The Thriving Small Businesses of the Navajo Nation
When you think about enterprise on Indian reservations, chances are you’re picturing roadside vendors or towering casinos.
There’s plenty of both on the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation, which spans portions of three states and has an unemployment rate that tops 50 percent. The Nation’s four casinos—all built in the last 10 years—get a lot of attention, alongside some big-name companies in the energy sector.
The Navajo Nation also operates 12 enterprises, including a utility authority, radio stations, a newspaper, transportation, construction and housing authorities, and 110,600 acres of farmland. But on the country’s largest Indian reservation, sometimes it’s the smallest businesses that make the biggest difference.
The Navajo Division of Economic Development keeps a list of certified, Navajo-owned businesses operating on or near the reservation. As of July 2017, there were 220 such businesses—each with at least 51-percent ownership by tribal members.
From food trucks to catering, and from automotive work to yoga, here are six thriving small businesses owned by Navajo entrepreneurs:
Caffeinated Ape; Shiprock, New Mexico
Cousins Kody Jones and Roberto Lee launched an alternative to fast-food coffee in August 2016 when they opened Caffeinated Ape, a mobile coffee shop that operates from a bright yellow trailer.
“One morning I wanted a cup of coffee and there’s really nowhere around here to get one,” Jones said. “The only place to go is gas stations or McDonald’s. I figured I could do something better.”
The duo sells between 60 and 80 cups of coffee per day from the roadside in Shiprock, New Mexico. They also sell homemade burritos and pastries.
“It’s a luxury to have fresh espresso in Shiprock,” Lee said. “Instead of going to fast food places and getting reheated coffee, people can come here. We know where the beans come from; we buy or make everything local.”
Hozho Total Wellness; Gallup, New Mexico
Haley Laughter discovered yoga as a method to heal intergenerational trauma and restore balance in her own life. In late 2016, after 10 years of practicing and seven years of teaching yoga, Laughter started Hozho Total Wellness, a mobile yoga and meditation studio based in Gallup, New Mexico, and built on Navajo philosophies of well-being.
“It was mainly a way to get yoga onto the reservations,” she said. “It was also to offer another form of fitness and self-care to indigenous people and to rural people.”
Laughter, along with business partner Anita Lara, have taught yoga in areas across the Navajo Nation—including inside Monument Valley Tribal Park on the Arizona-Utah border. Lara, who also serves as executive director for Hozho Total Wellness, teaches yoga on her students’ terms.
“We’re a mobile yoga studio,” she said. “We’ll go where you want us to go. We practice yoga wherever we are.”
Arizona Canyon Jeep Tours; Chinle, Arizona
There’s no better way to experience Arizona’s majestic Canyon de Chelly than with a guide who knows the area intimately.
That was Deswood Yazzie’s plan eight years ago when he started Arizona Canyon Jeep Tours, a tourism business based in Chinle, Arizona, on the edge of the canyon, which is a national monument accessible by guided tour only. Yazzie’s family has lived in the canyon for five generations, and he has worked as a guide for 31 years.
“This is my canyon,” he said. “I want to give out information, talk about my family’s history and all the ancient people who lived here.”
Yazzie employs five full-time guides who take visitors into the canyon by jeep. He also relies on about 15 temporary guides who drive a fleet of 13 vehicles during heavy tourism season.
Dee Barber Shop; Shiprock, New Mexico
Dee Samuel has been cutting hair for the better part of two decades.
During that time, she grew a clientele base that travels upwards of 100 miles for a cut, shave or style. As owner of Dee Barber Shop, in Shiprock, New Mexico, now celebrating more than 17 years in business, Samuel guarantees consistency for clients from across the Navajo Nation.
“We get people from all over,” she said. “We do walk-ins, we do appointments. We get people from Utah, from Arizona, from all over the reservation.”
TC Automotive; Farmington, New Mexico
A funny thing happened after O’Neil Bileen spent a decade working on other people’s cars.
“I got to know my customers personally,” he said. “But I got to know their vehicles even better.”
Bileen opened his own one-man automotive shop in Farmington, New Mexico, in early 2017, after working as a mechanic for more than 10 years. Bileen originally called his shop Too Cool Automotive, but later shortened the moniker to TC Automotive.
“I don’t do body work, no rear-end or transmissions,” he said. “I’m heavy on drivability, engines, suspension, brakes and electrical.”
Shima Grill & Catering; Gallup, New Mexico
This small, family-owned catering business bills itself as authentically Native.
Owned by a father-son duo, Shima Grill & Catering offers Native and gourmet foods for weddings, company events, graduations and other special occasions on the Navajo Nation and surrounding cities. It employs about 10 people.
“Our goal is to prepare food on site so it’s fresh and warm,” office manager Maria Reyes said. “So we take our food trailer on location and cook there, instead of cooking here and transporting it.”
The Shima name also serves as an umbrella for a second business: Shima Transport, a non-emergency medical transportation service that employs about 50 drivers.