WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary
Tommy Thompson's sport utility vehicle almost slipped off a muddy road as
the caravan he was leading in a light rain drove through Canyon De Chelly
on his recent visit to the Navajo Nation.
Then one of his staff members, following in another vehicle, almost hit a
horse crossing one of few paved public roads on a reservation larger than
10 states. Just 22 percent of the public roads on Navajo are paved.
Thompson, a member of President Bush's cabinet, said at a press conference
later that the encounter made him realize the conditions on the Navajo
reservation. "I realized there are tremendous needs here," he said after
sharing the story with members of the media.
During his two-day July visit to the Navajo Nation, Thompson learned "first
hand" the health conditions on a reservation that makes up almost 17
percent of the entire Indian Health Service.
Upon his arrival in the tribal capitol, he entered the Navajo Nation
council chambers with Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. to address the
Council. "The Navajo Nation has a tremendous history and I want to make
sure the future is even better, even brighter than it was ever intended,
ever expected," Thompson told the council.
He also brought good news. "This year, for the first time, I am proud to
say that the Department set aside $1.689 million in the Mentoring Children
of Prisoners program for tribes and tribal consortia," Thompson said.
Navajo will be getting a $740,000 grant for three years from the program.
"The passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act... is a priority of
mine as well as the President's," he said. For years, tribes have been
trying to get the health care act reauthorized, said Anslem Roanhorse Jr.,
executive director of the Navajo Division of Health.
A July 2 follow-up report to last year's "A Quiet Crisis" by the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, said the Act "appears to hold the most promise
for improving the lives of Native Americans ... The proposal for
reauthorization of the IHCIA is a tribally prepared, far-reaching proposal
for addressing every aspect of providing medical care to Native Americans."
After some intense questioning about disparities in health care, Thompson
told the council that money that could be used for health care needs is
being diverted for the War on Terror. But, he would continue being "a
better advocate" and push for more funding. After his address, he was
presented with a Navajo blanket by President Shirley.
On July 20, Thompson toured the Navajo Division of Health's 20-bed, youth
residential treatment center in Chinle, Ariz. run by the Behavioral Health
Department. At the facility, two residents talked about their struggles and
how the culture-based counseling provided at the center has aided their
Later he toured the 35-bed Chinle Comprehensive Health Care facility, an
IHS facility, and gave a speech to a crowd that had gathered and handed out
awards to longtime IHS employees.
After the hospital tour, the caravan moved onto the residence of Charlie
and Rose Toadacheenie, an elderly Navajo couple, just south of Chinle in
the Nazlini community. Inside their home, through translators, Thompson
asked about their health care needs.
"What do we need to do to make your life better," he asked. But the
Toadacheenies were unable to come up with one single answer, even when
their home lacked running water. Charlie, 84, told the secretary that while
he travels 19 miles to Ganado Sage Memorial for health care services, Rose,
77, must travel 26 miles to the Chinle hospital for her medical needs.
Neither has a vehicle and must rely on family members to get to the
While they spoke with the secretary for about 35 minutes, a rug that Rose
had stopped weaving months ago sat in the middle of the room. She said she
stopped weaving after a fall last year that injured her left arm. "I didn't
go to the hospital to have it looked at because I couldn't get a ride," she
said in Navajo.
Navajo officials said they were glad to see that the secretary got a
first-hand look at the road conditions, the lack of electricity, running
water, sanitation facilities and telephone service. "Hopeful, now he will
be a stronger advocate for all of us in Indian country," said Evelyn
Acothley, vice chairwoman of the tribe's Health and Social Services