Fences Tell a Story of Land Changes on the Navajo Nation

Two horses and a fence

The following essay is the sixth piece in a series on Indigenous lands and waters in the Americas, inspired in part by the 2019 place-based workshop Changing Landscapes of Indigeneity organized by the Center for Culture, History, and Environment in Wisconsin. The series shares work that addresses Indigenous movements for sovereignty and self-determination as well as issues of environmental and social justice.

There’s an old horse corral at my nali’s 1 place
It stands where horse hooves once clopped dry red dirt,
Where life threaded itself in and out of winding ropes
with fresh Colorado hay stacked to the side
Built by my dad, this corral was for my nálí and his łį́į́’ 2

With the corral, our family lived
A collection of cluttered boots narrated
all the echoes of my cousins gathered round
To the south, the corral stands3

Today, there is nothing more eerie to me than that empty horse corral
one panel creeps in the wind
An orange bailing twine whispers a warning to me,

‘don’t abandon a house unless someone has passed on in it’
No one has passed in this corral
yet it finds my mind uneasy to walk around it
because empty horse corrals are like empty houses

It will be scary to me until nihiłį́į́’ 4 are back,
and my nalí is strong enough to ride again
Until then, our empty horse coral swings even though it’s standing
and I circle around it, too scared to step inside

Fences tell a story in my community about violences and survivances of Navajo land, animals, and people. Fences are: horse corrals, entrapments, boundaries, barriers, conversation pieces, defenses, and imagined borders that shape the interactions between Diné humans, land, and horses. Horse and sheep persons are central to our being as Navajo people. Through generations of settler colonialism, one relationship consistently assaulted is our relationship with our land and with our animal relatives. The emptiness of the corral at my nali’s place signifies the deep sadness of genocides past and present—whether the Livestock Slaughters of the 1930s and 40s, the more recent round up of mustangs, or the lives of loved ones colonialism has taken from us. Our best memories are together on open land with our animal persons.

Two years ago, I returned to my community (Navajo Nation) to interview people about what connects me most with my land—horses. While home, I often gazed at fences wondering what stories they might tell about the land, settler colonialism, and our people’s relationship to horses, so I started asking people about them. During this time, my story folded in with co-narrators from my community as we explored the relationalities and inconsistencies in who we are, as Diné, and how we are meant to relate to our universe.

Borders and Barriers

Diné Bikeyah is the land and place entrusted to my people to care for. It is located between the four sacred mountains, Sisnajiní (Mount Blanca), Tsoodził (Mount Taylor), Dook’o’oosłííd (San Fransico Peaks), Dibé N’itsa (Mount Hesperus). These mountains embrace our community by singing a philosophy of directional knowing which is meant to orient us with all living beings.

Fences can act as borders or barriers and erect themselves as the physical entrapment of imagined or created places. For Native Americans, a longstanding and life-altering border was drawn to mark reservation lands. The Navajo reservation was created by the Treaty of 1868 after returning from being forcibly removed to Bosque Redondo. In this case, fences are more imaginary enactments of confinement (i.e. reservation borders) marking what is/is not “Indian land” while also racializing those who inhabit these spaces as “Indians.” We are Nahooka Diyiin Diné’e, Holy Earth Surface People, and only became “Indians” insofar as the U.S. government needed to decide who owned which pieces of land—Indians or settlers. Sarah Hunt calls this “the spatialization of the violence of the law itself,” where the law enforces spatial regulations that violate the culture and interrupt a community’s relational lifeways.

Some fences are physical and others, like reservation boundaries, are imaginary. Photo of Navajo Nation land by the author, 2019.

Reservations enacted one kind of spatialized violence, and just a few decades later, The Dawes Act of 1887 enacted another. The Dawes Act of 1887 was a system that created mini private properties on Indian lands, diving up one square mile zones called allotments. The purpose of allotments was to force Indigenous people to farm and ranch like white settlers by participating in a system of sedentary private property. After time, allotments were designed to make Indian lands disappear as Indigenous folks were assimilated into U.S. agricultural and property systems.

