No comments yet

The Shell Game by Nicole Walker

The following essay was written by Nicole Walker.  It was recently featured in the new BEI Edition, Geographies of Justice, and will be read on our Saturday, August 14th Reading series.

The Shell Game

My friend Bruce told me there were entire orchards out here but all I see are mesas. There is no sign of water on any of those mesas’ surfaces. I’m not sure where those trees he mentioned would grow. But then, maybe I’m not even in the right place. My GPS told me to turn right and then right and then right again. The fourth right must have been a little too obvious of a circle of not-knowing to the cops because they started following me, if you can call tailing a person who doesn’t know where they’re going following. First, they followed me into someone’s driveway. Then, they followed me down a dirt road that dead-ended right before the paved road. Then, they followed me as I took three lefts to go back the way I came so I could get on that paved road that would eventually take me to the Community Center where I was supposed to be. I didn’t blame them for following me. Even if I was, for a day, an Election Protector, I was a stranger in their country. Usually, when traveling internationally, you cannot just assume your GPS will guide you correctly. But I presumed that because this nation was within a couple hours drive of my own, I didn’t need to consult a map. But I realized, turned around again, that just because I didn’t need my passport didn’t mean that I knew what I was doing.


I am burning fossils to get out to Hopi to serve as an Election Protector for the 2018 election. Although a big dinosaur on the Sinclair station sign loomed over me as I filled up my tank, I know it’s mostly plants, shells, and tiny marine animals that form the substance that makes the energy that pushes my car forward. That Sinclair Brontosauri have not been stewing in the earth’s crust long enough to provide the kind of fuel we need. We need that thick stuff laid down before the dinosaurs even began to live, let alone die. So many layers of potential. What if earth is made of nothing but usefulness?

I should have turned left but I turned right instead. I am steering my Honda with my left hand and scrolling my GPS with my right hand. There are roads and there are dirt roads and I can’t find the Sipoulovi Youth and Elderly Building on either of them. I steer with my knee and grab the list that Patricia from the Sandra Day O’Connor Law Center, part of the law school at ASU, sent me to make sure that they who wanted to vote, could. I have three locations that I’m supposed to visit as an Election Protector. Turn right on Terrace Avenue. I see a Terrace Avenue but it’s to the left. I take it. The street winds upward across a terrace. There’s also Long Street and Broad Street but only Terrace is truly illustrative. Like Lombard Street in San Francisco, the road turns by hairpins. There’s one building with a neon sign that could be a community center if community centers had ghost-town-feel wooden doors clacking against their frames. But they don’t, so I keep going up. Hairpin. Big blue cars with vinyl roofs and pointed fins parked alongside. A dog with a bone crosses the road. Two chickens.

Here, the color of the houses is the same blond of the hillside. The last house has a Porta Potty. I have to pee. Perhaps like all Porta Potties, like the one at my house when we were adding above the garage, anyone working anywhere on our street used the Porta Potty in our yard—the meter reader, the UPS guy, the arborist—mainly guys, but still. No one is looking. The view from this Porta Potty is incredible—the painted desert to the left, the third Mesa to the right. The best thing about Arizona is its layers—layers of sandstone in the Grand Canyon, layers of Merriam’s Life Zones—all nine as you click down from alpine to low Saguaro filled desert, layers of trees turned to stone in the Petrified forest, layers of blue sky, light white at the edge of the Horizon, stacked bluer and bluer until it’s over your head and you threaten to topple over backwards—the cloud just above and behind you—another steppe.


I have surely missed the Community Center. It’s a three-point turn to point my car downhill. No one comes to stand on their front steps to see how long it’s taking me to flip around. I sense the lack of people wondering what I’m doing is a hint that I’m supposed to go away. Do not engage—a policy I maintain when the Mormon Missionaries come to my door.  Just ignore this interloper, I imagine them saying. She’ll be gone soon enough. And I am.


A year after I’d gone out to Hopi, my friend Erik Bitsui invited his friend, Danny, to my house for a backyard barbecue. I had just enough burgers to cover an extra person. I wish I’d had more because some people like two hamburgers and Danny played guitar for us all night. If I couldn’t repay him with red meat, at least Erik, my husband, not Bitsui, had enough beer. Danny sang the kind of songs we knew the words to. I don’t know how we knew them—they weren’t folk songs—mostly the Cars and Siouxie and the Banshees and that Barenaked Ladies Song “If I had a Million Dollars.”

Erik not Bitsui asked if Danny wanted to stay for one more beer. He was a big guy and he wasn’t driving. He could stay because he didn’t have to work tomorrow. They’d closed the Navajo Generating Station.

