Working on the railroad, Walking in Beauty: The Voices of Navajo Railroad Workers

Those who drive along Interstate 40 from Albuquerque, New Mexico through northern Arizona and into the Southern California desert are treated to a rainbow of colors in the mesas and through the mountains. They encounter the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, a stunning descent into the canyon of the Colorado River, and the subtle variations of a cactused landscape. While the beauty delights travelers, this natural view is often interrupted by the consistent stream of trains—owned by Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad—rolling over the double-tracked rails that parallel much of the highway. If you drive past these rails, you’ll often see large gangs of men—some working with hand tools, others operating machinery—maintaining the rails so the tracks can absorb the constant pounding that the trains dish out. Travelers in the Southwest often don’t know that many, if not most, of these men are Navajos. The Navajo Nation, occupying a landmass north of these tracks that’s nearly the size of the state of West Virginia, has been their home for roughly seven hundred years. Nearly a quarter million Navajos live here.

Railroad work has been one of the only forms of continuous wage labor available to Navajo men since their return to this reservation after the infamous U.S. government-enforced “Long Walk” of the 1860s. While Navajos and the Western railroads have a constant connection, an upsurge in Navajo railroad employment began after World War II, when companies were forced to send Mexican “bracero” workers home. In order to supply labor to the railroads a paternalistic triangle was formed. It was comprised of the U.S. government, mainly represented by the Railroad Retirement Board, an obscure federal agency based in Chicago; the Western railroad companies; and the owners of the trading posts that dotted the reservation. The Navajos had no say in the arrangement. Leroy Yazzie Sr., a pleasant sixty-year-old man with a sparkling Navajo sense of humor, found work on the railroads through his trading post. He got his job on the Rock Island Railroad after talking to a trader at the local trading post who told him to “round up some Navajos.” Leroy found some men willing to go work at the railroad. All of the Navajo men got in the back of a pick-up truck and the trader drove them to the embarkation site.

Railroad work is generally dangerous and, with few exceptions, Navajos are offered only the most difficult work on the major Western railways—track maintenance. Injuries are commonplace, as track work is still performed much as it was well over one hundred years ago. So, to this day, after the snow begins to melt in the spring, Navajo men leave their reservation and travel between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi River, in gangs of up to one hundred, maintaining and replacing aging railroad tracks.

Jerry Sandoval, the brother of a traditional medicine man, lives in a family compound at the end of a road on a beautiful small mesa overlooking a small settlement in the “checkerboard” area of the Navajo Nation. Jerry, a pleasant stocky man in his fifties, went to work for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1978, travelling throughout the Southwest and the southern Midwest off and on for the next eight years, rising at one point to the position of assistant foreman. He is a family man, and his house is festooned with artwork made by his kids. One of them now serves in the U.S. military.

Jerry thought it was “pretty nice to see a lot of places” during his railroad work and to meet a lot of different people. Most of his work was as a trackman on a steel gang laying rails. He worked on some gangs that had Navajos, Anglos, blacks, and Mexicans.  But usually he worked on steel gangs that were all Navajo, consisting of more than one hundred men, mostly from the Arizona side of the reservation, living in railroad cars and often working twenty days without a day off. He is proud of the work of the Navajos saying, “We Indians were the best.”

Jerry stayed employed over several winters, working on curb gangs and replacing switches. However, like many workers who fall out of the world of wage labor, he suffered an accident, breaking his leg in a car wreck on his way back from work. He never recovered well enough to return to the railroad.

Track work takes its toll on workers, physically and psychically. Navajos are unionized, but their relationship with their union has not completely satisfied them. While these men have the same legal rights as non-Navajo railroad workers, Navajos turn to their cultural traditions to survive the relentless demands of industrial capitalism. Rituals and ceremonies are employed to find personal protection at work and to maintain or restore beauty and balance, an integral concept of Navajo existence, known as hózhǫ́. Jerry told me about a variety of his co-workers’ rituals and ceremonies—given the brutal schedule that is life on a track gang, however, the men could only occasionally get away for these practices. Some workers used corn pollen before work, ritually applying it to their bodies. Some “churchgoers” used anointing oil before work in a similar manner. Native American Church practitioners had medicine pouches, and they would often (after work) put herbs on the diesel stoves in the bunk cars, filling the cars with the aroma from their smoldering. On Sundays,

Christian men would try to go to nearby churches. Co-workers who practiced traditional religion sometimes went into the mountains after work to “do their stuff” (i.e., traditional singing).  Some mornings Jerry could hear some of them praying.

