The First Green New Deal

Chester Nez grew up on the “Checkerboard,” an area of land broken up into privately owned plots adjacent to the Navajo reservation in northern New Mexico. There, his family tended its herds of sheep and goats, eking out a living through subsistence farming, much as their Navajo ancestors had done in the difficult environment. By modern standards, they would be considered to be living in near extreme poverty.

It was the era of the Dust Bowl. High temperatures and severe drought combined with traditional and early mechanized farming methods to dry out and loosen the topsoil in the nation’s southwestern plains. Topsoil that blew away with the winds in massive dust clouds during the 1930s. It was both an economic and environmental disaster.

In Washington, D.C., bureaucrats in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration were determined to right the economic and environmental wrongs they perceived were the cause of the Dust Bowl. Since they couldn’t do anything about the weather, they set out devising ways to stop farm overproduction and the overgrazing of livestock to reduce soil erosion.

Soil erosion had become a concern on the Navajo reservation because of overgrazing. To address that problem, the bureaucrats proposed to greatly reduce the size of livestock herds that Navajo families tended. They also proposed to extend their livestock-reduction policy to lands adjacent to the reservation, such as the Checkerboard area. For Navajo residents of the region, the bureaucrats’ livestock-reduction policy would be implemented by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

As a young teenager, Chester Nez directly encountered what might be described the “First Green New Deal” in action, telling the story in his memoir. The story tells us a lot about what to expect from today’s Green New Deal should its visionaries gain power.

The men drove the heavy-duty bulldozer off the flatbed, down a hastily placed ramp. My family and I watched. The big machine lumbered across Grandma’s property, raising clouds of dust. It stopped not far from the hogan. We heard scraping sounds as a huge trench was dug deep—the men and machine moved to a plot of land inhabited by another family and dug another long hole in the ground. They dug three or four trenches, each on property owned by different neighbors....

A week or so later, the BIA men returned on horseback. My family gathered at the hogan.

The BIA workers blocked one end of the trench on Grandma’s land, leaving the other end open. “You need to round up your sheep and goats,” one man said. “Herd them into the trench.”

Grandfather’s face had turned to stone. “But—”

“Do not protest, Grandfather,” one of the BIA workers said, using the polite form of address for a younger man addressing an elder. “Haven’t you heard, you’ll get thrown in jail?”

My stomach knotted as I helped herd all but three hundred of Grandmother’s sheep and goats into the deep trench. The willing, domesticated animals moved readily into the trench through the open end. Then the BIA workers sealed that end. A flammable material was sprayed on the animals, and they were set on fire.

We couldn’t believe what we were witnessing. I covered my ears, but could not block the shrieks of the animals, especially the goats, who had a high, piercing cry. The stench of burning wool and flesh filled the normally fresh air.

That night, as I lay sleepless, the screams echoed in my head. Across the hogan, Grandmother and Grandfather cried softly.

Through years of hard work Grandma’s herd had grown to around a thousand animals, mostly sheep, with a scattering of goats. The entire family had worked hard to build up our herd, and we were happy and grateful for our healthy animals. In Navajo country, sheep were a measure of wealth. So, despite the Depression afflicting the rest of the nation, my family had worked their way to success. I knew that Dora and I had helped. With the herd reduced by seven hundred head, all those years of labor came to nothing....

Father, working at the trading post, learned that families all over the reservation and the Checkerboard were devastated by the massacre of their livestock. Any family with more than a hundred head of sheep and goats was subject to the “reduction.” The number of animals killed varied on a sliding scale, depending on how big each herd was.

Like today’s Green New Deal, the Navajo who lost livestock in the reduction were promised education and training that would lead to government jobs in the New Deal’s alphabet soup of public works programs as compensation. But even though 75 percent of the Navajo’s herds were liquidated, the promised jobs never materialized.

Nor were Navajo families fully compensated for the federal government’s taking of their herds. They were even prevented from selling what they could salvage from their lost animals. The most successful families, who had worked for decades to build what wealth they had accumulated, had been pushed toward extreme poverty by the bureaucrats’ progressive “green” wealth tax, imposed through the massacre of their livestock.

The consequences of the Great Livestock Massacre went far beyond that government-mandated sacrifice for the Navajo.

The effect on the Navajo sense of community was devastating. In the time before the massacre, friends and neighbors helped one another. When someone fell sick, neighbors pitched in to care for their animals. Medicine men and women were summoned to cure both people and animals. Neighbors and family assisted by gathering together at night and praying for the sick to recover.

The livestock reduction challenged this sense of community by pitting Navajo against Navajo. Those who kept livestock resented the Navajo exterminators who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neighbors put up fences to enclose their pastures, saving them for the sheep that they had left. The year-round migration from one community grazing area to another that had always been the norm as I grew up became impossible. As a result, ties between neighbors weakened.

The toll in self-respect was also huge. Families, unable to protect their own livestock, felt powerless. And nothing could have done more to erode the local work ethic. What was the point of working hard to build up wealth, a sizable herd, when the government just stepped in and destroyed it?

The New Deal bureaucrats took what was both an economic and environmental disaster and made it worse in a vain attempt to heal the environment, a goal they would never achieve. The ambition of today’s Green New Deal activists would seem fixed on repeating the Navajo tragedy. Not as farce, but instead as more tragedy, visited upon more people, on a much grander scale.

Chester Nez went on to serve in the U.S. Marines during the Second World War, recruited as a code talker for his ability to speak both Navajo and English, who fought in numerous campaigns in the Pacific theater of the war. His biography, Code Talker, tells a much bigger story of an American hero.

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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