“I worked there for twenty-two years.” Danny was my age, or so, I’d guessed. Very few people my age had worked for a single company for twenty-two years.

“But it’s good they’re closing, right? I mean Peabody has done so much damage to the Rez,” I said.

“Not so good if it’s your job,” Danny said. “My dad works there too. Worked.”


The Navajo Generating Station sits on the south edge of Lake Powell, just outside of Page, Arizona. Peabody Energy ships coal north to the Generating Station from Kayenta Mine. The plant employs 538 people. 80% of the Hopi Tribe’s operating budget comes from the generating station. Our congressional representative, Tom O’Halleran, introduced legislation called The Promise Act to support the transition from the coal power plant but to what? The number of times the Federal Government has promised to support Indigenous Americans is as deep as the Grand Canyon and every promise is buried under a bureaucratic layer of rock.


The Hopi L.D.S. Church in Polacca, on the Hopi Mesas, north of Winslow, smells exactly like every Mormon Church everywhere. Perhaps it’s the Wonder Bread. I admit I haven’t tested all of the churches but with cousins and in-laws and weddings and funerals, the thirty-some odd Ward Houses I’ve been in smell like Jesus paintings and gyms where both basketball games and weddings are held.

You can also hold elections in an LDS gym. Entering the gymnasium where the polls had been set up, I didn’t feel as conspicuous as I had when the cops were following me or when I was winding up the terraces. But I was surprised to see a man with a big bronze marshal badge guarding the doors. As an Election Protector, I thought I was bringing law and order, but no. I was just a volunteer lurking around the ballot boxes. The poll worker sat at her desk and looked me up and down. I told her I was just here to make sure everything went OK.

“Was everybody who wanted to vote able to vote?” I asked.

“Everything is going well today,” she said.

“Even people without a house address?” As in North Dakota, Arizona requires people to have a house number and street name to vote even though they only need a PO Box for all other government business. Often, on the reservations, like many small communities, houses don’t have addresses. People just say, take a left by the blue car with the white vinyl roof or take three rights and a left at the Shell Station. But as candidates for office plead for greater voter turnout, in the days leading up to the election, information flew around social media telling people how to get an address. In North Dakota, voting rights advocates encouraged tribal members to call their 911 coordinator to have an address assigned if one hadn’t been already. 911 can get you a residential address faster than any other working body—another system that most Americans have immediately available to them but that tribal members have to go out of their way to request.

“No trouble,” she repeated.

“Well, here’s my info. If anyone there is any trouble.” I handed them copies of “What To Do If Someone Asks You for Your ID” pamphlets.

“Thank you.” She nodded at me. My sign to go.

The Marshal followed me out to the parking lot.

“I’m just going to sit here,” I told him as he watched from four empty stalls away. I pulled out my canvas camping chair and the poster I’d made with the flyers and signage that described what to do and who to call if the pollsters challenged your right to vote. I sat down and put the sign in my lap. The Marshal stood in the parking space next to me. I looked out at the road. Then down at my phone. And then at the poster.

“Well, I guess that’s it,” I said. I can stand being in the middle of a parking lot looking like an interloper and a misfit for, it turns out, exactly sixteen minutes.


It takes forever, almost literally, to make fossil fuels. Both coal and oil are built by sediment and plants layering on top of each other. Plants and other vegetative matter fall into fresh or brackish water to make coal. Marine life, shells and all, along with plants, cover the bottom of ancient oceans to make oil. Although there are probably no dinosaur remains in either coal or oil, animal life gives petroleum its shorter hydrocarbons, which makes them highly flammable. You would think it was the reason Shell Petroleum Inc uses the seashell for its logo—a more accurate nod than Sinclair’s dinosaur but possibly harder to sell stuffed animal versions of the logos to kids at the gas station—but that is not why. Before the family became fossil fuel diggers, they were in the seashell trading business.


Rowan Lyman, in a substantial article in the Progressive about the Talahongva family and the water situation in Hopi, interviewed Rosalie Talahongva. Her family is in the middle of finishing a house her father started building before he passed away. Her brother Marvin helped her buy a propane stove. She has repaired the bread oven. But, as Lyman writes, “The water is another story. It can’t be fixed with friends or ingenuity.”

The Peabody deal did what the US Government has often done in dealings with the tribe. Offered them one thing and then replaced it with another, a water-losing shell game.

Lyman continues, “For forty-one years, Peabody consumed 1.2 billion gallons of water from the Navajo aquifer. In the decades since, sacred springs have run dry and the Navajo aquifer’s structural stability and water quality has deteriorated, effects the National Resources Defense Council has attributed to Peabody’s operations.”

