Population shifts off-reservation

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

Nov. 24, 2010

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Shortly before he leaves office, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. will be given some documents from the U.S. Census Office that won't be made public until the following March.

Those documents will give an update on a question that has never really been answered to anyone's satisfaction - just how many Navajos are there?

For the past several years, Shirley and others have been using the general number of 300,000, which is based on figures released by the federal census office in 2001 and that showed a Navajo population of 269,202 as of April 2000.

About half of these - some 129,000 - lived on the reservation. The rest lived in border towns and in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City.

Because of the lack of jobs on the reservation, tribal officials have been operating on the assumption that the population on the reservation has slowly been going down and is rising dramatically off the reservation.

There's also an assumption that because of the lack of jobs on the reservation, most Navajos who go to college usually have no choice but to live off the reservation. This segment of the Navajo population - ages 22 to 35 - is the prime child producing ages so that would also provide a reason for a high population growth off the reservation.

Some school districts on the reservation have also been reporting declining student populations.

For example, for the past several years, the Gallup-McKinley County School District has been seeing the total enrollment decrease by about 200 students a year and almost all of this is in the schools on the reservation.

If this trend is confirmed in the census report, it will just point out what people have been saying for years - the young people are leaving the reservation in droves.

But this past presidential election has pointed out in no uncertain terms that while the Navajo population is shifting away from the reservation, the voting power still remains on the reservation.

In fact, the off-reservation vote this time seemed to be an afterthought as the reservation population, older and more traditional, swept Ben Shelly and Rex Lee Jim into office.

I remember interviewing tribal officials in the 1980s who predicted that there would be a time in the first years of the next century when the off-reservation population would surpass the reservation population and when that happened, major changes would occur in the government as more of the tribe's resources were allocated to off-reservation Navajos because that is where the voting power existed.

Of course, that never happened and it appears that no matter how many Navajos live off the reservation, the power will stay on the reservation because that's where the voting power exists.

If this trend continues and there is no reason to suspect that it won't, it would indicate that while the population on the reservation is growing, their ties to the reservation and to reservation politics is not.

In other words, a second generation Navajo born and raised off the reservation would probably not have any inclinations to getting involved in tribal politics. They may vote for president and vice president if there is someone running that they are really interested in, but they will probably not do the same for Council or for chapter positions because they will have no connection to the candidates.

The good thing about that is that Council and chapter candidates won't have to bother spending the time or money to attract their votes, devoting their time to people on the reservation who either know them or know of them.

Another interesting factor in all of this is that some population experts are predicting that the Native American population as a whole will double between 2000 and 2050.

This would mean that the Navajos would be looking at a total population of between 500,000 and 600,000. If growth on the reservation remains about the same, some 400,000 of these members will be living off the reservation, outnumbering their reservation population by a 4-1 number.

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