mile away.

As the gift of Christmas foodstuffs is delivered, Selena shyly hides her face in a magazine.

"Santa" is actually several benefactors: two Roman Catholic nuns and three staff members from the Southwest Indian Foundation (SWIF). They include Joseph Esparza, a native of Gallup who remembers gathering pinon nuts on the reservation when he was young; Tom Ellefson, the man responsible for producing SWIF's wildly popular Southwestern gift catalog, and Heather Healy, 24, coordinator of special projects, who has Navajo blood.

Mindful of the legions of poor families on this massive reservation the size of West Virginia, SWIF conducts an annual giveaway of food and Christmas stockings for children and tries to help with electricity and heating bills, even with a new home.

Being Santa is not easy in this arid climate 6,500 feet above sea level. Since any precipitation tends to turn the dirt roads into an impassable mire, vans and four-wheel drives are the vehicles of choice. An area where unemployment ranges up to 50 percent and yearly household income is as little as $7,000, the reservation is a world away from Santa Fe's plush art galleries and Albuquerque's posh high desert suburbs.

Selena and her siblings are essentially fatherless. Absentee men and single mothers are a fact of life on the reservation.

"Out here," Mr. Esparza says, "the women get the jobs and support the families. That's why we insist, before helping any of the men, that [the men] show proof of looking for employment."

Mr. Esparza grumbles about the ramshackle sheet-metal stove in one corner of the dwelling, which he says is unsafe. But it's all the Kings have. Central heating is unheard of on the "rez."

Garbage is everywhere. Stacks of water buckets sit beside the stove because there is no well. Milk sits out on the table because there is no refrigerator.

Outside, several shivering dogs huddle in the cold sunlight. Five are fuzzy pups, their tiny ribs showing through dirt-matted coats. Navajos generally do not believe in spaying their animals; packs of feral dogs have become a problem on the reservation.

The King family came to SWIF's attention through the nuns, who are members of the famous Missionaries of Charity order, founded by Mother Teresa. Wrapped in swaths of the distinctive blue-and-white linen habit, they wear only heavy sweaters as covering in the frigid weather.

Chichiltah's neediest

The nuns are based in the hamlet of Chichiltah, a maze of dirt roads leading past mesas and arroyos. This area south of Gallup is known as the "checkerboard" a mishmash of private and reservation land.

Most homes have no water, electricity, plumbing or sewer. When the SWIF staff pulls up to a tattered mobile home, they notice the family is crammed into one half; it's all they can afford to heat. A black dog wanders about.

No one answers when the nuns knock. In this phoneless society, appointments must be made in person. The family had promised to be there that morning, but a more pressing matter apparently arose.

For such reasons, SWIF's deliveries around the reservation are spread out over the week before Christmas in the form of food drop-offs at isolated churches and tribal community centers.

"That's why we don't do individual deliveries," Mr. Esparza says. "If we waited until each family is home, it would take weeks."

In the back of SWIF's truck are Christmas food baskets, each of which has been paid for by sponsors around the country who send donations of $58.60. The "baskets" are, in reality, cardboard boxes lined with red or green cellophane and piled high with canned food, raisins, fruit punch, rice, dressing, crackers, a 20-pound turkey, a 20-pound sack of potatoes and a 25-pound bag of Blue Bird flour.

This year, 1,144 of the boxes are being dropped off in towns as far north as Shiprock, N.M., and Kayenta, Ariz., and as far west as Keams Canyon, a small community on the Hopi Indian reservation in central Arizona.

The baskets going to Chichiltah were placed on the truck at the loading dock of a California Super M Market in Gallup, then driven 26 miles south on State Highway 602 through a stark December landscape of juniper, pinon and cedar trees. They end up at the fenced enclosure in which the nuns live.

Lending a hand

These women know which families are the neediest. The nuns' high-desert dwelling in Chichiltah includes a church, St. Patrick's, and one of the few decent wells in the area. The locals often show up at the nuns' doorstep for help because one of the only other local potable water sources a nearby elementary school allows residents to fill up their buckets only between 3 and 4 p.m. each day.

But a solution to the water problem isn't easily apparent. A water line serving 100 homes can run as high as $10 million, and Indian Health Services, a federal agency, has to arrange laying such a pipe. Water tables in this area can be as much as 1,200 feet deep, making drilling wells an expensive proposition at $10 to $15 a foot.

