Civilian Conservation Corps

A black and white photo of two members of the CCC in front of the Upper Cliff Dwelling.
Two members of the CCC at the Upper Cliff Dwelling.

The Navajo “Mobile Unit,” 1940

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the most popular of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of the 1930s. This Great Depression program provided work for unemployed young men. Because their work focused on conservation, the “Tree Army” camps were often located in national parks and monuments. A special unit of the CCC worked at Tonto National Monument for several months in the spring of 1940. But these men, members of the CCC Mobile Unit, were unlike the Conservation Corps that people typically remember.

In February 1940, Tonto’s ranger-custodian, John Peavy, reported this to his supervisor: “Archaeologist Foreman Gordon Vivian brought the Navajo Mobile Unit from Chaco Canyon on January 5, and on the following day they started work on the route to the Upper Ruin.” Peavy went on to report that a couple of canvas wall-tents had been put up near the base of the canyon to house the half dozen men of the CCC Mobile Unit. Another tent was set up near the parking lot to house National Park Service archeologist Charlie Steen who would supervise the Navajo unit’s work at the Upper Cliff Dwelling.

The congressional act that created the CCC in 1932 included language that prohibited discrimination based on race. However, the camps were still operated on a segregated basis: separate camps for African-Americans and for Native Americans on reservations. CCC camps typically were managed by the U.S. Army and the enrollees lived and worked under a form of military discipline. The CCC was implemented differently in Indian Country through special legislation that created the Indian Division. For the Native enrollees in the Indian Division, the camps were operated by the hosting agency – such as the National Park Service. In the summer of 1937, Frank Pinkley, the Superintendent of the Southwestern National Monuments, negotiated the inter-agency agreement creating the Navajo CCC Mobile Unit at Chaco Canyon National Monument in New Mexico. The goal was not only to provide archeological restoration at Chaco, but to train workforce for archeological monuments throughout the Southwest. Therefore, they were called the “Mobile Unit.”

A black and white photo of the original rocky trail. Lake Roosevelt in the background.
The trail to the Upper Cliff Dwelling created by the CCC.

In 1937, the National Park Service hired Gordon Vivian – an archeologist with experience at Chaco Canyon – to train and supervise the newly organized enrollees of the Navajo Mobile Unit. Work in the ancient structures at Chaco – places where the Old Ones had lived and died – did not necessarily fit well with traditional Navajo culture. So why were the men attracted to the Civilian Conservation Corps? Economics was an important factor. A cash income had always been difficult on the reservation, and the depression made it worse. A regular paycheck was an important incentive. Vivian had only one complaint about his first twenty-five recruits: the Navajo men had little patience for the mandatory safety meetings. As Foreman Vivian reported, when asked if they had any questions about the first aid lessons, the reply was often, “Yes, when do we get our checks?” A regular thirty-dollar monthly paycheck was a good reason to join the Mobile Unit – in spite of weekly safety meetings. Soon an experienced and highly skilled cadre was developed, and the men were willing and able to travel to other national monuments where their work was needed.

CCC age requirements – enrolling only men between 18 and 25 – had been waived for the Indian Division, so it is likely that the six men of the Mobile Unit who arrived at Tonto in 1940 were a few years older than most of their CCC counterparts. By 1940, the entire Navajo Mobile Unit had been reduced to only ten men, all of whom were experienced in working at archeological sites. By the middle of January, Steen reported that the men had completed construction of the switchback trail up the canyon wall to the Upper Cliff Dwelling, and he rented a horse from a local rancher to carry supplies to the worksite. The switchback trail, with subsequent improvements, is still the route used by staff and visitors.

A black and white image of a two story room at the Upper Cliff Dwelling.

At the Upper Cliff Dwelling, one wall in particular was in danger of falling. Steen called it his “problem child wall,” and made it a priority for stabilizing. But first, still in January, the crew excavated several rooms for artifacts. Baskets, sandals, pottery, and tools were among the items collected. Cleaning and sorting pot sherds became a regular part of the men’s work. Besides the important excavations and stabilization, the creation of the Mobile Unit led to improved cultural awareness and understanding. As both Vivian and Steen could attest, they all had much to learn from each other. The relationship between the Navajo Nation and the federal government – including the National Park Service – had never been easy, and at times was stressed to the breaking point. The Mobile Unit represented one small effort to mend that relationship, as well as mending the walls built by the ancestral peoples.

Stabilizing the walls of any ancient structure provides a conundrum for the preservation archeologist. How much reconstruction should take place in order to prevent further deterioration? Is a reconstructed wall authentic? Will an unreconstructed wall simply crumble away and be lost? Steen and his crew had to work out the best compromises – just as the National Park Service had done throughout the Southwestern National Monuments. The Navajo masons rebuilt certain sections and applied mud plaster to the walls in several places. By April 1940 the work was finished and the men of the Mobile Unit returned to northwest New Mexico. The excavation trenches were back-filled. The hard-working horse was returned to its owner.

A black and white photo of two pieces of pottery in situ next to a board dated "FEB 26 1940".
Artifacts found during work.

When World War II came, the Civilian Conservation Corps was disbanded. 1942 saw the last of the Tree Army, including the Indian Division. Park visitors still can see the results of Conservation Corps work throughout the nation, including visitor centers, trails, and campsites. At Tonto National Monument’s Upper Cliff Dwelling the critically important work of the Navajo Mobile Unit is still visible. Native American participation with archeology did not end with the CCC however. In recent decades, many tribal governments have developed their own archeological programs. During the spring of 2022, the White Mountain Apache Archeology Division assisted the staff at Tonto, as we once again worked to stabilize vulnerable walls at the Upper Cliff Dwelling – more than eighty years after the Navajos of the Mobile Unit worked on those walls and built that trail.

Last updated: November 4, 2022

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