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A long way from Window Rock for the Navajos' west side
By Sonja Horoshko
The Navajo Western Agency wants to play a greater part in the operations of its central government.
A resolution calling for decentralization of general services and divisions of the Navajo Nation government, located in Window Rock, Ariz., passed 55-6-2 during the quarterly meeting of the 18 agency member chapters March 20 in Chilchinbito, Ariz., on the eastern escarpment of Black Mesa.
The vote sets in motion a process that could allow the westernmost citizens of the Navajo Nation to have a central administrative office in one of their own towns instead of in faraway Window Rock.
Council Delegate Leslie Dele of Tonalea introduced the resolution by drawing attention to the inefficient use of people’s time and vehicles. He pointed out that two of the biggest reasons to drive to Window Rock relate to personnel issues and government finances. Nobody takes an official count, he said, but there are estimates that 30 to 60 white tribal vehicles leave the Tuba City area and about that many return every day, completing the round trip in six hours.
LeChee Chapter, 70 miles north of Tuba City at Page, Ariz., is a 5 1/2-hour drive from Window Rock; Navajo Mountain is 244 miles and 6 1/2 hours away; Leupp, 153 miles and three hours on the most direct route; Shonto, at 213 miles is four hours away over some rough roads; while Oljeto, tucked away behind a canyon west of Monument Valley 210 miles from Window Rock, requires a five-hour drive.
The Navajo Nation, largest and most populated of all Native American tribes, is the size of West Virginia. It is divided into five agencies, comparable to U.S. states. Communities within the agencies are organized into local chapters, with a chapter house serving as the disseminating office for information and news. The chapter house is also the assembly hall for official meetings and public hearings.
But all government business conducted there on behalf of the people is done without local access and availability to Navajo Nation central government personnel, staff or records.
Like the Pony Express of the 1860s, chapters expedite delivery of documents by physically transporting them to Window Rock. The process might be compared to hand-delivering your income-tax return to Washington, D.C.
Meetings, too, are scheduled and announced at Window Rock locations. Ordinary Navajo citizens living hours away are welcome to attend if they are able to drive, can afford gas, have a vehicle in good repair, can take time off work and can visit relatives on the way. If not, they are the ones that can fall through the cracks.
For the 18 chapters included in the Navajo Western Agency, where many roads are dirt or gravel and inclement weather is frequent, the distance from Window Rock is a major obstacle to efficient operation of services and government.
A bureaucratic quagmire
“Every major service program is centralized in Window Rock. Decentralization would save the nation funds in transportation and wear and tear on our vehicles — and save us the night in a motel,” said Council Delegate Katherine Benally, Denehotso. “We Navajos have perpetuated what we accuse the U.S. government of, we have fine-tuned bureaucracy from Window Rock.”
Benally, an organizer of the decentralization project, said, “As it stands now, the services are slowed by the constant shuffling back and forth to Window Rock, and the people who need to deal directly with offices there have no choice but to drive those lengths of time to do their business. They take time off work, lose money. Decentralizing will save the nation money, if we move out one-fifth of every program to a western location more accessible to the people.”
“I think the time is right for something new and innovative that would be beneficial to the people,” said Leupp Chapter Delegate Leonard Chee. “As it is now, the distances we travel are immense and this would cut that.” Chee drives 153 miles from Leupp to represent his chapter in the Navajo Legislative Council.
Although slightly closer (149 miles to central government), the Kayenta Township is still affected by the delays. Even though the roads from Kayenta to Window Rock are paved, it is still a three-hour drive or more. Keith Betsuie, town manager, said the effort to decentralize the government services “would be a positive step, an efficient use of scarce resources.”
In addition, it would surely reduce the tribe’s carbon footprint and auto emissions at a time when air quality and environmental consciousness are becoming major issues for the nation.
Power in the West Side
The Western Agency is also home to the richest natural resources on Navajo land. Coal, uranium, the Black Mesa water aquifer, the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, and now wind and solar power and ecotourism are the foundations of future economic development.
Surrounding chapters are beginning to feel the leverage and power associated with such rich land. The agency is growing in collective strength as its individual chapters challenge central government, alleging Window Rock lags in support of local community initiatives that directly benefit residents of the area. Economic-development projects such as the Cameron wind farm and the Maverick Helicopter tour business have been held up for years, according to local officials, while Window Rock jockeys for control of the lucrative enterprises [Free Press, December 2008, January 2009, February 2010].
In an unintended show of solidarity, 16 of the 18 Western Agency chapters voted against a Dec. 15, 2009, initiative to reduce council-delegate representation in the central government proposed by President Joe Shirley, Jr. The unofficial count showed the initiative passed among the 110 chapters nationwide, 61 to 39 percent.
“The move to decentralize central government is prompted by the Dec. 15th elections that clearly showed the Western Agency chapters voting against reducing the number of council delegates from 88 to 24,” Benally said.
Since then, the Western Agency has been in the news as Leupp resident Timothy Nelson brought a lawsuit against the Initiative Committee and president's office, challenging the legality of the election. Although the suit was dismissed on grounds he had sued the wrong parties, oral arguments on Nelson's appeal to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court are scheduled for April 20.
Until the complaint is settled, the Navajo election board can't certify results of the Dec. 15 special election. Nelson's lawsuit is holding up that certification and subsequently the plans to reapportion official chapter boundaries.