"It can be a very frustrating process," Mr. Esparza says.

There is spiritual thirst on the reservation as well, the sisters report. Four families became Catholics this year and about 80 people come to Sunday Mass at their small wooden church, shaped like a hogan, the traditional round Navajo dwelling. These Navajos are part of the Diocese of Gallup, the poorest Catholic diocese in the country.

Founded 32 years ago by a Franciscan Catholic priest who pitied the alcoholics who were dying of exposure on the street corners of Gallup, SWIF now operates out of a four-story building at First and Coal streets. Its main source of revenue is 8 million slickly produced catalogs sent out each year. These garner $13 million in sales and donations.

The fall catalogue, which ran 86 pages, sold everything from children's books and CDs to dolls, pottery and other crafts made at a co-op in nearby Thoreau, 10 miles east of Gallup.

So whether someone buys a $37 "gift basket" of New Mexico-grown pistachios, pinon coffee, pistachio cookies and biscotti or a $95 leather purse, 65 percent of the price is a tax-deductible contribution. The other 35 percent covers costs, including salaries for the local artisans, some of whom are reservation residents, who make the low-cost products.

With the profits, SWIF tries to alleviate the suffering caused by a 27 percent unemployment rate and substandard rural housing. Seventy-seven percent of the homes on the reservation are without phones, 54 percent must burn wood for heat and 52 percent lack plumbing.

A home for Christmas

This Christmas, SWIF is providing a dwelling to a homeless family with the help of several subcontractors and a detachment of Air Force reservists.

Now living in a friend's hogan, Freddie Wero and his two teen-age daughters hoped to move in by Christmas to their new pink house in Church Rock, a portion of the reservation just east of Gallup.

Working out of Delaware, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, the reservists built six houses between May and September as part of a summer training program. Before 1997, they used to destroy these structures after the program was finished. But, thanks to an Innovative Readiness Training program authorized by Congress that year, the cadets were allowed to donate the houses for humanitarian purposes.

It costs SWIF $6,000 to transport each house to Gallup. Ferried to New Mexico by trailer, they arrive split in half. They are bolted together after arrival.

"Well, you can't get these things by UPS," jokes Bill McCartney, executive director of SWIF. "These are the families who have no opportunity to get a home without some sort of housing assistance. They are short 20,000 housing units on the reservation."

Heated by a new wood-and-coal-burning stove, the bright interior of Mr. Wero's home has two sunny bedrooms facing the southwest, plus a full kitchen. Although it is wired and plumbed, bureaucratic tangles keep the dwelling from being hooked to a water line 50 feet away. An electric line comes up to within a few hundred feet to serve an adjoining property, but the owner refuses to let the local power company link a line through to the reservation.

"It's sad," Mr. Esparza says. "But what they have now is better than what they had before."

To get the house, the family had to come up with $300 for a land track survey and $250 for an "archeology clearance," to make sure no historic arrowheads or pottery shards were underneath.

Contractors were still sawing away on the cedar porch for the house last week. The goal was to fix it to the point where the family could be in by today.

Waiting for permits

Sometimes SWIF plays Santa in other ways by bringing electricity. A few miles further to the east of Church Rock is the Iyanbito chapter, where Navajos live beneath dramatic pink and red cliffs.

This is the countryside made famous by westerns such as "Streets of Laredo," "Fort Massacre," "Raton Pass" and "Rocky Mountain," starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas and Suzanne Pleshette and filmed in the area from the 1930s to the 1950s.

But reality is less romantic than what is portrayed on the silver screen. By late afternoon, the wind has whipped up the sandy soil to create a pink dust storm near the new home of Lucille Saunders.

Although the Navajo woman got her new home in October, her TV, refrigerator and microwave sit unused for lack of a "home site lease." The lease, which would allow her to have utility hookups, is at the mercy of a bureaucrat at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Crownpoint, a small town one hour to the east.

Currently, she gets by on gas lamps. She also cannot use the bathroom because there is no septic tank. That plus permission for a water line requires another permit from the BIA.

Fortunately the wood-burning stove, given to her by SWIF, works.

But again, this dwelling is a palace compared with her previous place, where the floor was warped by a water leak. If the BIA would sign the right form, she would get electricity for Christmas.

What would happen if there were no agency to play Santa to those here who lack food, homes, electricity and other basic amenities?

"They would do as they've always done," Mr. Esparza says. "They'd survive."

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