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(By Arlyssa D. Becenti – AZCentral – July 2, 2022) – The Navajo Nation will spend over $1 billion from the American Recovery Rescue Plan Act for water, electricity, broadband internet, housing, and other infrastructure priorities. 

The rescue plan allotted over $2 billion to the Navajo Nation, the most any tribe received to go toward mitigation and relief of COVID-19.  The virus hit the Navajo Nation in March of 2020 and showed how the largest tribe on the largest reservation in the country was vulnerable to catching a life-threatening disease.

Leaders said the lack of infrastructure, families living in multigenerational homes and underlying health issues contributed to the spread of the virus, which has to date taken over 1,800 Navajo lives. 

“The executive branch was tasked to package the legislation and our division directors worked tirelessly to put a package together that would address the needs of the Navajo people,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “Of course $2 billion doesn’t address all the needs so we had to prioritize.”

The priorities are similar to what Navajo citizens were asking for before the pandemic struck, needs that became more critical as COVID-19 swept through communities. 

The spending plan includes:

  • $215 million for water/wastewater
  • $96.4 million for home electricity connections
  • $120 million for broadband
  • $130 million for housing
  • $120 million for new hardship assistance applicants
  • $150 million for bathroom additions
  • $210 million for local chapter priorities
  • $35 million for E911 and public safety
  • $19.2 million for health care
  • $5 million for cyber security
  • $15.5 million for former Bennett Freeze area housing.

The money will go toward improving services on the Navajo Nation, and will also create jobs for tribal members within the nation and for some who have moved away, giving them an opportunity to move home.

After COVID struck, plans changed

The Nez administration was forced to navigate through a global pandemic that no one could plan for, but Nez said as he was running for president four years ago, his team went to the communities to ask what was needed.

With that information in hand, he created the Hozhó Diné Bi Nahat’á plan. It was meant for a pre-COVID time but is now largely the blueprint for post-COVID actions.

“We followed the Nahat’á plan put in place when we visited with communities four years ago,” said Nez. “The priority was water, electricity, broadband, telecommunication, homes, and so that was what we put together.”

Throughout the pandemic, Nez and his directors helped distribute food and supplies to all 110 communities on the Navajo Nation. At the beginning of the pandemic, the national focus turned to those communities and how the spread of COVID was affecting them.

“We were scared at the beginning because there was no vaccine, there was no medicine,” said Nez. “But we were in the communities because we felt it was important for the Navajo people to see their leaders, see their division directors out there because it would comfort them at a difficult time. It also let them know that we would overcome this pandemic by working together.” 

 Before vaccines were made available, the Navajo Nation went to extremes to stop the spread, imposing curfews and weekend-long shutdowns. The closed roads, schools, businesses, tourist sites and casinos reopened after the rest of the country. Mask mandates were also implemented in April 2020.

Dr. Jill Jim, executive director of the Navajo Nation Department of Health.

When vaccines arrived, leaders encouraged tribal members to get vaccinated, a message still in place. Nez and his director for the Health Department, Dr. Jill Jim, have continued their weekly virtual town halls to keep citizens up to date on the state of COVID on Navajo. 

“I’m grateful that this legislation went through, but we still need to do more for public health, health care and our elders,” said Jim. “Our people shouldn’t be living in third-world conditions. Some of the funding that was included in the original bill was reallocated by the legislative body, but we will continue to use our limited resources to help reduce the spread of COVID here in our communities.”

‘Bring them home, embrace their expertise’

Larry Holiday delivers water by truck to a man whose home doesn't have running water in Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation.

Before the recovery act, the nation received $714 million in CARES Act funding that provided electricity to over 1,000 homes, along with investments in water resources, hardship assistance for the Navajo people, telecommunications towers, COVID-19 relief and more. 

Recovery act dollars landed in Navajo Nation coffers in May and August of last year. The first $1 billion was spent with $557 million going toward a second round of hardship assistance checks for over 345,000 qualified Navajo people. More than $400 million went toward funding CARES programs for water, electricity, broadband, small business assistance and judicial branch funding.

Before a full spending plan could be approved, the Navajo Nation Council held 26 work sessions to hear from local areas what was needed. They also held 40 committee meetings, and Nez said he was grateful for the 20 delegates who voted for the plan and for its sponsor. The council made amendments to the legislation.

“This legislation was sponsored to directly address the living conditions of our Navajo people during this COVID-19 pandemic,” said the bill’s sponsor, Council Delegate Mark Freeland.  “Our relatives residing in rural areas need basic infrastructure access to drinking water, electricity, and bathroom additions.

“Many of our families do not have the luxury of waiting for thousands of infrastructure projects to begin,” he said. “This is the Navajo people’s money, and they deserve our immediate support during this pandemic.” 

Pearl Yellowman, director of the division of community development, said it was a lot of hard work to get to this point. The division created an online portal in April 2021 for chapters to submit projects, which were then vetted by the Department of Justice to ensure compliance with federal guidelines.

Over 550 project proposals were received and evaluated. As the person in charge of a division that has to work toward constructing quality homes, community public facility buildings and infrastructure, Yellowman said finally getting to this point was rewarding.

“Elders never come into the chapter house to ask for money, but they ask for roads, electricity and running water,” said Yellowman. “They still come for these basic needs. With these funds we will devote our time to getting our people cell towers, electricity, running water to bring their living standards to par to the rest of the world.”

Nez, along with Freeland and other council delegates, are currently running for re-election. Nez said he is confident these dollars will not only help those living on Navajo Nation but will also bring many citizens home.

“Once this bill is signed we are going to need engineers, we will be able to bring back a lot of our carpenters, electricians, ironworkers home,” said Nez. “They’re building infrastructure for other governments and people. Now is the time to bring them home, embrace their expertise.

“When we do that, our young people, our people that live off the Navajo Nation, will come home because there will be water, electricity, homes, available.”

Arlyssa D. Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to arlyssa.becenti@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter @ABecenti.

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