Once the reservation and allotment lines were drawn, fences became a common structure marking one parcel from another. These new fencing structures created separation in my community. For Diné, lands were communal—an idea that created a large amount of uncertainty for settlers whose interests were protected by legal systems and private property ownership. Patrick Wolfe explains how this conflict affects agriculture in Indigenous communities. Unlike extractive industries, agriculture is permanent, expansive, reproductive, and sedentary. It envelopes land and (re)produces excessively. But Wolfe asks: “if the natives are already agriculturalists, then why not simply incorporate their productivity into the colonial economy?” The answer lies in a clash between settler ideas about private property verses Indigenous communal relationships with land.

Fences Sever Families, Land, and Traditions

Navajo pastoralism requires a fluency in our worldview which is communicated through songs, prayers, creation stories, relationships to livestock, the clan system, and Diné bizaad. Perry is a Nahooka Diyiin Diné’e5 traditionalist, fluent speaker, and active member of The Diné Hataałi Association, Inc. When I spoke with Perry about horsemanship, his words were urgent as he stressed to me, “I think the main important thing you need is to hear this stuff in the language.” The land tells us a story about how to be good pastoralists. He explained, “in order to get to today, we gotta go all the way back to the beginning of time, whether we’re just gonna learn about horses, it’s gonna all make sense when you get to hear it and you’re finally gonna get to the story of horses here.” Horses, humans, or any creature is only one part of an interconnected narrative, and to understand one part, you have to have knowledge of how it fits into the whole.

One of the first documented fencing projects on Navajo Nation was part of a program designed “to demonstrate to the local Navajos some of the advantages in the government’s livestock reduction program”6. The program installed demo fencing areas spanning about 800 acres of Navajo Nation. The purpose was to regulate the amount of livestock permitted to graze in each area and the hope was that the Navajo people would consider the difference in vegetation under a “controlled” grazing situation. The fences were meant to convince Navajo people that reducing their herds would be advantageous while also introducing barriers within the community.

Two riders on horses on a grassy plain. Mountains in the background.
Riders and horses on Navajo land. Photo by the author, 2016.

Grazing units do not require fencing7, but the borders drawn for units have a set of consequences that deeply trouble some members of community: breaking up family and clan relationships, restricting relationships with livestock, and creating a dependence on fences even though they’re not an original structure of Diné pastoralism.

When I ask Sam—a horse lover grounded in Diné traditional ways— about these fencing projects, she describes how fencing split families and (dis)connected relationalities with the land. She says,

It’s a barrier between us and them . . . my grandparents would have seen it, you know, splitting up the land, splitting up the relationships, splitting up what was established, and putting a barrier there and saying, no and yes . . . I always see that here, and I always wonder how was it here before all these fences were put up. How was it before? Were relationships ruined because of this? Were clans severed because of this?

Diné have a dynamic set of interwoven relationships known as k’é, or the clan system. If Diné observe how the land systemically links all living beings together, it is apparent that the land maps out our clan responsibilities. Before grazing areas were mapped using linear lines, Diné navigated spaces using land marks like rocks, hills, mesas, and windmills. But grazing lines interrupted these movements. BB, a trainer and advocate for horses, explains: “when section lines came in, they didn’t really explain.” Consequently, it disrupted centuries of family agreements about when and where to move across place.

Perry points out the contradictions for those who want to relate with livestock using a Diné framework but who live in the current context on Navajo Nation. He says,

We knew land range management, we knew that. We knew that we had animals but we knew we didn’t go beyond a point, not because it’s a boundary but because it has to do with respect, there’s people living there. You always attend to your animals daily [. . . ] I’m fencing it up. I’m trying to deal with it from a traditional perspective, but yet I’m fighting back with a western perspective by fencing up.

Diné teachings consistently lead humans to strive for hǫ́zhǫ́ or harmony, reconciliation, and peace between positive and negative forces. The balance of land/animals is facilitated by our actions in relationship to each other. The tension between positive and negative is natural in our worldview, but a state of imbalance is not, so Diné listen to our land as a map to get back to being in good relationship.