“They told us, ‘You have an ocean of water beneath you, and we want just one cup,” Rosalie Talahongva says. “They took more than a cup.”


For the past sixty years, Peabody mixed coal from the Kayenta mine with water from the aquifer to send the slurry to the Mojave generating station. It’s easier to move coal with water. Peabody swears the residue from the mine didn’t leach into the aquifer. Although arsenic is endemic to the soil of Arizona, it is also an affiliate of coal mining and coal burning. When smelters heat ore to retrieve other metals, arsenic is often released into the air as dust. Arsenic is also found in coal, and can be released through coal-fired power plants or incinerators that burn arsenic-containing products. Arsenic itself is also mined and used in industrial processes.

Not only has the water table been lowered in the aquifer, what is left has been replaced by arsenic tainted water. When the Hopi point to a shell to say, “I think that’s where our water went,” Peabody lifts up the shell, says, “Your marble is not under this shell.”


Having protected the elections for a full sixteen minutes, I wrapped up my posterboard and camp chair. It was only then that the Marshal came to talk to me. I told him I hoped that the protestors weren’t coming. Or the Election Disrupters. Although I’d been sent by the election protection officials at ASU’s law school, I didn’t anticipate a lot of problems—Hopi is a long drive for people interested in disrupting the vote. You could much more easily harass the voters in Leupp or Winslow or Williams. Perhaps that’s another reason I feel so conspicuous. I’m the one who traveled far. Maybe I’m the one coming to start some trouble. Just because I have a Honda CR-V doesn’t mean I’m not up to no good. I stuff the chair and poster in the back of the Honda.

“Hello. I was just here to help. I can see you don’t need any help. Sorry to intrude,” I mumbled.

“No worries. Just glad to see people out on voting day.”

“I’m working for the Sandra Day O’Connor Center at ASU. Not working really. I’m volunteering. I teach at the university in Flagstaff.”

I can’t introduce myself like a normal person, it seems, but the Marshal manages to.

“My name’s Herman Dulles.” Names are how you begin conversation, then you can dig deeper. But I seem to have forgotten my social manners.

“Are you a Marshal all the time or just on election day?”

“Oh, just today.”

“Election Protector for a day. Like me! What do you normally do?”

“This and that. My family has an auto body shop. I help out there. I just moved back here from Tuba City.”

“I drive through Tuba City a lot on my way to visit my in-law in Utah. How come you moved there?”

“Got pulled off the reservation. Sent to school to play basketball there. So I stayed.”

“What made you come back?

He told me his parents were getting older and he had more jobs to do.

“Do you know my friend Bruce Tala…?”

Herman finished Bruce’s last name for me. “Oh yeah, Bruce Talawyma. He’s great. He has been friends with my family for years.”

“I’m going to see him. Should I tell him hello from you?”

“You know. My name wasn’t always Herman Dulles. Government cut my name when they cut my hair. Bruce will know me though.”

“You were sent to a boarding school?”

“Yes. That’s why my name is a white name. It took a long time for my hair to grow back. It took a long time for me to come back home.”


Once I found the Kykotsmovi Community Center, I saw that, just as Mormon churches, community centers also smell the same: Bingo and industrial dish soap. Linoleum and Lysol. The woman who obviously runs the place walks toward me. “Dinette,” she says. “Biggest election turn-out ever,” she says. I look around. People are eating and voting and playing cards. I go back out to my camp chair and sign. I sit down in my chair. The women selling bottles of water and club sandwiches under a tent stare at me. I walk over to them.

“Are you always selling sandwiches here?” I ask them.

“No. Just on big days like voting days and festival days.”

A little girl asks me if I would like a sandwich. “No, thanks.” I don’t know what kind of sandwiches they are. The little girl and the women serving the sandwiches shake their heads in concert. A wall goes up between us. Who doesn’t take a sandwich when offered? I never have any cash. I don’t ask if they take cards. Maybe they’re giving me a sandwich for free.


Bruce showed up in his big glasses and his Ford Mercury. I’m glad I recognized him. I don’t know why he likes me. Why he comes to visit me in Flagstaff to take me to lunch. We met for the first time when I read a poem I wrote for the University President’s inauguration and he performed a welcome ceremony. But that was three years ago and now, here he is, standing beside me as we look across the parking lot, trying to keep the bend of the November sun out of each other’s eyes by standing slightly too close to each other.

“I’ve never been out here,” I confess.

“I just got back. Well, twelve years ago, now.”

“Why’d you leave?”

