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Economics Special: Navajo entrepreneur overcomes adversity

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - It's as much a source of frustration for Navajo entrepreneur Michael Nelson now as it was when he opened his first western wear store on the reservation 30 years ago.

The redundant levels of bureaucracy and red tape, first by the local chapter governing units, next by the central Navajo government, and then by the BIA just to get permission to start a business.

"It takes two years to do on the reservation what would take two weeks in the outside world and the system isn't getting better with time," said Nelson, 62, who has several True Value Hardware and Church's Fried Chicken franchises along with his western wear stores on the nation's largest reservation.

When Nelson left his tribal job as an economic development planner in the early 1970s, he never expected so many development pitfalls.

His first business venture, a Navajo Westerners store in the tribal capitol of Window Rock, went through swimmingly because he subleased a site in what was then the only shopping center on the reservation, where the Fed Mart Corp. was the anchor tenant.

But the real eye opener was when Nelson leased a commercial plot in the western Navajo community of Tuba City two years later. It took considerably more than a year just to break ground on his store. And, he already had water and sewer connections on the property.

"There were the multiple layers of bureaucracy on the chapter level. Then there was the leasing process of both the Navajo Nation and BIA which actually had a number of identical functions like utility authorities, credit offices and land administration offices," Nelson said. "I thought about throwing in the towel on a number of occasions because of all the frustration."

The most frustrating thing, however, is that the process isn't any quicker now despite so much lip service being paid throughout Indian country to tribes setting aside economic development zones and making conditions more conducive to entrepreneurs, Nelson said.

"The tribes are doing the best that they can working with the federal government to change the leasing provisions. I think it's going to take another few years before the federal government relinquishes the responsibilities that it sees itself having in this area. This is going to require congressional changes," Nelson said.

But all the delays are well worth the sacrifice, he said.

"I've always said that the Navajo Nation is the last frontier for free enterprise at its lowest level," Nelson said. "There's no competition to speak of when your business is in and there's an available labor force. People talk about the high unemployment but money is spent just like off the reservation and there's a captive market because of the few businesses."

Meanwhile, Nelson sees other promising conditions sprouting for economic development on the Navajo Nation.

He's a big fan of the Kayenta Township project in the community of Kayenta, near Monument Valley. When Navajo tribal government embarked on an aggressive program to increase local control in communities on the reservation in the mid-1980s, Kayenta jumped at the opportunity. Local ranchers in the Kayenta area gave up their grazing rights and allowed 5.5 square miles to be used for a township.

The township began levying a 2.5 percent sales tax in 1997 and since then, a $45 million housing subdivision has been built with the most upscale housing on the reservation and a lovely, burnished stone post office in the township area. Township officials also are selling tax-exempt bonds for municipal projects and have contemplated transferring titles to lots within township boundaries to non-Indians as long as they agree to live locally and swear off land speculation.

Nelson said he completely supports the taxing effort because "for once there is a community on the reservation that is trying to become self-sufficient."

This has been Nelson's mantra for many years - self-sufficiency.

The former shepherd, who was born in a hogan and didn't learn to speak English until he was sent to boarding school in Fort Wingate, N.M., in the late 1940s, notes that his entry into this world was so rural that he doesn't have a birth certificate.

But he made the most of his boarding school education and parlayed that into a Navajo tribal scholarship to attend Fort Lewis College in Colorado, where he received a bachelor's degree in Business Administration.

After years of running successful True Value stores throughout the reservation, Nelson got the bug to go into the restaurant business, a move roundly opposed by his family. But he said he found a receptive ear from Church's Fried Chicken and is making plans to open his third restaurant on the reservation.

"I feel obligated to give back to the Navajo Nation because of the educational opportunity it provided me. I just hope that doing business will come easier in the future," Nelson said.