Navigating by land formations put in place by the Holy People is a way of showing respect for the clan system and what it communicates about relationships. The difference is that these markers are open, fluid, and non-restrictive. Sam says,

if a long time ago the Holy People had intended for separation that would have happened, you know. We only want you guys between this so we’re gonna build a rock fence, or we’ll put you in this area where you can’t get out of ever. That would have been already done in. I think if that was done, it would have been easier for us to take fences; it wouldn’t have been such a big deal that somebody put up a new fence or somebody wanted a fence.

Of course, fences are not evil in and of themselves. Rather, it’s the incongruencies they place upon our decisions to live as Diné pastoralists. This prompts me to think about a fencing structure less often associated with colonization or confinement—corrals. Corrals are in the backdrop of every horse story or daily animal relationships. For my family, our corral was a gathering space for training and fellowship. Corrals demonstrate something very different for me—community centered around land and livestock.

Fences, Horse Homes, and Making Right Relations

In the Navajo language corral is łį́į́’ bighaan, literally meaning a horse home. Horse homes should be built with respect and provide shelter so the horse can flourish in right relations with ourselves. However, my family’s empty horse corral reminds me of forced land changes and how those affect our sense of belonging. Sam helped me understand why our empty corral elicits distress that I interpret as fear. She says, “I think it’s interesting how you say its eerie to see an abandoned horse coral and like an abandoned shed, even if it’s a horse shed, because the only reason a house should be abandoned is if somebody passed away in it.”

Fences can be violent, and they can be beautiful. A fence flows with the land on the author’s family ranch in Colorado. Photo by author, 2020.

I reflected on what has left from that corral—my grandfather’s ranch, my family’s relationship with livestock, our closeness with the land, our grazing permit, our closeness to one another, our language, and all the ways that these relationships taught us about balance. But these separations are complicated and cannot be separated from the slew of colonial institutions enforced on my community: boarding schools, pollution from resource extraction, gendered violence, and changes in labor and wellness structures. We miss all the blessings from the land and the animal persons when we are forced to understand our relationships through structures of colonization. Breaking up the land, breaks up everything.            

Splitting our sacred space fractures the knowledge systems that restore beauty and maintain balance and healthy stewardship. Not only is the balance disrupted, but the method of teaching balance is lost too. Navajos protect the beauty of our universe because our culture and our land are one.

But fences are also man-made structures and can be built or taken down, which means we have the power to navigate them as we choose. Just like my grandfather’s corral where we gathered and learned together or the round pen where I build a relationship with my horse, a fence doesn’t have to be violent. In our worldview, fences can represent our dynamic relationship with our land and our animals. They can give us hope. We can make fences what we need them to be to walk in beauty with our land, animal, and human persons.

Thank you to the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board, the National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, and the NSF Graduate Fellowship Program for supporting my research. Also, thank you to the communities who contributed to this conversation formally through research and informally as community knowledge carriers. Always, thank you to the horses, our teachers, friends, and healers.

Featured image: The author’s family ranch in Colorado. Photo by author, 2020.

Kelsey Dayle John (Diné) just completed a postdoc at the University of Arizona with a joint appointment in American Indian Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies and will be transitioning to assistant professor in Fall, 2020. Her work is centered on Indigenous animal relationalities, particularly horse/human relationships as ways of knowing, healing, and decolonizing education. Along with much time spent learning with horses, Kelsey’s research interests also include: Indigenous feminisms, decolonizing methodologies, and Tribal College and Universities. Contact.

  1. Paternal grandfather 

  2. Horses or livestock broadly 

  3. Traditionally, horse corrals are supposed to be on the south side of the house. 

  4. Our horses 

  5. Sacred person of the land 

  6. Boyce & Fryer, E. R. (1939). Dineh and government in Kaibeto district. U.S. Dept. of the Interior. Washington, D.C. 

  7. See Section 713 titled “Fences” of the Navajo Nation Grazing Regulations Manual