Change Makers: Native entrepreneurs on the Navajo Nation

This week, Arizona Public Media published a video segment on Change Makers, native entrepreneurs on the Navajo Nation; and #TeamYKD’s contributions to Change Labs, the #IamTheNavajoEconomy campaign, and the Native American Business Incubator Network’s cohort of entrepreneurs were included. The majority of the photos shown in the segment were taken by Adrian herself, which is really cool to see! But, most importantly, this video shows that amazing things are happening on the Navajo Nation today. During this critical time, Navajo and Hopi are transitioning away from their long dependance on mineral extraction to fuel their local economies. And while some are devastated by the Navajo Nation leadership’s decision to shut down Navajo Generating Station to seek out new ventures, not everyone is interpreting this shift as detrimental to our health and wealth. In fact, there is a lot of support from Navajo people who understand the cultural and socio-economic implications of NGS and other mining operations.

For example, Emery Denny, the son of Navajo hataali, Avery Denny, wrote an amazing response this week, saying “I for one am encouraged. We will never know the full toll we paid for that mine. The pain and suffering, the depression, the anxiety, alcoholism, suicide that resulted from relocation at gun point. How many Iives were lost due to health problems related to the mine? How many ceremonies were lost because families were relocated? That mine was a monster killing our people while making non-Navajos rich. In the spirit of our ancestors, those delegates used their votes like lightning arrows and slayed that monster that was killing our people. We have relived our traditional stories of being monster slayers. Not many tribes have had the same success we have had in fighting dirty energy. We should be encouraged that our faith saw us through, that our prayers were answered, though it took time. This is where sovereignty starts, by exerting our own ideals, our own people, our own principles, our own voice over big money and evil powers we can not see. We are still monster slayers, we are still here and we will over come the next monsters the U.S. Federal and State government throw our way. We are Diné, Diné niidlí.”

Native entrepreneurs are smart, talented, and have a lot of offer their communities. The work Jessica Stago and Heather Fleming are doing to encourage and support small business development is exactly what is needed during this time of great change. Our people now have this opportunity to embrace autonomy & sovereignty. Rather than living in fear, rather than raising our voices to tear each other apart, we can – and should – empower ourselves to move forward with new solutions & launch projects that serve our best interests – not outside interests.

In all the time uranium & coal mining operations were running, unemployment rates were high, and over 16,000 homes remained un-electrified & without running water. People were living in poverty conditions, and NGS was not addressing the problem. Supporters of NGS like to frame the company as a major source of income for the majority of Navajo people, but that just isn’t the truth. The majority of the money (and power) brought in by NGS was going elsewhere, not to Navajo communities or to Navajo infrastructure. While working in the solar industry, Adrian and her colleagues did dozens of solar installs in homes located directly under large power lines that run electricity to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, etc… Those people living off-grid were not benefiting from NGS operations. Further, a large majority of those families were displaced and relocated because of mining operations, and they suffer from health problems directly related to resource extraction. To them, NGS was not a solution, but rather a source of their problems.

We can tell you from all the years we’ve spent working with NABIN (now Change Labs) that the best way to grow our local economies is to diversify – and support entrepreneurship & small business development. By supporting ventures that benefit our communities, we strengthen ourselves, our neighbors, our families & our nation. It’s a big conversation that needs to continue. All in all, we remain optimistic. #TeamYKD is hopeful & proud of our current leadership for having the courage to make this tough decision. Indigenous people have so much to offer the world. Our traditions and cultures are so rich, and so full of applicable knowledge that we can use to grow our health & our wealth. Jessica Stago stated it so well in the video, saying “Our culture doesn’t limit us, it actually is what we need to survive and to do more than survive, to be successful!”

Thank you, Vanessa Barchfield, Andrew Brown, Martin Rubio, Mitchell Riley, and Arizona Illustrated for your great work on this piece. Ahxe’hee!

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