Young Navajo friends of ours have been living in an RV in town this school year so they can attend the local community college. Even RV living differs greatly from their homes on the “rez.” In town, Calvin* and his buddy enjoy electricity, running water, and electric heat (rather than wood-stove heating). They are within walking distance of the bus which whisks them to and from campus. Included in the monthly lot rental is cable TV and internet. (And the internet is not pay as you go, running out before the end of each month!)

Both fellows have appreciated the benefits of town living. However, over time, we have realized they lack fundamental knowledge about how things work in town..

RV living in winter

RV living in winter

Recently, Calvin moved out of the RV with little notice, frustrated at how cold the RV was and at having no running water for more than a week (with frozen pipes.) When my husband arrived a few days later, he soon had the RV toasty warm and had the pipes thawed within a few hours.

What was the difference?

Having grown up with wood heat and a lack of indoor plumbing does not prepare someone for town-living. Throughout the fall, we urged Calvin to put up insulation around the bottom of the RV. We explained a number of times how this “skirting” helps the heater work more effectively and keeps the water pipes from freezing when the weather gets cold.

In back-country Navajo culture, there is no reason to do extra work that is perceived to be unnecessary. Daily living takes enough energy and work. Unfortunately, even though we provided the needed materials, Calvin followed his life-knowledge and never got around to installing the extra insulation. In his world, one just throws more wood in the stove when the weather gets cold. With no skirting around the bottom of the RV, as the temperature plummeted this winter, it became more and more difficult to keep the place heated. Eventually, as we expected, the pipes froze.

Calvin’s perception was that the flaw was in expecting to live in an RV during the winter. He found little connection between the lack of preparations and the eventual consequences. The proposed work was viewed as unneeded—which it certainly would have been in his childhood home. Even similar suggestions, by neighbors who lived year round in their RV, fell on deaf ears.

RV parked in a similar location to where Calvin lived in town

RV parked in a similar location to where Calvin lived in town

Another clash of cultures occurred in the matter of paying rent. Calvin’s buddy was inconsistent, often choosing to spend extra days at home rather than staying in the RV. He then saw little need to pay for days he didn’t use the RV. He fundamentally did not understand that rent is owed each month for the entire month, regardless of days spent in the property.

Having to consistently pay monthly rent by a certain time was also challenging for the fellows. Few Navajo in outlying areas have any concept of credit, which translates to a lackadaisical attitude about bill-paying. After all, with no concern about a personal credit rating, what is the downside of being late with payments? In addition, having to pay a deposit to move in was a new idea. Putting money ahead of needed use is rarely done in a culture where family “need” trumps personal savings.

We are happy that Calvin is continuing to pursue education at the local community college. We are sorry it didn’t work out for him to continue living in the (low-cost) RV at this point. Sometimes cultural expectations outweigh other considerations…

*name changed to protect privacy