Joshua Lavar Butler, communications director for Navajo Nation Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan, told the Free Press in a phone interview, “It is very understandable that 16 of 18 chapters in the Western Agency would oppose the council reduction. They are so far from central government, they could feel forgotten. They are also the most traditional and remote. Representation is critical to them. Speaker Morgan is very supportive of this [decentralization]. It represents real government and budget reform.
The coming reapportionment will match communities to the new, limited number of delegates. The move aims to streamline council duties by assigning more chapters to fewer delegates.
“There is also some discussion in the Western Agency to keep the current structure of council delegates even when council reduction goes into effect,” Butler said. “It is kind of a serious situation.”
Leonard Chee is in his second term as a delegate. He believes that in the Western Agency, “There is that sense of oneness, that we should stand together and, of course, we're stronger when we do stand together. We've been in the headlines since the Dec 15th election drew attention to the Western Agency. In the past we've been silent and so far from Window Rock.”
At the March meeting, speakers lined up to address the audience of council delegates, chapter officials and visiting dignitaries, including Arizona Sen. Albert Hale, a former president of the Navajo Nation. Jack Jackson Jr. and Sylvia Laughter, Navajo candidates for Arizona State Senate, District 2, addressed the crowd in campaign speeches followed by Round Rock Delegate Rex Lee Jim, candidate for the 2010 presidential election. The Chilchinbito gymnasium, packed with over 150 people, was charged with vigorous discussion.
Arbin Mitchell, director of the Navajo Division of Community Development, said that decentralization is “part of selfdetermination, …millions of dollars of federal funds being returned due to all these problems related to oppressive travel and delayed meetings that keep us from getting the job done.”
The crowd applauded Chapter President Max Goldtooth, Toh Nanees Dizi/Tuba City, as he added, “We should have no fear of innovative endeavor. We can do it!”
While not much is being said publicly in central government on the subject, a Feb. 25 press release reports that Western Agency council delegates directed Paulson Chaco, executive director for the Office of Navajo Government Development, to develop and draft chapter resolutions to support the Western Navajo Agency Decentralization Project.
“I believe the Western Agency delegates have a legitimate concern to decentralize certain functions of the central government,” Chaco said. His office “will assist them in achieving any goals. I look forward to working with them. It will be a big responsibility and it's my office's duty to carry out those types of functions.”
The project will bring many much-needed services directly to the people. In the same press release, Council Delegate Lena Manheimer, Ts'ah Bii Kin/Navajo Mountain, stated it will also “… provide opportunities for economic development really necessary for our communities. This project will help eliminate a lot of stress.”
The resolution goes now to the individual chapters. Benally is careful to point out that the next step on the chapter level is critical to understanding the benefits and responsibilities of decentralization. “We'll fine-tune all of this, see what we can do, then every chapter will be informed, educated and the information presented to the people there for consideration when public hearings are held.”
Location, location, location
But if the Western Agency gains its own administrative center, where should it be?
“There are 5,000 travel employees [nationwide] going back and forth to Window Rock daily,” Butler said. “It's ridiculous how much gas and time is spent when coordinated efforts don't exist. A centralized office in Tuba City would be good. We now have the technology to do it. I'd like to see one courier a day instead of all the driving done presently. It could possibly be a prototype for other agencies.”
Tuba City has been developing at a rapid pace during the last decade. Two- and three-story commercial buildings are now part of the city-scape. It also boasts a 100,000-watt public radio station, KGHR, housed at the Greyhills Academy grant school. The library parking lot is filled each day after school and on weekends. A coffee house serves lattes, chai and biscotti to customers connecting to free WiFi. The Tuba City Indian Health Service Hospital has renovated while expanding services to keep up with the needs of the region, and Bashas grocery is beginning to carry some organic products. All are signs of a growing diversified economy.
But can the Tuba City infrastructure hold up to the pressure of a boom in construction if decentralization locates there? Other chapter locations may be in the running, offering the build-out amenities needed to accommodate the sizable needs of such a democratic change.
Tonalea, 30 miles east of Tuba City on U.S. Highway 160, has the water, power, space and technical capacity to accept the project. Technology is big business in Leupp, too, where Tooh Dineh Industries assembles circuitry boards and is the major employer in the community. All three possible locations are easily accessed by the other chapters in the agency.
Another bonus of decentralization would be job creation in construction and professional employment. As it is, residents of the Ft. Defiance / Window Rock area have more opportunity to work in government because they live close to the work sites. If decentralization happens it will equalize opportunity by spreading job access into the far reaches of the Western chapters.
Supporters of the plan indicate that the transformation of services, not just duplication of services, is central to success. The restructuring could address efficiency on many levels, not all of which are business.
It might potentially ease strain on family relations, as Benally pointed out. “Decentralization will free more time for family and community for council delegates, as well as families in our communities who are constantly driving to Window Rock for services and business. It can increase the quality of life for us all.”
If the decentralization resolutions are passed on the chapter level, the project will be placed before the council for approval, making it feasible to begin construction of a new center within three years.
“The sooner the better,” said Kayenta's Betsuie. “I hope it will be received well in council because it is an action where we take hold of our own destiny.”
What would the buildings look like? “Just give us a hogan,” Benally said. “We'll be happy. We'll make it work.”