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Utopian Vision: The Navajo, the New Deal, and the Soil Conservation Service

By Lillian Makeda

The genesis for this project occurred in 2008 with the discovery of a remarkable plot plan in a set of materials belonging to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.   The plan, which dates from 1944 shows a large complex of about 30 buildings on the Navajo Nation at a place called Nakaibitó or Mexican Springs, located some 20 miles north of Gallup.  A trip to the site shortly afterward proved to be both disappointing and surprising.   Aside from a concrete pump house and three masonry dwellings, the complex had completely disappeared.  My companion, archaeologist John R. Stein, was taken aback because even the archaeological remains at Mexican Springs have been almost obliterated from the site, which historic documents indicate was a center of intense activity until the mid-1940s.

Other lines of evidence, including architectural drawings for the structures that once stood at Mexican Springs, have proven to be revealing.[1]  A New York architectural firm, Mayers, Murray, and Phillip, designed an administration building and several houses for the site during the mid-1930s.  Mayers, Murray, and Phillip, who took over Bertram Goodhue’s studio after his untimely death in 1924, were contracted with the Office of Indian Affairs in 1933 to produce plans for hundreds of Spanish-Pueblo Revival style buildings throughout the Southwest, not only on the Navajo Nation, but also at several of the Pueblos.

The administration building at Mexican Springs was equipped with a laboratory, herbarium, and a darkroom, and further research has confirmed that the complex at Mexican Springs was unique.  It was formerly known as the Navajo or Nakaibitó Experiment Station and was a showpiece for range restoration work performed by the Soil Conservation Service in the region.   As such, it was part of a very large program known as “the Navajo Project” that extended across Indian reservations in northern New Mexico and Arizona.  Mexican Springs was one of some 13 Demonstration Areas on the Navajo Nation, which at their maximum extent, enclosed and controlled nearly 300 square miles of the reservation.  

What was the Soil Conservation Service doing on the Navajo Nation?  By the early 1930s, soil erosion had become a major problem not only in the US, but also worldwide.  The Soil Conservation Service originated in 1933 as the Soil Erosion Service, located within the Department of the Interior.   Led by Hugh Bennett, the agency was mandated to address soil erosion on the national level.  A major part of Bennett’s program was the formation of demonstration projects where agricultural techniques could be researched and developed and where people could come to learn by example.

By 1935, the year when the Soil Erosion Service joined the Department of Agriculture and became the Soil Conservation Service, Bennett had established 40 demonstration projects throughout the United States on some 40 million acres.[2]  Of these 40 million acres, approximately 36 million were located on federal lands, all in the Southwest within the watersheds of the Gila and Rio Grande River and on the Navajo Nation.  The Navajo Nation, at roughly 16 million acres was considered to be a demonstration project in its entirety and was the single largest unit by a significant margin (the Rio Grande project was the second largest and was initially set at 11.5 million acres).[3]

John Collier, who was appointed the head of the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) in 1933, had been working as a proponent for Native American rights for over a decade. Historic documents indicate that he had been discussing the possibility of an experiment station on several occasions before taking over the OIA.[4]  Shortly after he was appointed, he contacted an old friend Richard Boke, a writer and educator, and asked him to organize the new installation.

Although the Soil Erosion Service was not officially inaugurated until September of 1933, the Mexican Springs site had been selected and the Navajo Nation Council had officially approved the project by July of that year.[5]  Boke arrived soon after and began construction work on the station and several erosion control projects.  John Collier’s oldest son, Charles Collier and other members of the Soil Conservation Service and the OIA were also involved with selecting sites for Demonstration Areas during late 1933; within a short period, 13 had been established in New Mexico and Arizona.[6]

The federal government attributed soil erosion in the Four Corners region to over-grazing and the misapplication of animal husbandry practices.   Much of the work of the Soil Conservation Service and the OIA involved promulgating changes in livestock management.  The carrying capacity of the reservation was established through scientific research and the federal government effectuated an aggressive policy of stock reduction.  Without question, stock reduction was the most controversial policy implemented on the Navajo Nation during the 20th century.  Over the course of several years, the Navajo (Diné) were forced to reduce their herds and modify their social organization (which was related to livestock ownership).  The results were devastating and seriously compromised the relationship between the federal government and the Diné.

This research project is not directly about stock reduction, but the Soil Conservation Service was involved with animal sales and its reputation was consequently tarnished.  A major component of the Navajo Project was the development of new animal management techniques.  To that end, all livestock was removed from the Demonstration Areas for a period of a year.  Residents were compensated through direct payment and through the opportunity to obtain employment.[7]  When animals were reintroduced, the herds were significantly smaller and rams were segregated to prevent lambing during the winter months.  The increased weight of the lambs and larger sheep clip were publicized to encourage the Diné to follow suit.  The Soil Conservation Service, in conjunction with the OIA, promoted their message through exhibits and a road show with a 16mm projector that traveled around the reservation.  The Soil Conservation Service also attempted to bring the Diné people to the Demonstration Areas to learn from the work that was occurring there.

