Navajos largely unscathed by recession

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun May 17 16:41:42 UTC 2009

Navajos largely unscathed by recession
By FELICIA FONSECA – 12 hours ago

TONALEA, Ariz. (AP) — Talk at the community center in this small
Navajo town isn't as focused on the economy as it is in many places
off the reservation.  That's because the people living on the largest
American Indian reservation have been largely unscathed by the
recession. Most Navajos own their own homes, tend not to invest in the
stock market and have long had difficulties borrowing money,
distinguishing them from millions of other Americans who've suffered
from rising mortgage payments, sinking 401(k) retirement accounts and
stricter terms from lenders.

And with half of the Navajo Nation's work force unemployed long before
this latest recession hit, there's not much fear the job situation
could get much worse on the reservation. "They're freaking out out
there, but to us, we've always had 50 percent unemployment," said John
C. Whiterock, a Navajo youth pastor. "To us, that's just part of

That's not to say the 200,000 people who live on the largest American
Indian reservation, which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah,
have escaped untouched. Tribal officials are wrangling over how to
address a $25 million budget shortfall and requests for social
services have prompted newspaper ads for more employees to handle

The key has been the ability of Navajos who maintain traditional
beliefs to cope, and the attitude that allows them to persevere. The
culture teaches that wealth isn't measured by dollars and that the
language, the land and kinship are the greatest survival tools.

For reservation resident Delores Claw, that means leaning on
traditional practices such as keeping livestock and growing corn to
offset the rising cost of food. Claw lost her job at a day school
after enrollment dropped, and the construction work for her husband
has slowed. As money got tight, Claw's family butchered 10 of their

"They always say if you have livestock, you're rich," she said.

Other Navajos still sell hand-woven rugs at trading posts or jewelry
and food at roadside stands and at flea markets usually bustling with
buyers. It's an industry that contributes about $6 million a year to a
$1.3 billion economy, though the jobs aren't counted in the tribe's
employment statistics.

"In many ways, we have the means to sustain ourselves," said Navajo
President Joe Shirley Jr.

Among traditional Navajos, those who most closely cling to the beliefs
and practices handed down through generations, there's a strong
emphasis on self-sufficiency, and balance and harmony. The tradition
is deep-rooted among elderly Navajos, though some argue it has tapered
off with the younger generation.

Wilson Aronlith Jr., a 76-year-old instructor of Navajo culture,
philosophy and history at Dine College, said his health, following his
ancestors' teachings and passing along the language and stories of the
Navajo people mean more to him than money ever could.

"If you have all the good capabilities, that's wealth," he said. "What
else would you ask for?"

Ivan Gamble, a Navajo man from the community of LeChee, said tradition
is not so much sticking strictly to the ways of his ancestors but
blending the best of Navajo culture and Western society.

The 31-year-old Gamble lives in a home without water and electricity,
and grows crops and raises animals by choice, but he still has a cell
phone and Internet access and numerous jobs to earn money.

"That's what our ancestors taught us, to adapt, to survive," he said.

By most measurements, the Navajo Nation fits the definition of poor.
But despite the 38.5 percent poverty rate among families, an
unemployment rate that consistently hovers around 50 percent, a per
capita income of about $7,500 and the lack of unemployment benefits,
there's a sense of contentment with the simple life on the reservation
characterized by its rugged landscape and remoteness.

Many Navajos still haul water from long distances to cook and for
their livestock. Navajo children in the more remote areas must do
their homework by the light of a kerosene lamp and daily chores
include chopping wood or gathering coal to heat the home.

The cost of living on the reservation is low, and the income derived
from arts and crafts along with public assistance is enough to sustain
some people, said Trib Choudhary, an economic development specialist
for the tribe. Aside from basic needs, he said, there's not much more
that is desired.

"I usually say that you cannot dye a black rug into any other color.
That's what the Navajo Nation is," he said. "If there is a downturn,
it doesn't matter. If there is an upswing, it doesn't matter. We are

What Navajos hope for, along with better roads, running water and
electricity, is an improved economy, one that will allow their
children to return to the reservation, help their people and maintain
the language and culture.

The tribe has made small strides toward improving the economy, opening
up the first of six planned casinos on the reservation last year.
There's a push for green jobs that would reflect the traditional life,
and a coal-fired power plant is in the works.

Still, many tribal members are forced off the reservation to look for jobs.

Economic development has long failed to keep up with population
growth. To keep the unemployment rate stable, some 3,500 jobs must be
created each year, but Choudhary said only about 200 are.

The situation on the Navajo Nation tends to reflect what is occurring
on other American Indian reservations, where unemployment rates are
twice that of the rest of the country and real per-capital income is
less than half the national average, said Dante Desiderio, an economic
development policy specialist for the National Congress of American

The group has called on the federal government to respond to what it
says has essentially been a decades-old depression on tribal lands.

Desiderio notes that many tribes don't have the tax base that cities
or states do and are looking to federal stimulus money to help build
infrastructure and spur economic development. Of the $787 billion
economic stimulus package, $2.5 million was set aside for tribal

"If you read the papers and you see what the rest of America is
struggling with, it matches what tribes have been struggling with,"
Desiderio said. "If we're going to fix it, this is the chance."

(This version CORRECTS that first Navajo casino opened last year.)

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