Navajo development OK’d but funding stands in way

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) 11-08

On the western side of the Navajo Nation where residents were banned from making any improvements to their homes for more than 40 years, it’s no wonder that housing is a top priority.

A recent preliminary study found that 77 percent of the homes in the area known as the former Bennett Freeze aren’t suitable to live in, more than 40 percent of homes don’t have electricity and 10 percent of residents make almost daily trips to haul water.

Tribal officials plan to use the $1 million study, commissioned by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, as leverage to obtain funding for development.

But no one expects to travel the road ahead quickly or easily, especially given the current economic situation. It’s expected to cost upward of $1.3 billion to rehabilitate the area that often is compared to Third World countries.

“The people expected this to be done a couple of years ago when the freeze was lifted, and I think they’re just waiting for something to happen,” said Roman Bitsuie, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission.

The construction ban, imposed by former U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett as a way to settle a land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi, was lifted in late 2006 after the tribes reached an agreement. The area, which includes nine Navajo chapter houses, or communities, arguably is the most depressed on the impoverished reservation.

For decades, Navajos were unable to put in electric lines, repair leaky roofs and run water lines to their homes unless the improvements were approved by the neighboring Hopi Tribe, which had laid claim to 700,000 acres of Navajo land as its ancestral homeland.

As part of the study, field teams were sent out to look at living conditions and infrastructure, solicit comment from tribal members and gauge how tribal agencies could respond to calls for development. The agencies and affected communities are being asked to weigh in on the study before it’s finalized.

The field teams visited 4,379 single family homes in the nine chapters and identified 1,406 in the Bennett Freeze area. Only 42 percent of all the homes were found to be inhabitable. Only 23 percent of homes in the Bennett Freeze area were deemed safe to live in, meaning they are in fair condition, have indoor plumbing and are less than 25 years old.

 

Over the years, many younger people moved out of the area, but elders remained, tied to the land by a desire to live a traditional way of life that included farming and herding sheep, the study said.

“It goes to the heart of what Navajos are about,” said Albert Tinhorn, coordinator at the Kaibeto Chapter in the Bennett Freeze area. “One of the traditional beliefs, especially (for) the elders, is that you belong to the land where your umbilical cord is buried. It’s your tie to mother earth, making you a child of the earth.”

As the tribe moves forward with development, it will have to consider how to plan across generations. Elder Navajos may want to remain in remote, scattered housing while younger Navajos who are accustomed to modern amenities might prefer to live in subdivisions closer to bigger cities, schools and jobs.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done,” said Jim Store, a member of the task force assembled to study development. “There are still a lot of questions floating around out there that we need to answer.”

The study recommended first tackling repairs and upgrades to existing homes before building any new ones. Water and road projects were next in line, followed by access to medical care and emergency services. Communities also have developed their own wish lists, though much of those can’t easily be accomplished within a six- or 15-year time frame, the study said.

“The decision about what these communities need, to a large extent, will be a political one that depends on the commitment to invest in the future or continue to invest in Band-Aid measures to each immediate crisis,” the study said.

Tinhorn said tribal members are longing to have roads that are paved, law enforcement, and mental-health services to address the situation that has brought depression upon some people.

But the collaboration he sees among federal and tribal agencies and Navajo communities is reason to be optimistic, he said.

“I’ve seen evidence that the collaboration is far-reaching,” he said. “If it does go to Washington, my opinion is it’s going to go through.”

The tribe plans to first look at its own resources to fund development before turning to the federal government. But with 88 Navajo lawmakers who have a say in crafting the tribal budget, it’s not likely they’ll all agree to allocate resources to the Bennett Freeze area.

Velma Huskey, the coordinator at Tolani Lake Chapter, said it has been difficult to explain to residents that they won’t immediately get funding to build a bridge over a wash in the community that’s impassable when it rains, or to install plumbing and electricity.

“Many times when something like this happens, they think the money is already there,” she said. “They don’t understand there’s no money.”

 

 

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