Time to transition out of NGS

March 7, 2013

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G rowing up on Black Mesa in northeast Arizona on the Navajo Nation, we often lived like nomads, following our sheep. As a child, I wasn't aware that other people in America stayed put, living in one place. Whenever I returned home from boarding school during a break, I'd often find my family living somewhere new on the mesa.

I have distinct memories of one particular camp, Tsenitaahotsoh, which in Navajo means "the green grass at the base of the rock." I would get up before sunrise and take our sheep to seep there to drink, because right around 4 a.m., pools of water would miraculously appear on the dry arroyo bed. Then when the sun came up a few hours later, the seeps would disappear.

Our livelihoods depended on those springs and I remember moving with our herds to follow the water all the way through my high school years until I left for college in 1987.

I returned home 10 years later, university degree in hand, ready to take my place as a productive member of my community, but as I began building my home at Tsenitaahotsoh I discovered that the seeps had vanished, not just with the rising sun each day, but for good. In fact, the springs at all of the camps from my childhood were drying up. Over 20 years, the natural economy of my ancestors had disappeared.

The Navajo Aquifer is the only source of drinking water for 50,000 Native people and 14 communities on Black Mesa. Navajo and Hopi people who live on the plateau have relied on the aquifer for generations. It is over a thousand feet deep, and it provides some of the cleanest water in the Southwest when it emerges as seeps on the surface.

What has happened to this precious resource that sustained so many hardworking locals for so long, allowing them to make their living in a challenging landscape?

The answer isn't hard to find on Black Mesa: It is the 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station near Grand Canyon National Park.

Decades ago, when the $5 billion Central Arizona Project needed power to push Colorado River water uphill over 300 miles of canals from western Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson, the U.S. government approached the Navajo Nation. What would we get in return? A coal-fired power plant on the reservation if the tribe waived its rights to the Upper Basin Colorado River for 50 years.

My community on Black Mesa would strip-mine and sell the coal, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would receive cheap "Indian" energy to subsidize its operation of one of the largest, and costliest, publicly funded water works and energy projects in U.S. history. Central and southern Arizona benefited most from the low-cost electricity and the subsidized water, meanwhile, the aquifer suffered.

From 1971-2005, the coal industry removed water from the Navajo Aquifer at the rate of 4,000-6,000 acre-feet a year, over three times the aquifer's known ability to recharge. Since 2005, the Peabody mining company has decreased its use to under 2,000 acre-feet a year, but that is still over 13 million gallons a year for an area that gets less than 8 inches of annual rainfall.

The name "Navajo Generating Station" gives the impression that Navajos own the plant. That's not true. The tribe has an interest in it, but the largest share belongs to the U.S. government. The Navajo Nation receives some revenue and jobs from the coal operations, but at a heavy price. Air pollution from the plant hurts public health, and the mining and coal-ash waste disposal damage water quality.

Some four decades ago, the decision was made at a crossroads in Arizona history to build a coal plant to power the Central Arizona Project canal pumps. Now we are at another crossroads: Leases for coal operations are up soon, and the Navajo Generating Station faces huge costs to deal with pollution and update an outdated facility.

Today, we can chart a new path. We know the devastation to our water that comes with coal. Today, we have the technology to harness our region's stunning solar resources instead. That's enough energy to power the canal pumps, and more.

Having had the privilege of seeing the land as the Creator left it for us, I know that the wise management of the basic elements of life - land, air, water and the sun - are necessary if we are to fulfill our responsibility to ensure a decent quality of life for the next generation. It's time for the U.S. government to divest from the Navajo Generating Station and start building commercial-scale renewable energy projects on Navajo land. Prosperity for some should no longer come from draining the livelihoods of others.

Nicole Horseherder
Piñon, Ariz.

This piece originally appeared Won riters on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an administrator at Piñon Unified School District and an advisor to the Navajo Nation Water Rights Task Force.

Unsigned agreement impacting nursing homes

As the impacts of an uncertain federal budget and spending cuts take effect, Native American leaders are deciphering the tribal consequences of Washington's partisan deadlock over deficit spending.

