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CHINLE, Ariz.—On a hot, cloudless Monday morning in the heart of the Navajo reservation, women wearing traditional turquoise jewelry and men with silver-buckled belts and cowboy hats gathered at a community center. All came determined to have their voices heard.
The Navajo Nation had just settled a historic lawsuit against the U.S. government for mismanaging the reservation’s funds and natural resources. The government agreed to pay $554 million—the largest settlement ever granted to an American Indian tribe. This meeting in Chinle, Ariz., one of 110 Navajo chapters, was the first public hearing on what to do with the money.
Some people were so eager that they drove 140 miles to attend the hearing. Rows of pickup trucks with mud-crusted wheels filled the parking lot and stayed till sundown as the meeting dragged on for more than six hours. As people listed the desperate needs of the community, voices rose and emotions churned. It quickly became clear that $554 million wasn’t enough to alleviate the nation’s extreme depth of poverty.
The Navajo Nation is America’s largest Indian American reservation, comparable in size to West Virginia. Most of the 300,000 Navajos or Dinè (“The People”) still live on the reservation, which straddles striking terrains of northeastern Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, from rolling gold-and-amber plains to craggy red canyons. Its people, however, are trapped in third-world levels of poverty: acute material needs, poor infrastructure, and a vicious cycle of injustice and violence.
Today, many Navajo families depend on unstable low-pay work and chronic public assistance. About 60 percent are unemployed, and over one-third are considered “severely poor.” The per capita income among Navajos is about $7,000, compared to the national $28,000. Today 16,000 families still lack electricity, and 20,000 homes lack running water.
During my time among the Navajos, I frequently heard the word self-determination as a long-term policy in eradicating poverty. But without a clear definition on what “self-determination” means, questions about its implementation remain: Are the Navajos truly weaning themselves off federal assistance? Can the Navajo government reform itself? Would Navajos distinguish positive aspects of their cultural history from blatant idolatry? Are Christian missions doing life-changing gospel work instead of social work?
THE PUBLIC HEARING IN CHINLE gave me a good sense of the dire straits in Navajoland, as 40 individuals stepped up with requests and complaints: A Vietnam veteran asked for a new veterans home so veterans won’t have to go to off-reservation cities. Several elderly members requested a senior citizen center and more nursing homes. Parents worry about insufficient college scholarships, lack of Navajo language programs, and inadequate Wi-Fi connection. The Navajo Technical University needs more full-time professors and a new campus.
Many fear that the $554 million would disappear into the pockets of tribal officials. One woman met applause and cheers when she shouted, “Why are we always denied? I think we should have the settlement paid out per capita, that’s what I say. And what land did we have to give up to get that money?” A local official quickly explained that no Navajo land had been bargained, but the thundercloud of distrust and anger continued to storm.
Distrust is a constant theme in Navajo history. After centuries of long-suffering domination, exploitation, and abuse from Spanish Conquistadors, Pueblo tribes, the U.S. government, and mineral corporations, distrust is etched into the Navajo psyche. But the recent exposures of corruption among Navajo officials have redirected Navajo resentment toward their own leaders.
In 2007, for example, Navajo council delegates voted 71-10 to divvy $50,000 from an emergency fund to buy gold rings for themselves, brazenly tacking it as an amendment onto a measure that provides funding for summer youth employment. In 2013, a federal audit accused the Navajo Department of Workforce Development of mismanaging $16.5 million in federal funds for a job-training program, while letting $13.4 million sit unused even as thousands of prospective applicants waited for assistance.
Other common misdeeds include siphoning cushy jobs for family and friends, taking lavish “business” trips and “training” conferences in Las Vegas or Hawaii, slush funds, and bribery. (Several Navajo officials did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.) In 2009, irate voters approved a ballot initiative to reduce the legislative branch from 88 delegates to 24. But the people still see their government as betrayers of hard-earned sovereignty—and much of their bitterness is rooted in history.
TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, the Navajos were pastoral, matrilineal clans loosely connected through common culture and language. They tended sheep, wove rugs and blankets, and lived in hogans—small round houses packed with earth or stone. Other than disparate groups appointing their own headmen, the Navajos had no unified representative body. Then in 1922, oil was discovered on their land, and the U.S. government needed representatives to grant access. So in 1923 federal officials formed the first version of the Navajo Tribal Council by hand-selecting—without Navajo consultation—24 delegates who best demonstrated “Westernized” values.
That’s not the only time the U.S. government micromanaged Indian life. Way before FDR or LBJ, American Indians were America’s first welfare project. The federal government promised subsidies and benefits in exchange for land, often short-sticking the Indians or outright violating treaty terms. Today, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) reach deep into all Indian tribes—while at the same time spending $2.6 billion annually in taxpayer funds to fund and oversee various federal programs on Indian tribal lands.
Meanwhile, Navajo leaders signed away their oil, uranium, coal, natural gas, and water rights, and by 1958, 93 percent of Navajo revenue came from extractive industries. This created thousands of temporary jobs and contributed millions annually to government coffers, but came at a bitter cost for the Navajos who endured forced removals from homelands, health issues, and polluted air and waters.
From 1944 to 1989, Navajo uranium miners returned home coated with uranium dust, which poisoned not just themselves but their wives and children. Neither the U.S. government nor mining companies had warned them about the known risks or even created safety precautions. More than 1,000 Navajos died from lung cancer or other radon-exposure-attributed illnesses, and local residents still suffer from lingering contamination and abandoned mill sites.
A SIMPLE DRIVE THROUGH THE RESERVATION reveals the many cracks that bog down economic development. Most obvious are the unpaved roads—rock-ribbed dirt that oozes mud and slime when it rains or snows—and the rural isolation: You can drive miles without seeing anyone, except a lone trailer or two, or a tiny cluster of dilapidated single-unit homes and modern-day hogans.
But the greatest economic roadblock is land: Like a socialist country, the majority of reservation land is held communally, which means nobody really owns the land. Without secure property rights, Navajos cannot build or pass on their wealth, and business sites cannot sprout organically. In addition, the small percentage of individually allotted land became so fractionated over the years that hundreds of individuals now claim ownership over one parcel of land. A developer interested in leasing the land has to negotiate with too many people for conclusive consent.
In one town, I found three elementary schools, a high school, and a junior high school squeezed into a single block. Turns out, that was the only piece of land that the Unified School District could procure because of land constraints. Likewise, opening a dry-cleaning shop in Navajoland can require up to five years of waiting for the same governmental approvals that would take only a few days in a nonreservation area.
Unsurprisingly, all this red tape discourages potential investors, entrepreneurship, and job creation.
Meanwhile, the youngest and brightest Navajos are slipping away. Local educators find themselves in a Catch-22 situation: They provide cheap tuition, federal grants, and scholarships, only to have students leave the reservation with their knowledge and skills because of a lack of jobs.
I sensed a certain collective weariness among the 15 young men and women I met at a GED class in Twin Lakes, N.M. Many of the students are young, unmarried parents who dropped out of high school because of financial issues, family problems, or negative lifestyles such as gang activities or substance abuse. When I asked about their dreams, they all answered guiltily: to leave the reservation and find a better life. “I know we’re supposed to stay and help our people,” one student said, sighing. “But there’s nothing here for us.”
Aaron Sandovar, at 44 the oldest, said he’s stuck at the reservation because no able body stayed to take care of older family members and livestock. Sandovar started working when he was 15, learning to till the field, plant corn and melon, and tend the sheep. But he also remembers growing up without shoes and crawling into bed with an empty stomach. “Guess what—people are still living like that today,” he said, and he blamed the younger generation’s “mentality and attitude of demanding” for the status quo: “We’re always dependent on somebody.”
It’s a shared sentiment among many Navajos who worry that future generations may never shake off that long, strained addiction to dependency. The Navajos once taught strong t’àà hwò àj’t èego, or self-reliance, fiercely resisting government welfare at first. Today many able-bodied, intelligent young Navajos are living on welfare because their parents and grandparents did, and they don’t plan to stop.
GIVEN THE CONDITION IN THE RESERVATION, it would be disastrous to cut off federal monies without a well-formed, long-term plan to reform Navajos’ legal and economic environment. Previous federal and missionary efforts to “assimilate” and “civilize” the Indians failed with devastating reverberations. In the past several decades, however, long-term policy has shifted toward Indian self-determination.
In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which authorized Indian tribes to manage federal-funded programs such as healthcare and education. Most Navajos have embraced the concept and are gradually whittling it to fit Dinè culture and values.
