Some of the poorer tribal communities in New Mexico have been compared to third world countries because of their economic struggles and their lack of modern water and energy systems. Most of the state’s Pueblo villages, Navajo chapter houses and Apache tribal communities are isolated and have little or no access to the already poor infrastructure in the Land of Enchantment.
A decade into the 21st century, the White Rock chapter of the Navajo Nation in the western part of the state was in desperate need of basic electrical power lines. The pueblo of Santa Clara in northern New Mexico still had no running water and no reliable water supply. Zia Pueblo had never had indoor plumbing because it had no wastewater treatment facilities.
“Each tribe or pueblo in New Mexico is at a different level of progress in terms of economic development and community development,” said Kelly Zunie, a member of the pueblo of Zuni and secretary of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department. “Some are still trying to get the basics—water and power.”
In response to these poor living conditions and after much collaboration with tribal leaders, in 2005, then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed into law the Tribal Infrastructure Act. The law requires that the state allocate 5 percent of its estimated oil and gas severance tax—from $9 million to $16 million dollars annually—for use by the Tribal Infrastructure Fund (TIF) to award qualified critical tribal infrastructure projects.
Tribes are eligible to apply in three areas: planning, design and construction. This year’s TIF cycle awarded $12.3 million to 25 different tribal communities. Since its inception, TIF has awarded more than $83 million to tribal infrastructure projects across the state. The TIF is overseen by the Tribal Infrastructure Board, which evaluates and decides on the awardees, and both are administratively attached to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department.
“One of the (Navajo) chapters did not have running water,” said Zunie, the first woman to lead the nation’s only Indian Affairs Department given state cabinet level authority. “They were able to get TIF funding for water. The community was so excited. Just to hear the elders so excited to have indoor plumbing—their quality of life has improved greatly.
“I was thinking, this is America. This is like having third world countries in America,” said Zunie. “I think the state of New Mexico has taken that into account. Other states don’t have this kind of funding for tribes.”
The pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo) has had great success leveraging TIF funds. It was awarded $150,000 for planning of a wastewater treatment facility in 2014. This year it was awarded $155,000 for design of a community wellness center. Diabetes has increased by 5 percent at Ohkay Owingeh during the past five years, largely due to lack of physical exercise, and 24 percent of the youth in the community are overweight or obese by the time they enter high school.
“We have a very high rate of childhood obesity. We have no physical education (program) in our tribal school or our Head Start,” said Christy Mermejo, planning manager for Ohkay Owingeh. “We just built a brand new school with tribal funds. Next to our school there’s an old BIA building that needs to come down so we can build a gymnasium.”
This year Ohkay Owingeh also received $476,500 for construction for waterline improvements. The waterlines in the pueblo were installed in the early 1960s. Tribal officials explain that, should the existing waterlines fail, they are not repairable—which would cause hundreds of people in the pueblo to be without water for a long period. A reliable water delivery system is critical to the safety of the residents.
“It will bring us safe drinking water and fire suppression. If we had a fire right now we don’t have waterlines that have the capacity to put out a fire,” said Mermejo. “The basic human need of water, most people don’t think about it when they live in the city. If we don’t start replacing these lines, our members won’t even have access to water.”
“I recently met with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye,” said Zunie, who also serves as chair of the Tribal Infrastructure Board. “He said the state of Arizona (where most of the Navajo Nation is located) doesn’t have anything like this for the tribes. I think that speaks volumes. Even with budget crunches, we still keep rolling because it helps to change lives.”
Harlan McKosato is the director of NDN Productions, a multimedia company based in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.