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Navajo slow to rebuild after development freeze

Don Yellowman runs Forgotten People. He tries to bring attention to the 8,000 people in the former Bennett Freeze area.
Don Yellowman runs Forgotten People. He tries to bring attention to the 8,000 people in the former Bennett Freeze area.
Anne Hoffman

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You haven't seen poverty in America until you've visited the Navajo Nation — a reservation overwhelmed by desperate housing needs, high unemployment, and contaminated drinking water.

One corner of the reservation about a million and a half acres, is even worse off because of something known as the Bennett Freeze. Here about 8,000 Navajo people have lived paralyzed in a state of poverty, extreme even by Navajo standards.

From the Fronteras Desk in Flagstaff, Laurel Morales reports.

Don Yellowman, a tall former football player, is head of a group called Forgotten People. His aim is to bring attention to the thousands of people he believes were forgotten for four decades under a program that banned all development on their land.

On a recent hot summer morning we drove for hours down a long dirt road to a home constructed out of old ammunition cans and plywood surrounded by stray sheep and dogs.

Carol and Charlie Colorado invited us in.

Inside the two-room house, a “home sweet home” sign hung on the wall. But life hasn’t always been sweet for the elderly couple who speak only Navajo. Carol recalled trying to put up a shade structure next to their home many years ago.

"They were told you can’t build that," Yellowman translated. "So that was illegal construction. That’s what we often hear from people. An outhouse would get a sticker stuck on there called ‘illegal construction.’"

In 1966 Robert Bennett, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, outlawed construction of any kind on a million and a half acres in northeastern Arizona. This was his solution to a land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi Tribes. The tribes came to an agreement in 2006 and President Obama officially lifted the freeze in 2009, but many people are still waiting on new homes, water and electricity promised to them.

Jeremiah Sage Curley and his family are beyond frustrated. Curley is an artist who frequently paints the rolling hills and red mesas near his family’s home. A row of giant steel towers obstruct the view.

"My brother always says, ‘don’t forget the power lines,’ which is to say it’s here," Curley said. "It’s just streaming the electricity past us. We don’t have any electricity."

The towers transmit power from a coal-fired power plant in Page down to Phoenix and remind Curley every day of what he and his family don’t have. More than 40 percent of the homes here don’t have electricity. That’s compared to 10 percent on the entire reservation, according to a study commissioned by the federal government. And many still lack access to water.

Curley’s mom, who was out hauling water, has been trying to get a new home for years to replace their small crumbling stone house. But the Navajo housing officials told her they lost her paperwork.

"Her heart’s always been (in Navajo), which means ‘when I get a home,’" Curley said.

"That’s the way she speaks and my heart does go out for her because sorry to say this I don’t think nothin’s gonna get done."

According to a study commissioned by the tribe in 2011, there’s $4 billion in unmet need just in the former Bennett Freeze area.

Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo president Ben Shelly, said much of the federal money earmarked for Bennett Freeze families has been tied up in tribal policy red tape.

"Ideally we could just write them a check," Zah said. "Reality is we need to hold the money accountable."

Many people have been forced to leave. But tradition ties Navajos to their land. When a Navajo baby is born her umbilical cord is buried in the ground beside her home.

Cecelia Brown almost gave up and moved to Phoenix. She spent 20 years filling out paperwork and making endless visits to the Navajo Housing Authority.

"I just stuck to it," Brown said.

Finally the ban on development lifted. And just a couple months ago she got the call.

"They called me and they said, 'your house is ready we have your key,'" Brown said. "'When are you available to pick it up?' I’m like, really? You’re serious? I said, now now! I’m good right now. And we do have power and we have water so we have everything."

But Cecelia Brown is only one of thousands in need of a home. The others must continue to wait.