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Navajo Nation Has Big Expectations for Economic Stimulus

  • Daniel Kraker

The massive federal economic stimulus bill includes about $2.5 billion for Indian tribes. That's more than the entire annual budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the government agency that provides services to the nation's 562 recognized tribes.

A good chunk of the stimulus money will likely go to the Navajo Nation in the American southwest. It's the largest reservation in the country, home to nearly 300,000 people. Nearly half of them still live without running water and electricity, and tribal leaders are desperate for jobs and for basic infrastructure.

Early on a chilly Sunday morning, Johnson Chee positions his old, battered red Ford pickup next to a giant water tank. He sticks a huge hose into a 950-liter container and watches the water gush out.

"I live a couple miles from here. [I'm] hauling water for my little lambs," he explains.

Every week, Chee hauls water for his livestock and for his family. He, along with 90 percent of Navajos in this part of the reservation, lives without running water. They drive here from as far as 50 kilometers away to fill up their barrels, over roads so rough they rattle your spine.

New roads and water infrastructure, schools and hospitals: These are the projects the Navajo Nation is hoping to build with federal stimulus dollars. They're also looking to create thousands of new jobs on a reservation where the unemployment rate has hovered around 50 percent for as long as anyone can remember. Unlike many other tribes that have profited from gambling for years, the Navajo just opened their first small casino in November. The tribal government hopes it will generate several million dollars a year, but that only goes so far on a remote reservation that's about the size of Ireland.

Economic impact keenly felt on the reservation

Thomas Cody is president of the local reservation chapter here called Leupp. He's kind of like a small-town mayor, who is seeing the impact of the national economic crisis on the neighborhood level. There's increased demand for already stretched social services, he says, "because our people that used to do the construction work are coming back onto Navajo, and here we don't have the homes for them, so they move back into their parents' homes, [or] relatives' homes."

Leupp has set aside 40 hectares for an industrial park to try to lure new businesses, but the water infrastructure is too primitive to handle it. The Navajo stimulus proposal includes funding for an upgraded system. Tribal councilman Leonard Chee says the project would create 180 jobs.

"In Leupp, we have skilled people that can do construction work. They just need the opportunity," he says, adding, "You put the Navajo people to work, then they go to Flagstaff, Winslow to shop. They put money back into the economy, and there you have it."

Navajos spend an estimated 80 percent of what they earn off of the reservation, buying everything from new trucks to groceries in Phoenix, Albuquerque and other nearby cities.

A long wait for 21st-century infrastructure

Cecil and Linda Tso live 24 bone-shaking kilometers from the water station. Water barrels are lined up outside their small, neatly kept house. Inside, out of the whipping wind, a wood stove is blazing. A solar panel powers a little refrigerator, TV and a few lights. Cecil is already looking forward to federal money for jobs and infrastructure.

"I hope we see these plans work out," he says. "We've been waiting a long, long time."

Cecil commutes to Flagstaff to work at a furniture store. His wife often joins him.

"I go to the library, and I use the computer," she says. "All this technology is going on. And then when I come home, it's like you go back in time."

The Tsos hope the stimulus package creates new jobs on the reservation or at least provides some funding to improve the roads. That would make it easier for Cecil to haul a little extra water every week, enough so Linda can grow roses outside her front door.

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