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The Dry Land

Voices from the Future | Sylvia Watchman

dry land

The Dry Land

The Event: Since 2017, extreme draught has ravaged Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo Nation in Northeastern Arizona. In normal years, the area receives an average of 12 inches of rain. That’s not the case recently. What’s more, the draught became worse when, in early 2019, the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to release water from a 5,500 acre-foot reservoir thus making traditional farming in Canyon de Chelly even more difficult. The agency’s reasons are still unknown — and unexplained to farmers in Canyon de Chelly.

Sylvia Watchman is a farmer and Navajo woman from Chinle, Arizona, a town of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Canyon de Chelly, where Watchman has lived all her life. Chinle is a Navajo word meaning “flowing through,” a phrase that once referred to the water that cruised down from the mountains to fertilize the valley.

But native farmers can’t count on that water anymore. Since the 1990s, record draught has put Navajo farming and culture at great risk.

“When I drive around the valley, all I see is this dry land,” Watchman says. “Over half of the people who used to grow crops here can’t do it anymore. If nobody plants on the land, it will continue getting even harder, making planting next year almost impossible.”

Thousands of years ago, the natural water resources and rich soil made the valley an ideal place to plant crops and raise families. The melting snow from nearby mountains was another steady water source for fertilizing the land.

“In April, the snow melted, and the water ran through the valley, and we used water pumps to irrigate the fields,” Watchman explains.

But things have changed. The climate has changed.

Winter storms that used to reach the Southwest have been pushed further north during the past couple of decades. “This causes our water table to be very low continuously,” Watchman says.

As for her own farm, Watchman witnesses the consequences of draught every day. She has lost crops — corn, wheat, varieties of fruit.

“This spring we planted corn,” Watchman says. “It grew about two feet and then dried in the sun.”

And her peach, apple and pear trees have been starved for water: “The fruits are really dry.”

Watchman believes in climate change and has suggestions for how to respond. As a farmer and a tour guide for local and international visitors to Canyon de Chelly, Watchman acts as an advocate for her indigenous culture on many levels. She is committed to protecting her land and her roots.

“I have noted to the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife that we could cut down trees, especially olive and cottonwood trees, that consume relatively a lot of the valley’s scarce water resources,” Watchman says. “More water could also be released from two reservoir lakes in the canyon. I have not received any responses to my requests.”

During her moments of disbelief about how her land could be revived again from the devastation of climate change, ancient Navajo stories give Watchman an explanation and, perhaps, some relief and consolation.

“My grandparents say that everything has changed because our traditional way of living has changed,” Watchman explains. “We are out of balance. Our winter stories are told at schools, books are read and films watched during the summer. Summer songs are sung during the winter. When people ask me to tell winter stories during the summer, I say, ‘No, I cannot do that.’”

Watchman believes that people must regain a balance with the nature: “The weather is getting really cold now. Maybe we get lots of snow again, or maybe not. It is really hard because we cannot count on the weather as we used to and the way it will treat us.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss