James Mcgrath Morris 2015-02-10 20:03:14
Nineteen years after a highway tragedy, Lions in California continue to send truckloads of goods to Navajos in New Mexico. Earlier this year, Roy Hosteen sat behind the steering wheel of his red Ford pickup, the one the family called “Big Red.” With the sun setting behind him and the shadows lengthening across the red rock landscape of western New Mexico, the retired Navajo uranium miner was heading home to the hamlet of Pinedale, or To Beehwiisgani in his native language of Dine. In his rearview mirror Hosteen could see a veritable flea market of consumer goods: crammed into the bed of his pickup and lashed down on a flatbed trailer were a jumble of bicycles, tools, odd bits of furniture and cardboard boxes stuffed with clothing, toys, blankets, towels and kitchen appliances. The bounty of donated used items had been offloaded in the crisp air that morning outside Gallup, New Mexico, from an 18-wheeler packed and driven by members of the Cupertino Host Lions Club in California. Articles that would fetch only a few dollars in a Bay Area thrift shop comprised precious cargo in Navajo country. The reservation stretching across 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is the largest in the United States, bigger than 10 of the 50 states. Containing some of the most beautiful and striking landscapes of the Southwest, it is also a homeland to widespread and dire poverty. More than four out of 10 Navajos are unemployed, and nearly half of those who do find work earn less than the established poverty rate of $11,490. The destitution is not confined to the sparsely populated corners of the reservation far from places of employment. Even Navajos who moved to the modest-sized cities close to the reservation struggle to make ends meet. In 2013 the U.S. Census Bureau took a look at cities heavily populated by Native Americans and reported that more than three out of 10 residents of Gallup and Farmington, to its north, lived in poverty. For three days after the Cupertino Lions semi had headed back west, Hosteen and his wife, Karen, would take this drive at least a dozen times to begin the distribution of approximately 26,000 pounds of items. In turn, each pickup truckload would be redistributed to other vehicles heading out, spider web fashion, to Navajo settlements, with each donation eventually finding its way through an elaborate kinship network to a family in need. The Cupertino-Navajo aid program is a ritual now two decades old that sprung from a highway tragedy. A HUNTING TRIP In 1996 Lions Roger Reimers and his longtime friend David Lee embarked on a hunting trip to New Mexico from California. Reimers, who worked for Shell Oil, had grown up hunting in Cornelius, Oregon, when he was the only one of three boys who would accompany their father duck hunting along the rivers and small lakes west of Portland. Lee, an accountant, was an avid hunter as well. “We hunted together every chance we had, but it was never enough,” Reimers says. On this cold November morning their quarry was bigger than ducks. They were setting out in search of Cow Elk, the female of the species whose 500 pounds of flesh is valued by hunters. With an Apache guide leading the way, they planned on filling their freezer with elk meat. Before sunrise, the two hunters were in a car winding its way down a lonely stretch of New Mexico on State Road 64, their guide at the wheel. As the vehicle rounded a curve, the headlights briefly illuminated a woman clad in a black T-shirt on the side of the isolated stretch of road. She was trying to wave them down. But the guide sped on, telling the men she was likely a Navajo who had been kicked out of the car by an angry man. “It’s 15 degrees outside,” Reimers said. “She could freeze to death.” The guide still pushed on toward the hunting grounds. “No elk is worth a life,” Reimers said. Reluctantly the guide turned the car around. When they regained the curve they came across the woman again. This time they spotted two children, ages 2 and 4 as they learned, with her. Getting out from their car they found that her arm was bleeding and badly broken. She told Reimers and Lee that she and her children had climbed up to the road from a ravine where their car had plummeted. In the darkness they had left the children’s father below. “Please check on my fiancé,” she pleaded. Lee scampered down the embankment. When he returned he shook his head “no” to Reimers. He decided to see for himself. In the dim light of early morning Reimers saw that 21-year-old Romeo Hosteen had been thrown clear of the car. His body was draped across a fence, his neck was broken, and his head rested on his chest. Frost was forming on his back. “He looked like he had knelt down to pray,” says Reimers, his eyes growing moist recounting the story while straddling the corner of a bed in the Red Lion Hotel in Gallup 18 years later. The men managed to flag down a truck, remarkably one containing two off-duty state troopers. The Apache guide drove off to Dulce, a small town nearby, to call for an ambulance. While awaiting its arrival, Reimers and Lee picked up jewelry that had spilled from cases that had been in the car. The couple, it turned out, had been returning from a native craft show in Colorado. Exhausted, Romeo Hosteen had fallen asleep at the wheel. In due time the group saw the flashing lights of the approaching ambulance. The medics loaded the woman and her children into the vehicle and departed. The troopers, who also had hoped to hunt that day, urged that Reimers and Lee get back to their day’s plans. “We shot two elk that day,” Reimers recalls. Heading back to Gallup, Lee suggested they stop in at the police station to see how the survivors of the wreck were faring. Officials assured the men that the children and their mother were being well cared for, but they also learned that everything in the truck that had been towed to town had been stolen, including the jewelry Reimers and Lee had put back in its cases. “Everything,” says Reimers. “They had nothing.” Back in Cupertino, Reimers and Lee suggested to their Lions club that they arrange for Christmas gifts for the Hosteen children. In December Karen and Roy Hosteen, Romeo’s parents who had assumed care for their son’s children, received a box with fruit, toys and some cash. On a subsequent hunting trip, Reimers and Lee visited the Hosteens in their mobile home, heated by a stove made from tire rims welded together. The men were struck by the difficult conditions under which Navajos lived. Seeing close up the plight of Native Americans aroused a deep sympathy within them. “We kind of looked around and saw there was a need,” Reimers says. “How