MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The recession has been mixed for this country's more than 500 Indian tribes. Some urban reservations have found economic opportunity. We'll hear about that on the program tomorrow, but many rural tribes are struggling. Stimulus money earmarked to them is just starting to trickle in. The president of the Navajo Nation, Joe Shirley, says the recession has made his people more poor.
Daniel Kraker of Arizona Public Radio has the first of two stories.
DANIEL KRAKER: In a place where jobs are as scarce as they are on the Navajo reservation, many people create their own work, literally.
Ms. ELIZABETH WHITETHORNE-BENALLY (Artist): This piece is a woman with this wedding basket in her hand and she has corn in her hand.
KRAKER: Artist Elizabeth Whitethorne-Benally makes her living selling arts and crafts. But now her living room is stuffed with unsold art.
Ms. WHITETHORNE-BENALLY: I was on the forefront of the economic downfall.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WHITETHORNE-BENALLY: Because it went down with me.
KRAKER: She also gauges the recession's impact by the number of men she sees hanging around - Navajo construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing markets crashed in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Robert Black is like a city manager for the little town of Shonto in far northern Arizona.
Mr. ROBERT BLACK (Chapter Manager, Shonto, Arizona): It's not too surprising if you see a guy who's normally making about $25 an hour and say, well, I'll settle for a $9 position for a couple of weeks just so that I can have some gas money to carry over me to the next job.
KRAKER: The problem is there are just hardly any jobs here. Shonto is 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 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. Arvin Trujillo is heading up the Navajo Nation's stimulus efforts.
Mr. ARVIN TRUJILLO: This could be a real benefit once we get the money flowing here on the Nation.
KRAKER: But so far not much 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 economist Joe Kalt says it won't have a huge impact.
Professor JOSEPH KALT (Economist, Harvard University): The federal government itself has estimated that the backlog of unmet needs - just basic infrastructure of old school buildings and water and sewer is much, much larger than the kinds of funds that have been made available directly to Indian country.
KRAKER: 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 bottlenecked tribal bureaucracies, some have turned to a Plan B. They're trying to build their own local economies, often from scratch.
Mr. BRETT ISAAC (Program Manager, Shonto Community Development Corporation): Shonto really is trying to pave a way for themselves to get different avenues of funding.
KRAKER: Brett Isaac is standing 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.
Mr. ISAAC: It's not easy on the Navajo Nation when there's so many people and so much land base to cover. Projects like this are very, very hard to get funded and noticed.
KRAKER: It's another part of the federal stimulus bill that 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.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.