New Navajo Leader Russell Begaye’s Priorities

The unemployment rate on the Navajo reservation is around 50 percent. About 42 percent of tribal members live below the poverty line. Just 7 percent have a college degree, significantly affecting their job prospects.

The Navajo Nation’s new president, Russell Begaye, was sworn in on May 12. Begaye, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who served on the Navajo Council, ran on a pro-business platform. He seeks to set up manufacturing plants to create jobs and supports a proposed rail port project that could export agricultural goods and coal. Weeks after Begaye assumed the presidency, an audit of the Navajo Nation revealed that the tribal government’s 110 chapters had more than $77 million in unspent funds from annual tribal government appropriations.

Bringing running water and electricity to the tens of thousands of people who live without it are among the tribe’s priorities. Begaye wants to restart negotiations for water rights in the Little Colorado and Lower Colorado River basins, but that won’t be easy. He was among the lawmakers who rejected a settlement linked to the Lower Colorado because it included provisions for a coal-fired power plant.

Begaye is opposed to the development of the Grand Canyon Escalade, a controversial aerial tram at the east end of the Grand Canyon that would transport tourists from the cliff tops down to the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River, an area sacred to the Hopi. A proposed development plan approaching $1 billion includes a riverside boardwalk, hotels, a cultural center and places for Navajo artisans to sell their work.

 

Climate-Change Impacts on the Navajo Reservation

Water has never been abundant for the Diné, who have raised their families and livestock on the high-desert lands across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah for centuries. At a time of a multi-year widespread drought, despite an unusually rainy summer, one-third of the roughly 50,000 households on the Navajo reservation have no reliable source of water.

According to a 2014 national assessment by the Obama administration, Southwestern tribes are among the most vulnerable to climate-change impacts. Weather extremes—from severe drought to major flooding—have become more common. From July to September 2013, major flooding affected 88 of the Navajo Nation’s 110 chapters, damaging 140 homes and costing millions of dollars.

Reservoir levels have been dropping, and some streams and springs have declined or disappeared, along with medicinal plants and animals such as prairie dogs and rabbits. Horses and cows have died of thirst at dry waterholes. Some farming plots have become sandier. Dust storms have increased.

This has created a culture of conservation. Diné families, on average, live on seven gallons of water per day—often stored in rain barrels, recycled buckets and plastic containers—and reuse it whenever possible. Some families drink, cook, bathe and clean with water hauled from livestock tanks and, in some cases, pumped from aquifers tainted with radioactive waste from decades of uranium mining.

 

Navajo Junk-Food Tax

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared parts of the Navajo reservation a food desert. A food desert is a region where residents can’t easily buy fresh, healthy, affordable food. Gas stations and convenience stores are the primary grocers for many people.

As part of the Healthy Diné Nation Act, the Navajos’ 2 percent sales tax on “minimal-to-no-nutritional-value” foods sold on the reservation—such as cookies, chips and sodas—went into effect in April. Funds generated will go into a community health fund to support projects such as farmers’ markets, vegetable gardens and exercise equipment, as well as educational programming.

The Diné Community Advocacy Alliance lobbied for almost two years to get the junk-food tax approved. They consider it one way for Indian Country to address the health epidemic of diabetes and obesity among the tribe’s 175,000 residents. Another bill that eliminates the tribe’s 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruit and vegetables is also in effect.

 

Electricity on the Navajo Reservation

An estimated 18,000 homes on the 27,673-square-mile Navajo reservation are not connected to the grid.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has offered, since 1999, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to its customers who don’t have access to the grid, through an affordable rental program. People don’t own the PV system but pay for the electricity provided, similar to the SolarCity model. More recently, NTUA started offering solar-wind hybrid systems. An 800-watt PV array along with a 400-watt wind turbine costs the homeowner $75 per month, which goes toward the purchase of the system and is enough to power lights, TV and appliances, including an energy-efficient refrigerator. NTUA finances the systems, which is much cheaper than extending utility lines to homes.

Investing in renewable energy is helping many tribal members improve their quality of life. Children can do homework at night, family members can make crafts under better lights, thereby increasing their income, and they don’t have to breathe fumes from kerosene lanterns. Having refrigeration means not having to travel great distances as often for food. And being able to charge cell phones and laptops can facilitate communication and education.