Recently, the Washington Post, citing a White House report, noted that Indian programs at the Interior Department are slated for a $130 million cut. This doesn't include agencies like the Indian Health Services that will provide 3,000 less in-patient admissions and 800,000 less outpatient services as a result of the spending cuts.

While politicians debate how to pay down the national deficit, an important tribal program hasn't escaped the fallout of Washington's political arrogance nor the bureaucracy of Window Rock: nursing homes and assisted living care for the Navajo Nation's elderly and special needs tribal members.

No other issue in the nation highlights the extreme polarity and disconnect of Washington's political elite than Navajo nursing home and assisted living care for the nation's most vulnerable and impoverished population. While one group talks politics and money over expensive meals in D.C.'s finest restaurants, another group talks about where the next meals are going to come from for our tribal elders and special needs tribal members in the middle of the Navajo Indian Reservation.

Case in point, two recent letters from the Navajo Nation Division of Social Services to Navajo social services contract vendors that, in essence, cite the federal government's continuing resolution and budget uncertainties as the primary reason that no funding agreement has been signed with the federal government. Without this signed agreement, social services subcontractors like nursing homes and assisted living centers will not receive badly needed federal funds. Navajo elderly and special-needs tribal members and staff are facing the heartbreaking reality that Navajo nursing homes may close their doors.

If you have ever walked into one of our three Navajo Nation-based nursing or assisted living homes in Cornfields, Ganado or Chinle then you know your heart is immediately touched with compassion for our grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters. Together they are the source of our Navajo culture, history, tradition and wisdom. They taught us where we originated. They taught us sacred Navajo healing ceremonies. They taught us how to live and speak. Our special-needs brothers and sisters have given us the gift of love, compassion, and kindness. They have blessed us with an opportunity to care.

This is why federal-funding cuts, tribal bureaucracy, and temporary stopgap funding measures are highly offensive. Can't federal and tribal leaders feel the moral and ethical obligation to care for our elderly and special-needs tribal members?

The answer, in short, is no. Case in point, it has been months since Navajo social service vendors have received federal funding. The BIA Navajo Nation Annual Funding Agreement remains unsigned by federal and Navajo officials. No one knows when and if the agreement will be signed and whether funding will continue for an entire year and not at temporary three-month increments.

Julia Zlitni (Navajo Times letter to the editor, "Why are there no nursing homes on Navajo?" Feb. 28, 2013) expressed her frustration shared by many thousands of Navajos when it comes to the lack of nursing homes and assisted living facilities within the great Navajo Nation, "I find this a disgrace and embarrassing for our Navajo Nation to lack taking care of our senior citizens..."

Any answers tribal and federal officials give for Zlitni's question does not excuse them for the appalling neglect of our elderly and our special-needs tribal members. One only needs to look at the Navajo Nation gaming initiative to understand that when Navajo leaders and federal laws purposefully unite the Navajo Nation government can build luxurious multi-million dollar buildings and cut through bureaucratic red tape in record time. Why couldn't tribal and federal leaders, and tribal and federal laws do this for our Navajo elders and special-needs tribal members?

When we visit our loved ones in nursing homes and assisted living centers, we feel our hearts come alive. In the same way, our conscience should tell all of us to never be a bystander to any injustice no matter the circumstances. We must actively become involved to care for those who need us the most. We need our tribal leaders to fight for our elders and our special-needs tribal members. Get that agreement signed.

Irma Bluehouse
Ganado, Ariz.

All must take responsibility for social dysfunction

Ya'at'eeh shi'k'e doo shi' Dine'. I write this letter to share a story that unfortunately may be in every community of our once-great nation; it's a story against humanity and our traditional Navajo teachings of k'e.

Being a community leader I openly advocate that business corporations and governmental entities have a social responsibility to their communities as well as providing the infrastructure, jobs, fiscal integrity and protecting the assets with prudence, because members of the community are our most valuable assets and a major part of our infrastructure; they are our "soft" infrastructure that too often are overlooked, or shuffled off to some other department, because of a lack of education or knowledge that social responsibility is just as or more important than other forms of infrastructure. This ignorance violates the core of our traditional beliefs and business philosophy of being stewards of our people within a community.