could we have treated people like that?” Reimers and Lee decided to expand the initial act of kindness and talked the club into making it a regular service program. Since then, approximately every 18 months, club members pack a semi-trailer with donated items collected for months around the San Jose, California, area and dispatch it to Gallup. “We went from shipping boxes and some cash, to make sure they had something for Christmas, to the program we have today,” Reimers says. UNLOADING A BOUNTY On this year’s trip, Reimers climbed into the cab of club member Wayne Allen’s 18-wheeler. The day before the pair had completed a 17-hour drive from Cupertino to New Mexico. Allen fired up the 560-horsepower Detroit diesel engine and pulled the 53-foot Freightliner, loaned by McKinney Trailer Rentals, back onto I-40 for the final 13-mile leg to Southwest Indian Ministries in Manuelito. A complex of small buildings, with a big barn-sized structure at the center, the place would soon be full of noisy Navajo children attending summer youth camps. But on this morning the stillness was only broken by the baritone rumble of diesel trucks speeding by on I-40 and the click-clacking wheels of the occasional mile-long trains that pass through Gallup loaded with containers from far-away ports. A dozen or so members of the Gallup Lions Club, which famously runs one of the state’s best and oldest rodeos, and three Cupertino Lions, who had driven on their own from California, milled about the garage door entrance to the large building where Allen backed his truck. The truck’s door opened, and the men and women dove into the task of unloading, sorting and stacking the goods. Soon, the hall that was usually used for family gatherings and wedding receptions became dotted with islands of stacked boxes of clothing and mounds of castoff items such as old skis, metal crutches, toaster ovens, several bulletin boards and even a rusted Christmas tree holder. A few small children excitedly jumped on plastic tricycles and played with dollhouses, among the first items coming off the truck. Karen and Roy Hosteen stood quietly by as the volunteers did their work. They chatted with Reimers, whom they had not seen since the previous truck run more than a year earlier. It was the 12th or 13th time a truck from California had come bearing donations, but on this day a photographer from Albuquerque and a writer from Santa Fe were chronicling the event. “I told her I would be close by in case she felt a little uneasy,” Reimers says. Like most Navajos, the Hosteens are taciturn when talking to outsiders. Karen works as a health assistant specialist at Fort Defiance Indian Hospital across the border in Arizona. Roy is retired from his last job, a five-year stint working in the now defunct uranium mines. Over the years since the first donations arrived in a U-Haul trailer, the event has grown into a kind of living memorial to her deceased son, explains Karen Hosteen, but nonetheless the event still brings back the pain of her loss on that November day in 1996. This year Karen and Roy’s pickup truck shuttle runs between the Southwest Indian Ministries and Pinedale were completed in a record three days. Karen’s brothers and other relatives helped complete the distribution to families they knew were in need or to others who had requested items since the last delivery. By week’s end the donations had found their way to such places as Chinle and Sweetwater, Arizona, and Shiprock, New Mexico, the capital of the Navajo nation. “For each pickup load we delivered,” says Karen Hosteen, “the stuff went to 25 to 30 families.” “That family gets a wrench. That family gets a couple of screw drivers,” says Reimers in explaining the doling out of the items netted by his club. To outsiders such an informal distribution method may seem puzzling. Churches, organizations and governments are usually the ones that manage aid programs. Even the chapter houses, which are the administrative units in the Navajo nation, are bypassed. But like the lunar landscape of the reservation, the cultural life of Navajos remains very different than that of Euro-Americans. Instead of, say the Red Cross, Navajos look to their families for help. Matrilineal kinship is one of the most important building blocks of Navajo society, with every member belonging to one of 64 clans. For Karen and Roy Hosteen, K'e—a Dine term for compassion, friendliness, and generosity— and K’ei—a term for kinship—come together in the act of distributing this treasure of donated goods. When Navajos share with relatives they do so with no expectation of reciprocity. Only when they give people to outside their clan is it done as a matter of exchange. Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a professor at the University of New Mexico and the first Navajo to earn a history Ph.D., puts it this way: “As a Dine woman familiar with Navajo cultural values, I would say that kinship remains an important way life is organized for Navajos. To distribute charity through a family is often done. The notion of family for Navajos is an extended, family-based clanships, so we are talking about extensive kin relationships that form the community.” THE FUTURE It’s been 18 years since the accident that started hunters Lee and Reimers on their journey of providing aid to Navajos. In the years since, Lee passed away and the running of the program fell solely to Reimers. He likens his work to that of being a bus driver and the role of Lions to that of passengers. “Every passenger has the right to give me directions as to where that should be and currently that seems to be that this project should continue,” Reimers says. “I’m happy to continue driving this bus and along the way I have met and continue to meet some wonderful people. David Lee would be proud of us.” In addition to the hours of volunteer work and the locating of storage for the donated items, the 2014 collection and delivery effort required raising $5,100 for fuel and other costs. The items were gathered through an intensive information campaign, and the money came from Saturday breakfast fundraisers. All in all, the project is a considerable undertaking for an organization with only about three dozen members. But the Cupertino club has already begun collecting for the next trip. It hopes to fill another 53-foot trailer in the fall of 2015 or spring of 2016. Reimers turned 75 following the last collection drive. “I have been told,” he says, “that the guys in my club think I have two more trips left in me and then someone else will assume responsibilities for the project. But I don’t think it will be dropped any time soon.”
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