x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Navajo Nation fighting for cultural, economic survival

Navajo Nation struggles to overcome exploitation by white settlers who expanded westward into Utah-Arizona border over the past 500 years.

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah // The cragged beauty of the sandstone buttes in this corner of the Utah-Arizona border draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year but the poverty suffered by many of the original Navajo Indians who live here seems to have barely changed since they were depicted in the John Wayne cowboy movies of the 1940s.

Tourism, mining and agriculture, mainstays of the Navajo economy, provide dwindling revenues. Unemployment is more than 40 per cent and many homes in remote areas have no running water or electricity. On the main highways, a common sight is women dressed in traditional long skirts patiently waiting at roadside shacks to sell their Navajo arts and crafts to the rare tourist.

Increasingly stringent pollution controls are being imposed on coal-mining, raising questions about the long-term viability of the industry as a source of jobs. Meanwhile, the deadly legacy of uranium mining persists in the degradation of the land and health of those Navajo exposed to the deadly dust.

Many visitors to Monument Valley do not realise that barely 48 kilometres away there are still piles of uranium waste awaiting clearance by federal authorities, who continue to grapple with how best to clean up more than 500 abandoned mines.

Monument Valley is one of several world-class tourist attractions in the Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous territory of arid desert and alpine forests of some 67,000 square kilometres, which sprawls across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It is the largest land area assigned to Native Americans within the United States.

On the territory, alcohol is banned while gambling is restricted. There are some 170,000 Navajo, who call themselves the Dine, meaning 'the people' in the Navajo language.

Much hope was invested in The View, a tasteful new hotel that is Navajo-owned and run. But many Navajo says it will take a lot more time and effort to reverse the exploitation of a culture forced into dependency on white settlers over the past five hundred years.

Like other Native Americans, the Navajo endured land loss and conflict with immigrant Europeans who expanded westwards in the early history of the United States. Their traditional pastoral culture was almost irrevocably destroyed, while US citizenship was not granted to all Native Americans until 1924.

Today, the federal government recognises more than 500 Native American nations, with autonomy granted by treaty agreements with the United States.

But many young Navajo are increasingly leaving their land in search of education and jobs.

"When the young leave, they take away the language, culture and Navajo way of life," said George Hardeen, the former spokesman for Joe Shirley, who served two consecutive terms as president of the Navajo Nation until last month. "In remote areas, you only see grandparents and kids because the parents are off in the border cities working and sending money back home."

There is hope that the new administration and president of the Navajo Nation that took office in January will draw a line over several corruption scandals that convulsed the Tribal Council in recent years and help to renew the focus on improving economic conditions.

The new Tribal Council now has only 24 members, down from 88, following a referendum of Navajo more than a year ago. One of the first recommendations put to the council was to streamline the existing 11 policy committees to 4, partly because "it's a sacred number in the Navajo universe," said Leonard Tsosie, a delegate, according to a Navajo Nation press release.

Ben Shelly, the new president, had faced criminal charges for the misuse of $8,850 of discretionary funds but they were dropped earlier this month. In December, charges of conspiracy and theft involving $3,200 in discretionary funds were dismissed against Rex Lee Jim, the vice-president.

"Certainly, we expect a leadership with integrity and honesty to achieve our survival and true self-determination," Duane H Yazzie, the chairperson of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said.

"This Council, unfortunately, will be tainted even though charges against them are cleared. However, with the amount of attention and scrutiny on them we will hold them to their claim of a new leadership that has transparency and accountability."

He said the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission was heartened by President Barack Obama's decision to reverse the previous administration's position and to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The UN declaration seeks to protect the rights of more than 370 million native peoples around the world and their ability to maintain their own institutions, cultures and spiritual traditions.

"We're making progress. We're moving forward," Mr Obama told a Washington conference attended by representatives of more than 320 Native American nations last November. "And what I hope is that we are seeing a turning point in the relationship between our nations."

Mr Obama also noted he had already signed laws to improve health care and law enforcement for Native American tribes. "When one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national consciousness," the president said last year after signing a bill giving reservation police more arrest and prosecutorial authority.

Mr Yazzie said he hoped the UN declaration would signal a review of federal policy because the UN's "treatment of indigenous populations is more responsive and consistent to the cultural and inherent political sovereignty practised by our people for centuries."

"Perhaps [the new Tribal] Council will give us greater support to charge the commission with more latitude with confidence," he said.