The hallways at Ganado High School are bustling in between classes. But they’re not nearly as crowded as they were just three years ago.
“I’m looking at a high school that, in the mid 2000s, ran about 850 students," says principal Tom Rowland. "Now we’re down to about 575, 580.”
Rowland says he’s losing about 100 students per year. “Families can’t find jobs here.”
The 2010 U.S. census shows a steady growth in America’s minority populations, including Native Americans across the southwest. But the country’s largest Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation where Ganado High School is located, actually saw its population shrink by three percent.
“They go to the urban areas to look for employment," says Evelyn Begay, who’s worked for the school district for 28 years. "And that’s where they move their families.”
All five of Begay's children graduated from Ganado before going on to Arizona State University. And all five stayed in the Phoenix area after graduation.
“Even though you hear politicians say, 'We’re going to build jobs,' we’ve heard that for 50 years, and we haven’t seen any significant impact on employment for our young people," she says. "And as long as that’s continuing, we’re going to continue to lose our families, our children, to move away.”
Strong winds are whipping tumbleweeds across the lone highway that runs through Ganado. There’s almost nothing here in the way of local industry. The community’s two largest employers are the hospital and the school district. That’s why teachers and staff like Nathan Brady, who’s the facility coordinator at Ganado High School, all tell students to leave the reservation behind when they graduate.
“Every one of them is going to encourage them, 'Go, go, get an education, get a job,'” says Brady. “They look back and there’s nothing here. There’s nothing for them to build on. There’s no employment so they stay out there.”
That’s what Brady did. After graduating from high school 20 years ago, he enlisted in the Navy. But he recently returned to the reservation, turning down a duty station in Hawaii and full retirement benefits.
“I’d rather be out here to see the stars at night, rather be out here to hear the birds chirping. I knew I wanted to come back.”
A lot of young Navajos feel that way. The reservation is isolated, it’s desolate, the economy is stagnant - but it’s home.
“I think a lot of kids do want to come back, it’s just that if they come back, then they’re going to be stuck at home not working," says Marden Kinlichee, who just graduated from Ganado High School. In August, she'll leave for the University of New Mexico to study nursing.
But, unlike many of her classmates, she plans to return. It’s part of the reason she’s choosing a career in nursing. She knows she can find a job close to home where she can help her people.
“That’s how I was raised, to come back and help my grandparents," says Kinlichee. "And we need a lot of help out here.”
The population on the Navajo Nation is getting older. Two thirds of those now living on the reservation are over 18, up seven percent from a decade ago.
But people in Ganado aren’t that worried about what many call the “brain drain.” They’re confident that the land, the culture, and the language will bring young people back when they’re ready.