Dust settles everywhere at the Naschitti Livestock Sale. At this spot in the road between Gallup and Shiprock, flat, dry rangeland meets sandy hills dotted with juniper. And nearby rock formations seem to have toppled from the sky, upheaved and chaotic.
On this Saturday morning, at least 40 pickup trucks with trailers full of cattle are winding from Highway 666 across a switchback approach to the receiving alley. By Sunday, they say the trucks and trailers will stream down the highway as far as you can see, all bringing livestock to the annual Columbus Day sale.
Navajo families come from a 100-mile radius to partake in the pooled sale that will run through 2,000 head of cattle from 300 to 400 consignors. Working the receiving alley is Norman Wolf, retired San Juan County agriculture agent with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. Still remembered as a trusted adviser to the Navajo people, he is there to meet them, record their animals' tag numbers and send them on to the scale.
Wolf started his stint with Extension on the Navajo Reservation in 1970 at Mexican Springs, 20 miles north of Gallup. When he left his reservation post at Shiprock 15 years later to serve as San Juan County agent until 1997, he left with a greater cultural understanding.
The sale is a good place to see what the Four Corners experience can mean. Much of it is about family, Wolf says.
Some trailers carry the cattle of several family members. Nearby, three children watch with their mother as the cattle are tagged and sent to the scale. Sister teases brother, "Are you going to cry when ours come through?"
"No, but you probably will," he retorts.
An older sister, father and grandmother arrive as their four calves are sent on to the scales. Grandpa is parking the truck. They watch to see how their calves are numbered and rush away to make sure the animals reach the next stage of their journey safely.
"The sale is as much a social activity as it is a sale," Wolf says. "There is a lot of visiting. The younger generation comes home to help gather the livestock and help the older people understand the calculations going on in English."
About 80 percent of the Navajo people still speak their native language and many of the older people do not speak English. The barriers of language and culture are evident.
"In a few animals, you see specific nutritional deficiencies," Wolf says. "You're trying to teach nutrition to people with a language that has no words for the various minerals and vitamins that livestock need. That makes it difficult to explain and for them to understand the value of minerals."
Creative thinking produced one of Wolf's most successful, but very simple, presentations to the Navajo people. He hung large sheets of butcher paper around the walls of the room and wrote on them the months of the year. He then drew pictures of what needed to be done during each month, such as a supplemental bale of hay and breaking ice during winter months. "That helped them tie the management practice to a month of the year and to the environment," he says. "They finally understood what I was talking about."
The Navajo are thought to have arrived in the Four Corners region from western Canada as early as the 1400s. They occupied land abandoned by longtime Anasazi residents, whose descendants formed the Zuni and Hopi pueblos, as well as others along the Rio Grande. With a current population of more than 200,000, the Navajo Nation spans almost 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
New Mexico's piece of the Four Corners roughly comprises San Juan and McKinley counties for a combined population of about 173,500. Slightly more than half of the residents of the two counties are Native Americans.
In the sale parking lot, a festive fall display stands in stark contrast to the dry, yellow range grass and dusty rows of pickup trucks. Two teenage Navajo girls and their mother sell bright orange pumpkins and green apples grown on their farm in Upper Fruitland, west of Farmington. Unbelievable as it looks from here, just 100 miles from this high desert range is an oasis of irrigated farms and orchards.
"It is an oasis," says Gary Hathorn, Extension program director in San Juan County. "A vast amount of water flows through here. Forty percent of all the surface water in New Mexico comes through San Juan County through the Animas, La Plata and San Juan rivers."
The value of those rivers was not lost on even the earliest of the area's inhabitants. The Aztec Ruins, north of Aztec, show evidence of an elaborate ditch system for watering crops of beans, corn and squash cultivated by the Anasazi around A.D. 1100. Almost 800 years later, homesteaders settled up and down the rivers, and in the 1920s and '30s, ditch companies were formed to spread irrigation all along the three waterways.
The Navajo Indian Irrigation Project diverts water from Navajo Dam on the San Juan River to 63,000 acres of cultivated land on the reservation south of Farmington. And many people find other reasons to appreciate the rivers, whether by Farmington's river walk trail along the Animas or the San Juan's legendary fly-fishing.