Having stated this, I had a young community adult 22 years of age visit my office. We sat down and she shared with me her plight. It was a tragic story of how she had recently lost her mother to alcohol abuse, leaving behind her and three younger siblings without a parent. Her father was never home and left the family. It was a dysfunctional family, but the security of being together kept the siblings together, not wanting to be torn apart by the social service system, a system that too often is overloaded with similar cases.

I discovered that the trailer that they had lived in did not have a homesite lease and had been vandalized to the point that it needed major repair. No electricity or water had been connected due to the lack of a homesite lease. They bounced from extended family to extended family never feeling welcomed and sensed the feeling of being a burden.

The adjacent lot belonged to a sister of her mother who was at odds and didn't want the children to stay there. I realized that her mother had stopped by my office a year earlier and shared with me her situation. She felt isolated and helpless and turned to me for help.

I remembered advising her to go to peacemaker's court and have an intermediary come out to visit with the family and sister to work out their differences. I asked if she had a medicine man or relative that could hear each other's grievances - she did not. I offered her myself as the intermediary if she wanted and family agreed. As I listened to her daughter's story, I wondered if I did all that I could do. Did I fail their mother a year ago who came to me for help out of desperation? Was I her last stop for help?

When I learned of her death I cried and couldn't sleep for days. When she came to me I was less than a year into my new job as chapter manager, and although I provided her with contacts to reach out to for help I felt like I could have done more, but I didn't know the whole situation and the history of her dysfunctional environment and I waited for her return with the outcome of the advice I provided - she never returned; she was buried days later.

Now, her daughter advocating on behalf of herself and her siblings wanted me to provide her with a letter of support to extend her 30-day temporary home in an NHA public housing unit. She told me how she and her siblings were to be evicted without this support letter and that she was told that she would have to pay for electric utility expenses, but according to her, she has no income. Her general assistance was terminated due to non-renewal, but she had food assistance for her and her siblings.

I discovered that she dropped out of school due to her family situation without support or nurturing, so she never pursued her GED so that she could get a job, a job that required a reliable form of transportation, which she couldn't obtain coupled with the fear of having her and her siblings separated and put into foster care.

This often is the case with many of our homeless children. The fear of exposing their situation and being torn apart keeps many children from reporting their situation to TANF or Social Services. If our nation has a 30 percent dropout rate, can we expect this large percent of illiterate, homeless and destitute adults, mothers and fathers into the future?

Is our philosophy to make a future for our children into the next seven generations just rhetoric to get elected?

Because of her dysfunctional family, this young woman missed out on being taught responsibility, self-reliance, or wisdom to care for her siblings or become a contributing member of society. The emotional trauma endured because of alcoholic parents has stunted her emotional growth and she remains a child emotionally only, adding to the feelings of isolation and hopelessness while having to face the challenges of parenting three siblings and providing security and a home.

As I listened to her story, I couldn't help but reflect upon the correlation of her circumstance with the alarming increase of suicide, alcoholism, drug addictions, teen pregnancy, diabetes, obesity, and overweight. Are we, the bureaucrats, the political leaders, the local leaders of communities, mothers, fathers, clergy, social services, behavioral health, community members, extended family, and holy medicine men doing our part in social responsibility - a major infrastructure of community development?

Our social afflictions that are being brought to light through statistics shows we are a dysfunctional society and leads this writer to believe that our leaders are ignoring their social responsibility to make change for the better. I can only hope and pray that God grants me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

There are two choices we can make as individuals and as a society. One is to do nothing and self-destruct, or the other to take responsibility, take action and persevere. I can only hope for the latter. This story did provide me with hope for it was one uncle that lives and works off the reservation that took the time in between visits to the rez to bring his daughter (niece) into my office, and for this young beautiful woman to have the courage to make the right choice to live in k'e the best way she knows how.

Peter Corbell
Kaibeto, Ariz.

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