Breaking Dependency: Economic Innovation and the Future of the Navajo Economy

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#TeamYKD ventured to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia to present at the 2019 Business History Conference this month. It was an AMAZING experience! The conference was held in El Laguito at the Hilton, and there we met some of the great up-and-coming minds from around the world. Our contribution was to the Business and Indigenous History panel. I (Adrian) presented our paper, titled ‘Breaking Dependency: Economic Innovation and the Future of the Navajo Economy’; and Michael sat as Chair and Discussant for the panel. 

We were recently asked to submit the paper to an academic journal. So, because it is in the review process, it is not readily available, but here is the ABSTRACT, for those who are interested: How can merging culture and innovation grow an economy currently dependent on resource extraction? In many ways the contemporary Navajo economy is linked to and bolstered by resource extraction. Oil, coal, uranium and underground aquifers are valuable natural resources sought after by outside businesses. The majority of the profit made by these businesses leave the Navajo Nation. Big cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas reap the benefits, while more than 16,000 homes on the Navajo Nation don’t have access to electricity or running water. The cost the Navajo people pay to support unsustainable cities is unreasonably high. Health problems directly linked to uranium contamination is just one example of how the Navajo people pay with their lives and their future. This paper will document emerging innovators utilizing cultural knowledge to provide solutions for economic disparities, to mitigate environmental destruction, and to recapture their identities as autonomous indigenous peoples in the face of institutional barriers. For example, entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations that support small business development have begun to integrate the Navajo pedagogical paradigm of Nitsáhákees (thinking), Nahat’á (planning), Iiná (living), Sihasin (Assuring) into contemporary business modeling. The paradigm addresses the importance of identity, culture, language and homeland. It does not subscribe to the narrative that one has to leave home & abandon their identity to be successful. It also allows for entrepreneurs and business owners to maintain the integrity of Navajo culture and traditional values while contributing to the growth of the tribal economy. Several successful businesses have already adopted these strategies. Together, their vision is to combat ‘Navajo brain drain’, where the best and brightest are leaving home to build lives in support of a non-Navajo economy. Traditional Navajo philosophy supports building revenue streams that are not detrimental to land, water, livelihood and communities. Investment in renewable energies such as wind, water, solar and geothermal power, or in agribusiness tied to the Four Original Foods are viable options worth exploring.

Our presentation was not so much about YKD’s work, but about the work of our colleagues who are making BIG CHANGES in Indian Country. For example, we tied in the work of Change Labs, Rezilience, and the Just Transition efforts via Black Mesa Coalition and others, to exhibit what Native innovation looks like in the States. To us, we see it as a merging of culture, history, politics and art. So, that’s how we framed it; as a revival of indigenous creativity, ingenuity and collaboration! View the Prezi we created for our presentation. The videos are pretty dope & they capture what each effort is working to accomplish beautifully.

Above, we are pictured with Elizabeth Rule, who presented her paper titled, ‘The Chickasaw Press: A Case A Study in Indigenous Enterprise and Innovation’; and Clinton Hough, who presented his paper titled, ‘A Propensity to Truck, Barter, and Exchange: The Indian Trade in Colonial Florida’. For 3 days, we had the great opportunity to network and share our work as Yahuaca Knowledge Distribution, and as representatives for Dine College. We were surprised to meet a student from the University of New Mexico who was familiar with many of our colleagues, as well as, some of the initiatives we have contributed to over the past 3 years. It was muy emocionante that so many Native voices are being heard!  #BHC2019.

Cesare Pavese said, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all the familiar comforts of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours, except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal, or what we imagine of it.” Our experience in Colombia was just that. We didn’t get a lot of sleep, we were unfamiliar with everything around us, but we were happy, together, and surrounded vibrant people, a loud, constant stream of music that acted as a soundtrack for our everyday adventures, and some of the best tasting food & drinks (sin licor) I’ve had in my life. The fruit was abundant, the seafood was fresh, and the flavors were unique and mouthwatering.

We came to this place with $6.00 in our wallets and a minimal understanding of the Spanish language. Some people would call us crazy for signing up for international travel under those circumstances, but we did so because we believe in the work we are doing, and we were on a mission to spread to the world (or at least to South America) stories of resilience and innovation coming out of Native America. More than that, we wanted to expand our horizons. What we found to be true was that everything we were told to fear, or to be wary of, was opposite of what we encountered. The people we met, every single person, was kind and helpful. The language barrier was more of a tiny hurdle. And, the atmosphere was one that left a strong impression on us. It was a landscape dominated by people of color. We were surrounded by brown people! And, it felt really good to fit into the majority, and not be bombarded by white supremacy (like in the United States).  I mean imagine a world without Trump supporters and MAGA hats… yeah… it was just that! And. it was beautiful.  As people who are conscious of, and somewhat engaged in, American politics, we really enjoyed the break from America’s ‘Age of Alternative Facts’. We completely unplugged from mainstream media, and let each of our days unfold organically. It was an experience that shifted our perspective in unexpected ways, and we definitely want to return again someday 🖤

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