Hoskie Pinto started working on the Union Pacific Railroad in 1957, as a laborer with a shovel and a pick. His gangs included Navajos, other Native Americans, whites, and Mexicans. While he worked all over the Union Pacific system, on and off, for more than twenty-five years, he was never able to accumulate the months of service required to earn a pension. Again, as with many others, his railroad service ended when he got hurt. In the 1980s, while he was laying ribbon rail in

Cheyenne, Wyoming, a piece of rail fell on his foot. When he was taken to the hospital, a company claims agent came to his room and told him to sign something. According to the agent, it was a good deal. Hoskie was never given a copy of the paperwork, but it was most likely a settlement agreement, in which Hoskie gave up all his rights to sue or collect compensation. The railroad made no plans for what he should do after this. As soon as he was physically able to travel, the railroad put him on a plane to Denver. When he got there he did not know what to do, and he speaks little English. Fortunately, he met a Hispanic man from Santa Fe who recognized his plight. Hoskie followed him and they flew to Albuquerque, where Hoskie boarded a train and got off near the reservation. Due to the inadequate medical treatment he received, his leg still hurts. After his accident, his grandfather taught him and his brother the craft of becoming a medicine an.

Kee Spencer, who lives on the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation, is especially adept at these traditional strategies for combating the rigors of railroad work. Kee, a medicine man in both the traditional and peyotist religions, often was asked to hold ceremonies for railroad workers. Several years ago he held a “meeting,” the term used in the peyotist tradition for what Christians would call services, for a worker who came to him complaining of harassment on the job. The worker expressed a fear to Kee that the railroad was hurrying people to work too fast and that injuries would result. The men understood from their Anglo bosses that the railroad wanted their gang to install two thousand railroad ties each day on a section of track, resulting in a speed-up that guaranteed serious safety problems. In response, Kee performed a traditional Goodway ceremony and a peyote meeting for around twenty-five people who gathered in Burnt Corn, Arizona. As it was summer, the meeting took place in a tepee, and lasted through the night. It was important, Kee told me, that those in the ceremony “think good thoughts.”

During the ceremony, participants were able to “look into the fire and see things,” he said. Some days after the ceremony, the workers came back to Kee and told him that the railroad had changed its production quota for the men, reducing it from the requirement to lay two thousand railroad ties a day down to a manageable five hundred ties a day. There is now less harassment and more safety. Kee says the ceremony is responsible for the improvement. “My prayers were answered,” he said.

Railroad life puts great stress on Navajo families, as well as on the workers themselves. The family of Dickie and Marilyn Sandoval is one such example. Dickie worked for Union Pacific from 1988 to 1994. In 1988, he hitched a ride with his uncle, who was working on a Union Pacific gang in Wyoming. He was hired onto this mixed gang, which included Anglos, Mexican-Americans, and Navajos. With much difficulty, his wife Marilyn and their two children followed the gang in the summertime when the children were out of school, staying in a motel near the work site. Later, Dickie worked on steel and tie gangs, and his railroad career took him and his family to Nebraska and Kansas. However, Dickie lost his job because transportation difficulties prevented him from consistently getting to work at the appointed hour. The Navajo Nation reservation is a sprawling piece of land and few surfaced roads cross it. At the time, Dickie did not own a car and had a hard time getting to the gangs when he was recalled after seasonal layoffs. He was eventually fired for not showing up to work, even though he says he notified the railroad whenever he could not make it. His Anglo boss maintained there was no record of notification efforts.

As is the case with many American working families, young Navajos often go into the military. Jared—the son of Marilyn’s sister, Patty—was serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army when we talked. Patty had a hogan—a small, round building like those that can be seen throughout Navajo land—built near her house in which ceremonies to protect her son were performed. Patty made sure that a Blessingway ceremony was performed for Jared when he left for Iraq and when he returned from military duty. While Jared was in Iraq, Patty acted as his “stand-in.” People sung over her while traditional ceremonies were performed to better ensure his safe return. After each of these ceremonies, she had to stay “holy” for two to three days. This meant, Marilyn told me, that she could not cut meat, chop weeds, or shake hands with people. Finally, for Jared’s protection, she had a medicine man perform a ceremony on an arrowhead that she found. When Jared returned home on leave, Marilyn gave the arrowhead to him and he wore it for the remainder of his military assignment. When Jared finally returned for good, he was alive but had two pieces of shrapnel lodged in his body.

Navajos don’t shun collective labor action or legal rights. Strikes by Navajo workers, especially in Western coal mines, are not uncommon and today they often seek lawyers for help with their workplace injuries. But, like all of us, Navajo people struggle—in culturally specific ways—to find methods to resist the onslaughts of the system in which we live.

Life is a constant negotiation of forces that must be faced, through actions that aim to reintegrate and replenish. All workers seek well-being through practices and resources that are available to them and, as such, seek to satisfy common needs and desires in what often seem like uncommon ways to others. For Navajo railroad workers, in spite of their many obstacles and continuing difficulties, their practices have allowed them to stay cohesive, balanced, and even cheerful—states of mind we all aspire to attain.

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