Home > 8. The Dragons of Grammar, F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution > The Navajo Reservation–Facts & a Few Reflections

The Navajo Reservation–Facts & a Few Reflections

File:Navajo Nation Council Chambers 6809.jpg

When he was 12 or 13, as part of a boarding school expedition, RT visited the Hopi reservation in Arizona. After all these years, he still remembers the marvelous pueblos on their mesas and the Kachina dolls for sale at the visitor’s center. The land in northern Arizona is indescribably beautiful.

To get to the HR, you might already know, you have to drive through the Navajo reservation, which completely surrounds it. Unfortunately, RT never got to visit the Navajo reservation, but it has cropped up, very possibly by some sort of fate or other, in his recent net surfing. Why devote one or more posts to the Navajo? For one thing, the NR is the largest in the nation. The stats are as follows: land area, 17,425 sq. mi. (71,000 sq. km.); population, 173,987; economic resources, ranching and extensive mineral resources, some of which, for environmental reasons, are no longer exploited (and the Navajo are also beginning to implement wind farming), and casino gambling, as of 2004. The seat of government and capital is Window Rock, AZ. And one more important fact: the Navajo call themselves Diné.

File:DineBikeyahBe'elyaigii.svg

Map of the Navajo Reservation

To help put the geographical and demographic data in perspective, the NR is larger than eight American states (it’s also bigger than Denmark). Looking at things slightly differently, were the NR a state, it would have by far the smallest population–the current holder of that distinction is Wyoming at 582,658 people.

On the other hand, despite its large size, the NR faces much the same problems in its dealings with the outside world as do other reservations. To wit: although a legal nation, the Navajo people must submit all proposed laws to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for review. In practice, most disputes between the Navajo and the U.S. government are settled by negotiation. The legal relationship between Indian reservations and individual U.S. states is decided by federal courts, which have consistently ruled in favor of the reservations, upholding, for instance, the right of Indians to hunt and fish on their lands irrespective of state legislation. As one might imagine, there have been many disputes between individual states and the reservations over the years.

In fact, one could claim that the reservation system constitutes a second tier of internal division with the United States, similar to, but distinct from, the 50 states. One difference is that the reservations send no representatives to Congress. Or at least, that is, directly. American Indians are citizens not only of their reservation, but also of their U.S. state and the United States, and as such vote for state legislatures and the Congress. But the reservations themselves have no representation either at the state or federal level.

You could say that, after all, Indian citizens pay federal taxes and serve in the U.S. military, and are therefore entitled to the same representation as any other U.S. citizen. (And surely mention must be made of the brave and sometimes unique service that Indians have offered as soldiers, for instance, the improved encryption that the Indian Code TalkersNavajo among them–provided during WWII.)

On the other hand, the American Indian’s status as members of the First Nation, the original inhabitants of the continent, and thus the only American community that had to make way for everyone else (and often in not very nice ways) argues that they are entitled to either some sort of compensation or else a special voice in U.S. affairs. One way to express this special connection might be to include a non-voting Indian representative in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

While on this topic, RT recommends reading up on the abortive Indian state of Sequoyah, which was located in present-day Oklahoma.

On the health front, the Navajo, like other Indian tribes, continue to struggle with the devastating health and social effects of alcoholism (and this in spite of long-standing ban on alcohol sales in the NR). Diabetes is another major health concern, as are suicide and deaths from pneumonia, tuberculosis, and influenza. Homicide and suicide rates are significantly higher than in the United States as a whole.

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OK, so what about the positive side of the ledger? What has been getting better on the NR?

1) RT will start by pointing the reader to the Navajo Times web site, a professional and informative resource.

2) Next, RT recommends visiting the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Housing Improvement Program page. In existence since 1921, HIP is intended to work in conjunction with other federal housing programs, and targets Indian homelessness and substandard housing. RT can only ask: Shouldn’t this program be duplicated in other impoverished areas, starting with Appalachia?

3) Indian education has become a priority. Created in 2011 by executive order, the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education aims to close the gap between Indian and statewide scores on academic achievement tests. 

4) Education in Diné (the Navajo language) is getting better. Check out the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education. Over 150 public, private and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools serve Navajo students from kindergarten through high school. Diné College, established in 1968 as the first Indian Community College, has an enrollment of 1,830 students.

5) RT has learned of one Diné citizen who is an Arizona state senator. RT’s rapid inventory of information on the net indicates that at least five American Indians have been elected a U.S. Senator, and another eight, U.S. representatives, one of whom served five terms in the House.

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There is more, much more, to be learned about the status of American Indians. The questions surrounding these nations-within-a-nation are nothing if not complex. So doubtless RT will be revisiting this important topic. (And the Dragons of Grammar have expressed an interest in learning Diné!).

RT recommends that readers check out the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs web site. This agency of the Department of the Interior has been charged with overseeing federal-Indian nation relations since 1824.

Before closing out this post, RT will let fly a final barb: why not create a cabinet-level Department of Indian Affairs? This will consolidate all Indian programs under a single roof and signal that America takes its obligations to the continent’s first inhabitants seriously. One might argue that this would be in flagrant disregard of the sovereignty of the Indian peoples, but RT figures that this government-government relationship is unique anyway, and if a DIA would improve quality of life for American Indians and warm up Anglo-Indian relations, why not?

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Photo: Navajo Nation Council Chambers, Window Rock, AZ. Author: William Nakai. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.

Map: Navajo Reservation. Author: Seb az86556. CC 3.0 Unported.

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