On Rural Navajo Reservation, Jobs Are Still Scarce

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Shonto Community Development Corporation Program Director Brett Isaac i i

hide captionBrett Isaac, program director of the Shonto Community Development Corporation, stands in front of the offices, a converted post office. Isaac, 24, graduated from Arizona State University — and while most Navajo college graduates find jobs off the reservation, he wanted to help his people.

Daniel Kraker for NPR
Shonto Community Development Corporation Program Director Brett Isaac

Brett Isaac, program director of the Shonto Community Development Corporation, stands in front of the offices, a converted post office. Isaac, 24, graduated from Arizona State University — and while most Navajo college graduates find jobs off the reservation, he wanted to help his people.

Daniel Kraker for NPR

Like thousands of Navajos on the reservation, where jobs are scarce, artist Elizabeth Whitethorne-Benally makes a living selling arts and crafts. But now her living room in the little town of Shonto in far northern Arizona is stuffed with unsold art.

"I was on the forefront of the stern of the economic downfall, because it went down with me," Whitethorne-Benally says as she stands in front of a huge painting done on blocks of wood recycled from old sheep corrals.

The recession has been a mixed bag for the country's more than 500 Indian tribes. Some urban reservations have continued their remarkable boom over the past couple of decades, despite the economic downturn.

But many rural tribes are still struggling — and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley says the recession has made his people "more poor." And only now, billions of stimulus dollars earmarked for Indian country are starting to trickle in.

First of a two-part report.

Hardly Any Jobs On The Reservation

Besides keeping tabs on her art sales, Whitethorne-Benally also gauges the recession's impact by the number of men she sees hanging around. Many of them are Navajo construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing markets crashed in Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Robert Black, who is a chapter manager — which is like a city manager — on the reservation, says he has seen the recession's impact.

"It's not too surprising if you see a guy who's normally making $25 an hour, who says, 'I'll settle for $9 for a couple weeks so I can have some gas money to carry me over to my next job,' " Black says.

There are hardly any jobs in Shonto, like a lot of other towns on the Navajo reservation. Many families still live without running water and electricity. The wash-boarded dirt roads are in desperate need of repair. Cell phone service is spotty.

It's this kind of basic infrastructure for rural tribes across the country that $3 billion of stimulus money is supposed to address.

"These are areas of critical need to the [Navajo] Nation [that] would help us bring some people back here," says Arvin Trujillo, who is heading up the Navajo Nation's stimulus efforts. "So this could be a real benefit once we get the money flowing here on the Nation."

But not much money is flowing eight months after the stimulus bill was signed. The money for dozens of big projects like road construction is still stuck at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

And even when it arrives, Harvard University economist Joseph Kalt says it won't have a huge impact.

"The federal government itself has estimated that the backlog of unmet needs — just basic infrastructure, old school buildings, water and sewer — is much, much larger than the kinds of funds that have been made available to Indian country," Kalt says.

Building Local Economies From Scratch

So many rural tribal communities are left trying to fill in the funding gaps themselves.

Instead of always looking for the next federal grant — or depending on bottle-necked tribal bureaucracies — some have turned to a Plan B. They're trying to build their own local economies, often from scratch.

The road into Shonto Canyon i i

hide captionThe road into Shonto Canyon in northern Arizona, on a remote part of the Navajo Nation.

Daniel Kraker for NPR
The road into Shonto Canyon

The road into Shonto Canyon in northern Arizona, on a remote part of the Navajo Nation.

Daniel Kraker for NPR

"Shonto is really trying to pave a way for themselves to get different avenues of funding," says Brett Isaac, a program manager for the Shonto Community Development Corporation.

Isaac stands on what now is a vacant 10-acre gravel lot in Shonto. But he hopes there will soon be a new travel center and artist complex here. It's a baby step, but it would be the first new business in this community in decades. Isaac says the project is shovel-ready — they're just looking for outside investors to make it happen.

"It's not easy on the Navajo Nation when there's so many people, so much land base to cover. Projects like this are very hard to get funded and noticed," he says.

Another part of the federal stimulus bill may help with this Plan B. For the first time, sovereign tribes can now issue tax-exempt bonds to finance economic development projects, something states and cities have always been allowed to do.

Now, 58 small projects on mostly rural reservations are moving ahead, from a convention center on the Menominee Nation in northern Wisconsin to a travel center on the Paiute Nation in southern Utah.

Shonto leaders are hoping to find investors for their travel plaza early next year.

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