 The experimental program at Mexican Springs was tremendously broad and varied.  The scientists who lived and worked there devised a wide range of tests to assess plant performance under different types of conditions. Orchards and a nursery were developed with diverse types of vegetation.  Numerous varieties of corn (some of them brought to Mexican Springs from South America) were evaluated.  Government agronomists even investigated the possibility of piñon pine plantations.  It should be added that aside from agricultural experiments, Mexican Springs was also the site of a major economic experiment, namely, the first “cooperative trading post” on the Navajo Nation.  The trader was paid a regular wage and local Diné worked together to jointly run the store. 

The changes in the landscape wrought by the Soil Conservation Service included a wide variety of erosion control structures.  These engineering devices were built in all of the Demonstration Areas, as well as at other locations throughout the region in an attempt to determine the most effective methods for protecting the land from wind and water erosion.

The Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Department was integral to the Navajo Project and performed construction work to prevent lateral (or horizontal) erosion along gullies, streams, and washes.  They also built structures that helped to retard the velocity of watercourses and encourage the formation of silt.  Canals, terraces, charcos (retention dams), water spreaders, drop structures, sausages (cylindrical structures made of rocks enclosed in wire fencing), contour furrows, check dams, diversion dams and more were all part of the repertoire employed by the Soil Conservation Service to slow the rate of erosion.[8]  1.3 million linear feet, equaling 244 linear miles of these structures, had been constructed on the Navajo Nation by the middle of 1935.[9]

Diné complaints about the work of the Soil Conservation Service on the Demonstration Areas had reached the halls of Congress by 1937.[10]  By 1943, the Navajo Nation Council had approved a resolution to close the Demonstration Areas, a request that the Secretary of the Interior apparently disregarded.[11]  By the end of 1944, however, the Soil Conservation Service had departed Mexican Springs.[12]  There is still documentary research to complete for this project, and an important part of the remaining work will also be to collect oral histories from the families who live around the former Demonstration Areas.  Most of the physical remains of the Navajo Project are now difficult to find.  Around the reservation one may discern “lumpy landscapes” that don’t feel natural but which do not yield easily to interpretation.  One of the things that is most intriguing about this project is that it is about places that have been forgotten, at least by those of us who were not directly affected by them.   Ultimately, my hope is that this project will bring to light information about an important and largely overlooked event that changed the lives of thousands of people in this region. 

[1] Digital copies located in the archives of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, Window Rock, Arizona.  The originals of these documents may be found in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, RG 75 PWA 1931-43 FP 121.  The duplicates were generously donated to the Navajo Nation by Rachel Leibowitz.

[2] Hugh G. Bennett, testimony in Congress, House, Subcommittee of the Committee on the Public Lands, Soil Erosion Program, 74th Congress, 1st Session, March 20th, 1935, 4-5.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] “Letter from Richard Boke to John Collier, May 18, 1933,” in The John Collier Papers, 1922-1968 [microform], Reel 11.  The Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque.

[5] Minutes of the Eleventh Annual Session of the Navajo Tribal Council, held at Fort Wingate, NM, July 7-8, 1933, 49.  A copy of these minutes may be found at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque.

[6] The demonstration areas were located at Piute Canyon, AZ; Cove, AZ; Moenave, AZ; Frazer, AZ; Steamboat, AZ; Kayenta, AZ; Klagetoh, AZ; Ganado, AZ; Chilchinbito, AZ; Canyon de Chelly, AZ; Kinbineloa, NM; Mariano Lake, NM; and Mexican Springs, NM.

[7] “Memorandum from Bruno Klinger to D.S. Hubbell,” April 8, 1937.  United States Soil Conservation Service Region Eight records, 1919-1953, Box 8.  Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico-Albuquerque.

[8] For a description of some of these structures, see Navajo District Annual Report 1937-1938, US Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, Region 8, 17-27. New Mexico State University Library Archives and Special Collections Department.

[9] Annual Report of the Navajo Project, Soil Conservation Service Project Number 10 for the Year ending June 30, 1935, vi and 61. United States Soil Conservation Service Region Eight records, 1919-1953, Box 7.  Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico-Albuquerque.

[10] See, for example, the testimony of Frank Cadman in Congress, Senate, Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs, Survey of Conditions of the Indians in the United States, part 34, 75th Congress, 1st Session, August 19, 1936, 17958-17960.

[11] David Aberle, The Peyote Religion Among the Navajo (Chicago:  Aldine Publishing, 1966), 75.

[12] Margaret Page Hood, “Hosteen Bitsi is Unique,” The Christian Science Monitor, 25 November, 1944:  7.