“To work in D.C. I worked for Indian Affairs forever. Came back because I love the water.”

“Water.” I look around. There had been barely a sign of water on my drive—maybe a layer of frozen water shellacking a thin meadow. It was more water than I’d imagined seeing on the high desert on the drive out but there wasn’t any water near where we stood.

“Where do you guys get water?”

“Springs from the aquifer which still seep, although not like they used to. Peabody pumped all the water, mixed it with coal, and sent the slurry to Nevada in a pipe. It was cheaper to send coal by water than by train. Uranium got into the Moenkopi aquifer. But we still have a couple springs. Next time you come visit, I’ll take you to the springs.”

A family in Sichomovi is trying to restore a spring that their family has used for over four-hundred and twenty years. Around the spring, you can find shards of Awatovi pottery with its black and red and yellow designs that match the color of the mesas after a storm. Here you will find a tree—not only fruit trees but willows and cottonwoods. The springs are tucked inside and behind mesas. You can’t see them from the road. You have to dig a little to discover them.

“Can you grow things here?”

“We grow all our food. We always have. We plant the seeds deep into the dirt where they can reach residual water. The crops have to grow. How else would we have survived this long?” Maybe that’s why Bruce likes me. I ask questions that a normal person just would not.

To grow a garden in this desert environment takes a lot of focus and care. Water must be piped from cistern to terrace, the upper terraces dripping their excess onto the lower. A parallel version of the aquifer from which the water just seeped, but this time with humans stacking layers of rock and the water being encouraged to drip onto the roots of squashes, beans, corn and fruit trees.


I received a text from Bruce after the elections, in January. He wanted to meet up. I tried to cancel my meetings so I could find him at his conference at the DoubleTree but by the time I’d made time to see him, he’d already eaten lunch. I should have skipped my meetings. We made plans for next time and he reminded me to come back to Hopi in May when the first of the dances began. He also reminded me that this is the season for resting. You don’t always have to dance for the song to go on, he said.

But he won’t say that. Instead, he will introduce me to members of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. He’ll show me how the springs are coming back. The water that went unprotected, may be protected again. Most things can be repaired, he’ll tell me. He’ll show me how to sow the seeds deep into the dirt.  It’s too sunny out on Hopi. I stand in Bruce’s shadow to take in a little shade.


Although I’d protected little in the 2018 election, I returned for the 2020 election. This time, Sandra Day O’Connor Law School prepared me with signs and packets and a shirt that read “Every Native Vote Counts” and a mask that said the same. I still got lost. Because of Covid, roads were shut down into the mesas. The first misdirected site Siri sent me to was guarded by a man who did not smile, not even with his eyes, when I said I was here to protect the vote. I’m pretty sure he thought, you’re here to bring us Covid, White lady. But I’d had a test two days before. The next misdirection Siri gave me led me to a younger guy with long hair who still turned me around, but gave me instructions to the polling place. My car made turns so often, it scored the circumference of new cisterns. Every circle here had been built to capture water. Old brick sandstone cisterns. Mid-twentieth century metal cisterns. New, giant plastic cisterns. Hopi was working on a future where if water can’t be pulled from the ground, they’ll get it from the skies.

I stopped by the Sipoulovi Community Center but this polling place was already being protected by people in blue “Every Native Vote Counts,” shirts. I smiled at them a lot but they kept talking to each other and I didn’t know what to do so I got back into the car and returned to the Ward which at least smelled familiar. In the parking lot, I met Mac, an almost fifty-year-old third-year law student. He gave me an elbow bump, introduced me to the poll worker. He handed me a bunch of tote bags filled with masks and hand sanitizer. “Give these out, if you’d like. Tell people thanks for voting.”

This time, instead of staying for sixteen minutes, I stayed for three hours. I met Pam, who works as a vet tech. Since the vet is only part-time, she ends up vaccinating most of the cats and dogs, helping cows give birth, taking thorns out of dogs’ paws. Frances is white but she moved to Polacca to work in Behavioral Health. She’s hoping to start a class at Northland Pioneer College. I tell her I approve. She laughs and says, great. I’ll let them know I have your approval. When a woman approaches to ask if she can have a bag even though she voted by mail I say, of course. I give her two. Frances says, “Oh, that’s Judy. She’s on the school board. Very powerful. Her husband’s on the council.”

“What’s her last name?”

“Oh. Let me get it right. T. A. L. A. M.”

“Talamyra? As in Bruce?”

“Yes, Judy is Bruce’s wife.”

I may have not gotten the Talamyra that I came to see but I found a good other one. Sometimes, the shell game reveals a good surprise. I take my marble as permission to return.