Fighting Third-World Conditions for NM Tribes

Reservations throughout the U.S. are often compared to third world countries, the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department is looking to change that.

Some of the poorer tribal communities in New Mexico have been compared to Third World countries because of their economic struggles and their lack of basic modern water and energy systems. Most of the state’s Pueblo villages, Navajo chapter houses and Apache communities are isolated and have little or no access to the already poor infrastructure in the Land of Enchantment.

A decade into the 21st Century, the White Rock chapter of the Navajo Nation in the western part of the state was in desperate need of basic power lines. The Pueblo of Santa Clara in northern New Mexico still had no running water and no reliable water supply. Zia Pueblo had never had indoor plumbing because they had no wastewater treatment facilities. “Each tribe or pueblo in New Mexico is at a different level of progress in terms of economic development and community development,” said Kelly Zunie, a member of the Pueblo of Zuni and Secretary of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department. “Some are just trying to get the basics – water, power.”

In response to these poor living conditions and after much collaboration with tribal leaders, in 2005, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed into law the Tribal Infrastructure Act. The law requires that the state allocates five percent of its estimated oil and gas severance tax, which usually ranges from $9 million to $16 million dollars annually, for use by the Tribal Infrastructure Fund (TIF) to award qualified tribal infrastructure projects

This year’s TIF cycle awarded $12.3 million dollars to 25 tribal communities. Tribes are eligible to apply for three areas: planning, design and construction. Since its inception, TIF has awarded over $83 million to critical tribal infrastructure projects across the state. The TIF is overseen by the Tribal Infrastructure Board, which evaluates and decides on the awardees, and both are administratively attached to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department.

“One of the (Navajo) chapters did not have running water,” said Zunie, the first woman to lead the nation’s only Indian Affairs Department to be at the state cabinet level. “They were able to get TIF funding for water. The community was so excited. Just to hear the elders so excited to have indoor plumbing. Their quality of life has improved greatly. I was thinking this is America. This is like having Third World countries in America. I think the state of New Mexico has taken that into account. Other states don’t have this kind of funding for tribes.”

The Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo) has had much success leveraging TIF funds. They were awarded $150,000 for planning of a wastewater treatment facility in 2014. This year they were awarded $155,000 for design of a community wellness center. Diabetes has increased by five percent in Ohkay Owingeh in the past five years due to lack of physical exercise, and 24 percent of the youth in the community are overweight or obese by the time they enter high school.

“We have a very high rate of childhood obesity. We have no physical education (program) in our tribal school or our head start,” said Christy Mermejo, Planning Manager for Ohkay Owingeh. “We just built a brand new school with tribal funds. Next to our school there’s an old BIA building that needs to come down so we can build a gymnasium.”

This year Ohkay Owingeh also received $476,500 for construction for waterline improvements. The waterlines in the pueblo were installed in the early 1960s. Tribal officials explain that should the existing waterlines fail they are not repairable – which would cause hundreds of people in the pueblo to be without water for a long period. A reliable water delivery system is critical to the safety of the residents.

“It will bring us safe drinking water and fire suppression. If we had a fire right now we don’t have water lines that have the capacity to put out a fire,” “The basic human need of water, most people don’t think about it when they live in the city. If we don’t start replacing these lines our members won’t even have access to water.”

“I recently met with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye,” said Zunie, who also serves as Chair of the Tribal Infrastructure Board. “He said the state of Arizona (where most of the Navajo Nation is located) doesn’t have anything like this for the tribes. I think that speaks volumes. Even with budget crunches we still keep rolling because it helps to change lives.”