By Ray Stern
By New Times
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Sunlight dances on fresh snow; Adella Begaye edges her big pickup truck off ice-packed Route 12 high in the Chuskas Mountains on the Navajo Reservation and onto the trackless white snow covering a dirt road into the trees.
Begaye gets out of the truck to turn the front wheel hubs to the four-wheel-drive position. Then she wrestles the steering wheel as the truck bounces and skids into the forest.
Or what's left of the forest. Snow covers the slash--piles of deadwood branches--but the sun has already melted the snow from the stumps that pock the landscape. This is the timber cut that pushed Begaye's late husband Leroy Jackson into a quixotic crusade against Navajo logging practices. The cut scalped the land where he intended to build a house, a solar-powered structure in the shape of a traditional Navajo hogan, but with a basement. Just up the road is his family's wood-heated hogan, where they had their summer sheep camp. The remains of Adella's great-grandmother's hogan is farther still.
Begaye and Jackson's 7-year-old daughter, Robyn, presses her nose against the window in the back of the truck. Her face is peppered with chicken pox, her big eyes weepy with fever, but she got up out of bed to be closer to her father, who is buried up under the big, yellow ponderosa pines that he called "grandfather trees." Robyn peers through the glass as if expecting to see him jog around the next turn, full of wise advice and funny stories.
"We keep denying he's really gone," says Begaye. Her voice never cracks, but her dark eyes burn dolefully. "We keep thinking he'll be back."
Jackson, 47, disappeared mysteriously on October 1, on his way back from an Indian arts festival in Taos, New Mexico. He was found dead eight days later, his body wrapped in a heavy blanket on the back seat of his Dodge van, which was parked in a turnout on a high mountain pass near Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. He had been dead at least a week.
The medical examiner ruled the death an accidental methadone overdose. There was no evidence of foul play.
Nevertheless, Jackson's friends think he was murdered. He had been receiving vague death threats for more than a year because his environmental work threatened to slow down operations at the Navajo sawmill and cost much-needed jobs. So his death sowed fear and confusion among the environmental communities on and off the reservation. They imagined complex conspiracy theories worthy of a Tony Hillerman novel, complete with whispers of witchcraft.
"I'm living in fear," Adella Begaye confesses, "a lot of fear. But I don't know of what, to tell the truth."
Jackson's friend Earl Tulley, a Navajo building inspector who is president of Jackson's environmental organization, Din‚ C.A.R.E., says, "In our culture, we say that when you really defend something, it's going to cost a life."
Leroy Jackson lived a remarkable life. He was "a reconstructed Indian," as his mother describes him, who rebuilt himself from a homeless Phoenix street wino into a handsome and charismatic activist, a gifted orator, and a spokesperson for the nature-based religion of elderly Navajos.
He had close friends across the Southwest. But he had enemies among his own people, not just because of jobs, but because he questioned the dearly held image of the noble Indian living in harmony with nature. The Navajo tribal government, after all, was sullying its own sacred sites through logging and mining. "It's like a bunch of gangsters," Jackson told New Times last spring. "They do what they want."
Furthermore, Jackson was tweaking the highly charged issue of Indian sovereignty over the reservation by trying to force the tribal government to adhere to federal environmental regulations.
And perhaps, just as seriously, he made waves by speaking out against the status quo in a culture that is traditionally nonconfrontational.
Whether or not these were offenses so serious that someone would want him dead, he has become a martyr to the environmental cause. Which is little consolation to his family.
Jackson was not known to use drugs of any sort, beyond the prescription medicines he took for crippling migraine headaches. The New Mexico State Police theorize that Jackson took the methadone himself, perhaps to stave off a headache. After all, he had called his wife from Taos to tell her he was out of his regular medication. But that explanation does not sit well with the people who knew Jackson best.
As Begaye powers the big truck up the road past the slash and stumps, her daughter Robyn pipes up, "Mommy, remember when we went almost up to Grandma's house to put flowers on Daddy's grave?" Begaye doesn't answer.
Jackson used to say that he was fighting to keep some trees for his children and their children. In his last year, it became his driving obsession.
"The character of Leroy was like what he stood for," says Earl Tulley. "Just like a pine tree, he never changed in the winds of controversy. He was always balanced and anchored into the philosophy of the culture."
His mother, Jane Popovich, who now lives in Phoenix, saw the same metaphor. "Even though he was a short man," she says through her tears, "I see my son as tall as a tree, one that's strong and stands high."