One example is Tsèhootsooì Medical Center (TMC) in Fort Defiance, Ariz., which recently transitioned from a federal Indian Health Service facility into a tribal operation. “Everything’s going to change,” said marketing and public relations director Ira Vandever. “We’re now at the same level as the federal government. We’re no longer seen as conquered people, expected to act accordingly to our ‘great white father.’”
The day I met Vandever, he was wearing moccasins, a studded leather belt, and silver-and-turquoise necklace, bracelet and rings—all of which he crafted himself. A Drake University alumnus, ex-professional football player in Germany, and owner of two European-fusion restaurants, Vandever is a true cosmopolitan. But as a born-and-raised Navajo and grandson of a medicine man, he’s also deeply traditional, following all the beliefs and rituals his grandfather taught him.
Like most other Navajo-run institutions, spirituality is a core value at TMC. Their guiding principle is hòzhò, roughly translated as “balance,” “beauty,” and “harmony.” They believe imbalance and disharmony beget social ills such as poverty and alcoholism. That’s why Navajo-operated modern hospitals like TMC employ shamans to conduct regular traditional ceremonies of song, prayer, and dance. When TMC opened a new optometry unit, a medicine man came to chant for blessings and harmony.
CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES HAVE ACTIVELY WITNESSED in the reservation for centuries, but local pastors estimate fewer than 10 percent of Navajos call themselves Christians, and consider even less to be truly born-again.
Today various Christian and other religious groups—from Baptists and United Methodists to Latter-day Saints and Catholics—scatter throughout the reservations. Mission groups visit in the summers for vacation Bible schools. Some Navajos convert, but when problems hit, many easily seek the old comforts of hand tremblers, healers, and medicine men. Some, like the Native American Church, even blend their practices with Christian themes.
Robert Tso, pastor of Victory Life Church in Shiprock, said God’s Word “simply isn’t given enough time to sink in.” Instead, many churches in Navajoland “water down the gospel and say things that tickle the ears. So there’s no liberation and freedom in the Christian walk, because they are weighed down by all that junk” such as false prophets, weak theologies, and idolatry that have tainted the people’s understanding of the gospel. Without consistent, sound Bible teaching and discipleship by local ministers, initial passions dry out and life transformations cease.
One week at the Navajo reservation exposed me to various movers and shakers: weary activists demanding formal apologies for past injustices; ambitious politicians parroting old promises; underfunded social workers struggling to meet growing needs; idealistic educators working within and against a broken system; and zealous Christians gradually compromising the gospel for pluralistic social work.
All interviews ultimately boiled down to one question: “What is poverty?” Depending on their definition of poverty, these folks gave me varied, eloquent solutions that made sense on paper, but didn’t compute quite as neatly in reality because of one common variable: humans—and all the complex baggage of brokenness and depravities that define humanity. Without clearly understanding human nature or the root cause of poverty, they were flicking blanks at the target.
None satisfied me the way worshipping with 30 Navajo men and women did at a tiny church in rural Blue Gap, Ariz., whose pastor Billy John is an ex-shaman. From noon to evening, they shared testimonies and sang classic hymns mostly in Navajo, but I needed no interpreter to understand their visible joy. One elderly woman recited Psalm 139 with tears. Another woman proclaimed, “I realize now that Jesus is the one and only true living God!”—to which everyone responded with cries of “Amen!” and “Jesus!” Many others testified how God delivered them from spiritual, social, and financial poverty.
Then I broke bread with Larry Haskie, a doe-eyed veteran who told me, “Navajos are like Job. Satan’s really been trying to destroy us, especially the family and church.” When I noticed the “Army of God” label ironed over his U.S. Army cap, he beamed: “Yeah, different army now.”
Haskie was an 8-year-old boy when Presbyterian missionaries first visited his home. They spoke about Christ but also criticized his family for herding sheep, calling it a “pagan practice.” Years later, Haskie was cowering under sniper fire during the Vietnam War when he finally asked Jesus Christ to be his Lord and Savior. From then on, God has been healing all aspects of his life, even smoothing old bitterness into thanksgiving and praise: “Whatever the white men did to us, Christ already took care of it on the cross. I’m just thankful they brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to us.”
People like Haskie emphasize that only the gospel brings true relief and eternal reconciliation. God’s spirit moves and transforms His people—not just spiritually, but everything from intellectually to financially—in mysterious, miraculous ways. Anything else, like the $554 million settlement, is temporary.