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President Barack Obama has invited leaders of the more than 500 Native American tribes in the United States to a White House Tribal Nations Conference on November 5. Mr. Obama says he wants to hear directly from the leaders about how his administration can help them meet their needs.
The Navajo tribe has the largest reservation in the U.S., more than 67,000 square kilometers across parts of the southwest states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The quality of life is typically poor. Many homes do not have running water or electricity.
Navajo President Joe Shirley says that when President Barack Obama meets with tribal leaders, he will be following through on a promise made during his presidential campaign to have a more open dialogue with the tribes.
"And he promised to have a relationship with us, a meaningful relationship," Shirley says, "meaning that he'll work with us about some of the different challenges that face us here in the southwest."
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Those challenges include a lack of economic development, a problem also facing the second largest reservation, the Tohono O'odham, in southern Arizona and part of northern Mexico. Both the Navajo and O'odham nations make money through gambling casinos, but Tohono O'odham chairman Ned Norris says casinos cannot support his entire community.
"We need to really look at diversifying our economy, our ability to make revenue for the nation. Even with our multi-million-dollar casino operation, in a lot of ways we lack infrastructure," Norris explains, "We don't have the reasons for companies to want to come onto the nation."
And that means fewer jobs.
"Unemployment hovers above 50 percent on Navajo land and that's atrocious. The USA, the people throughout, are concerned about an unemployment rate of 10 percent but ours has been about 50 percent for decades," Shirley said.
Many people on the Navajo reservation are left to make money any way they can. Some create jewelry and other traditional crafts. Evangeline Segay and her family sell firewood. "There's hardly any jobs around here and people just end up drinking and probably that's the only thing they can turn to if there's no jobs," she said.
Alcoholism, domestic violence, and gangs are common on the reservations. Shirley says giving people jobs would help lift them out of poverty. So would keeping teenagers in high school.
"We're having to wrestle with trying to get students from sometimes two hours away to where they go to school. And then some of the others are impoverishment, the lack of power," Shirley adds, "and sometimes the decision they make is to forget school."
Native American reservations are federal territories with limited national sovereignty. Tohono O'odham chairman Norris says he hopes the White House meeting will also focus on the rights of Native Americans to control their own lives. "What I've seen is a continuous encroachment, is a continuous usurping of tribal authority and tribal sovereignty by the United States government," Shirley states.
The meeting may also discuss increasing underfunded health care services for Native Americans.