In a Desperate Land

When the Bennett Freeze, named after the Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner, Robert Bennett, was enacted in 1966, the Navajo and Hopi tribes of Arizona were prohibited from building homes on their land or connecting to services like running water and electricity. Despite this, some have remained on the desolate land, holding steadfast to their belief that one is tied to the place they are born. In “Frozen land, forgotten people,” Katy Newton and photographer Barbara Davidson tell the story of one of these families – the Gordys.

The story opens with a woman gently singing in the background and a photo of a rainbow stretching over the uninhabited land, setting the mood of hope despite tremendous odds found in the story to follow.

The mother and father provide the narrative throughout, alternating between discussions of the struggles they face and pride they feel in the land. Finding the children something to play with seemed to be more of a worry for the mother than collecting water was for the father. In both cases, the concern for their children is displayed by each parent, and this is portrayed wonderfully by the author.

The photographs capture the sense of isolation the family endures, along with the fun the Gordy children are able to have with no toys, playground or friends. Close-ups are utilized to capture the wrinkles in the grandmother’s hands and the sparkle in the water the family must travel so far to obtain. Shadow was also used well and worked to mirror the sense of contrast being told in the story. One image has one of the children playing on a boulder with the sun shining just on her, acting as a spotlight, and in the darkened distance the run-down home she will soon return to can be seen.

The slide show did not contain any captions, but it did contain slides which had all of the necessary background information on the laws impacting the Gordy family. The names of those in the photos or speaking were not identified in the slide show, but they were in the full-text article.

A combination of natural sound, music and spoken word are utilized by the author to tell the story. The mother and father provide the narration, and at one point, the music as well (the mother singing) to set the mood. The sound of the children bouncing on the trampoline portrays the fun they are still able to have with so little, and the sound of the gate creaking slowly gives the reader a sense of loneliness and desolation. Combined with smooth transitions (fade-ins), the photos and audio move the story along at a perfect pace. Newton did an excellent job of combining all aspects of the story without having anything too loud or overpowering.

The story finishes with the father discussing how he wants his children to bury him inside of the corral on their land, meaning he would remain there forever. This is paired with a photograph of him wrapping his arm around his daughter as they walk home, the sun quickly setting. The combination evokes not just a sense of worry, but also of hope, for this family as they remain isolated and in poverty.

This story was nearly perfect in every way. I enjoyed how the narration was provided by the parents, ensuring their emotion is displayed, and the variety of photographs also helped keep me interested. I only wish I could have heard from the children who have lived in this manner their entire life and have no sense of any other opportunities; their naivety could have enhanced the story.

The fact that the Bennett Freeze was enacted over 40 years ago and this is the first I am hearing of it speaks to the importance of this article. Newton took an issue that has long been overlooked because it affects so few people and can easily be swept under the rug, and placed a human face on the problem – the Gordys’.

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