In the 1920s, the agricultural valley made way for the drilling of the first commercial oil wells in New Mexico. The boom that drastically changed the area came in 1950 with El Paso Natural Gas Com-pany's plans to provide natural gas to California from the San Juan Basin. The oil and gas industries now provide major sources of employment for area residents.
The deep shadows and vibrant colors of yet an-other of the Four Corners' rugged and beautiful landscapes surround the city of Gallup. On the westbound approach to the city, red rock bluffs and monumental peaks to the north rise into a cloudless autumn blue sky. To the south, a sea of juniper stretches into the hills. Closer to the city, the Hogbacks-a string of high, vertical rock formations-arch like the back of a stegosaurus piercing the sky.
Family-owned-and-operated businesses like Sheree Stauder's have es-tablished a unique mode of commerce. Stauder's great-grandfather started Gallup Lumber and Supply in 1939 after leaving the mines and becoming a contractor. The family added Rainbird Pawn and Trading Post in 1993 to keep busy during the winter months.
"It's a whole new world here," says Stauder, an NMSU graduate of the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences' hotel, restaurant and tourism management department. "Most people trade. We have several people who trade jewelry for lumber, or do odd jobs for lumber. The town seems to work together to get everything done."
Gallup is a trade center for genuine Native American arts and crafts-a $1 billion market, according to the Gallup Convention and Visitors Bureau World Wide Web site. Navajo rugs and Zuni turquoise and silver jewelry are featured in the city's 110 trading posts, shops and galleries.
Stauder says Gallup's pawn business also is not typical. "The majority of the people we deal with use us as a safety deposit box," she says. "Someone may have no place to keep their horse trailer, so they pawn it to store it with us. We take everything from toolboxes to rodeo gear to small things like jewelry. It's safe here; nobody will bother it.
"They have six months to pay the interest. If they don't, then we can pull it and sell it. But we don't pull too much, only about 2 percent of everything that comes in."
Traveling south of Gallup toward Zuni, a group of cars parked on the highway's shoulder may be a sign of a late-season piñnon harvest. The sweet nuts, roasted in their thin, dark brown shells, are a favorite fall treat for the humans who hunt them and for the piñon jays that wheel through the trees and collect the seeds as they begin to ripen.
This part of the Four Corners offers the beauty of evergreen piñon-juniper forests and scattered green-gray sagebrush on rolling hills and high, cream-colored bluffs. Red-clay rutted roads lead to corrals, traditional Navajo hogans and modern, double-wide mobile homes. Further south, the twisted trunks of juniper give way to towering ponderosa pines.
Zuni Pueblo was thought by Spanish explorers of the 1500s to be one of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. With a population of about 9,000 and a reservation of 450,000 acres, Zuni today is one of the largest and most remote of the state's 19 pueblos. Strong cultural and religious values run through many of the pueblo's activities.
The 1990 Zuni Land Conservation Act, which deals mostly with watershed and wetlands restoration, received national attention as a model of culturally sensitive sustainable resource development.
Kathy Landers, Extension agent in Zuni, has learned to balance her agricultural expertise with cultural sensitivity. "I work my programs around religious activities," Landers says. "I have to be sensitive to the culture of the Zuni. There are prayers for planting corn and there are certain days they can and can't plant."
Landers says the dryland farming of alfalfa, winter wheat and oats supports the sheep and cattle raised on the Zuni Pueblo. White corn also is grown for religious purposes.
"Zunis don't use any pesticides and not very many use fertilizer," she says. "They do things the traditional way, leaving it to nature. It's very unique that they remain so sensitive to their beliefs."
Landers says she received a dose of Zuni family culture early in her assignment in Zuni. She asked her 4-H members to bring their families to the next meeting. To her surprise, entire extended families showed up.
"Most of my 4-H kids live in homes with their grandparents, aunts and uncles," she says.
With such ties to heritage and history, even small changes made in the Four Corners must be generational. "Today, we have the same challenges that we had 25 years ago," Wolf says. "There is slowness to change and accept new things, and it takes a long time to develop a trusting relationship."