Navajo President Russell Begaye is calling for less talk and more action when it comes to rehabilitation of the former Bennett Freeze.
This 1.6-million-acre swath of Navajo land to the west of the Hopi Reservation in Arizona hasn’t seen much action at all since 1966 when then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett froze all development in response to longstanding land disputes between the Navajo and Hopi. The freeze was lifted in 2006 when the two tribes came to a formal agreement, and President Barack Obama in May 2009 signed a bill repealing the freeze.
The thaw meant that for the first time in 40 years, residents could build homes, schools and roads. Power and water lines could go in, and people could do routine maintenance without fear of repercussions. But nine years later, very little progress has been made and the estimated 6,700 residents of the former Bennett Freeze still live in conditions that have not changed in nearly half a century.
“People are suffering from substandard homes,” Begaye told ICTMN. “People are living with roof leaks, with sheetrock hanging down, with dirt floors. I just can’t imagine how cold it would get out there in the wintertime.”
According to a recovery plan prepared in 2008 by engineering and technical consulting firm WHPacific, residents of the former Bennett Freeze have lived for decades without electricity, plumbing or the assurance of clean drinking water. One-third of residents drive as far as 24 miles every few days to haul water, and many have little or no access to emergency medical treatment, fire response or shopping and social services.
The freeze affected nine Navajo chapters in an area the size of Delaware. Here, even relatively simple construction or repairs halted.
“I think over the course of the freeze, there were some projects implemented, funds appropriated for specific projects, but not on a scale that normal community growth could occur,” said Navajo Council Delegate Walter Phelps, who represents the Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Birdsprings, Leupp and Tolani Lake chapters. Two of his chapters are inside the freeze area and two more are partially inside.
“Because of the freeze, there was a lack of focus to improve quality of life,” Phelps said. “It’s one of the more severe areas on the reservation because of the restrictions. No one knew it was going to last four decades.”
In response to the prolonged hardships, many of the young people left the area to seek out job opportunities and better living conditions elsewhere, said Phelps, who lives in Leupp. That means many of the current residents are elders who are isolated from family and close neighbors and who live in conditions that at times are life-threatening.
For example, elderly women are living in tents near their sheep corrals, Phelps said. Other families live in homes with roofs that have caved in.
“This is urgent because we’re losing lives,” he said. “This comes down to life and death when emergencies occur. We’re talking about a lack of road maintenance, 911 services, rural addressing, telecommunications. We’ve already lost elders because of it.”
President Begaye and a small caravan of division directors journeyed to the former Bennett Freeze on October 16 to visit residents and see first-hand the devastating conditions. Three days later, during his quarterly State of the Nation address delivered to the Navajo Nation Council, Begaye proposed solutions.
One of those solutions is to apply to the United States Department of Agriculture for designation of the area as a Promise Zone. The designation, awarded to high-poverty communities, means the federal government partners with local leaders to increase economic activity and improve educational and social services.
The designation, if awarded, would follow a long list of other remedies that have come with high price tags.
More than a decade ago, the Bureau of Indian Affairs released $5 million from an escrow account and earmarked it for Bennett Freeze rehabilitation, with $3.9 million going to provide homes for residents. So far, the Navajo Nation has spent about $1 million to purchase 17 manufactured homes for families identified as critically in need or homeless, Phelps said. Fifteen of those homes have been delivered.
The Nation also qualifies for funding under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Indian Community Development Block Grant program and the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996, Phelps said. But, like most federal funding sources, projects have to be “shovel-ready” first.
“That requires home-site leases and all other clearances before they can even apply for funding,” Phelps said. “What we can do and how much is limited.”
The 2008 recovery plan from WHPacific estimates the total cost for rehabilitation at $4.8 billion. That includes $3 billion for housing alone, and hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure, utilities, transportation, education, agriculture, community facilities, health and public safety.
But Begaye has another idea. Borrowing from non-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity that build affordable homes for people in need, Begaye is asking everyone with a hammer to chip in.
“If they need a home, let’s build a home,” he said. “Before each fair or community gathering, we’ll find several houses that need to be worked on, and then we’ll get volunteers to do the construction. We’ll do the painting or the roofs. When people come to the fair, they can just stop by and pitch in.”
The point, Begaye said, is to do something – however small.
“Over the years there have been numerous studies done,” he said. “Departments and programs have talked about what to do, but nothing has really taken place. Up until this point, it’s all been talk and no action.”
Don Yellowman, president of the grassroots group Forgotten People, is optimistic that community involvement will help. Forgotten People was founded in the late 1990s with the intent of rehabilitating the Bennett Freeze.
“I think every little bit will help,” said Yellowman, who grew up in the Bennett Freeze area. “In the meantime, because projects are not ready and we’re not in the position to ask for large amounts of funding, we have to organize work parties to bring their hammers and tool belts. If that’s what can be done, it will definitely help.”
But for some residents, improvements could be too little, too late, Yellowman said. The landscape is littered with abandoned homes and ceremonial hogans, he said. Since 1966, the area has lost six generations of Navajo residents.
“People were leaving the area, leaving their elders behind,” he said. “Once the elders died, no one was around to pick up from there.”
And though restrictions have thawed, residents still wait for the 21st century to arrive.
“You’d think that since the freeze has been lifted that there would be an army of assistance to come in and help, but that hasn’t been the case,” Yellowman said. “It’s mind-boggling to think that nothing has happened.”