U.S.

Navajo seek to buck brain drain

Tribe tries to create incentives for keeping talented young people on the reservation after college

Priscilla Begaye and her staff sell mutton sandwiches and other local favorites out of a tent in a parking lot outside the reservation town of Ganado.
Massoud Hayoun/Al Jazeera

WINDOW ROCK, Navajo Nation — Brown University alum Dana Eldridge could have sought employment in a big city on the East Coast. But she wanted to avoid becoming another statistic in what some call the Navajo Nation’s brain drain — the flight of the brightest and most successful young people from their homeland.

So now Eldridge finds herself roughing it on the reservation. The 27-year-old can’t find her own place to live because of the Navajo’s complicated land-leasing system. So she’s couch-crashing with friends and relatives.

Eldridge is a private consultant on Native American policy issues, but she has no office space. Even so, she remains determined. “I want to be here, and I want to be involved in what’s going on,” she said.

She is not alone. Many of those who buck the brain-drain trend by returning home after college encounter a dearth of opportunities for professional development. Now many are agitating for changes in policy that they say would allow them to create the businesses and jobs they — and the rest of the reservation — so desperately need.

In November, the Diné Policy Institute (DPI), a Navajo think tank, issued a report on the issue, “Navajo Nation Brain Drain.” Recent statistics are virtually impossible to find, particularly in the Navajo Nation, where some government-accountability advocates see a lack of transparency. But the DPI decried the phenomenon of financing young people to get a higher education and then seeing them settle elsewhere.

“When these students choose not to return to the reservation, not only does this constitute inefficiency in terms of educational and indirect social investment, but also such activities fail to contribute to any type of development or increased quality of life for the rest of the Navajo Nation,” the report said.

Nothing on the rez

Eldridge said more young Navajo who, like her, pursued degrees in Native American studies are in favor of returning to the reservation and starting sustainable businesses rather than finding work abroad or in the controversial energy-extraction industries based in cities surrounding the reservation. “I think why young people want to be here is that we are seeing all the real effects of colonialism on our land — recent decisions with legacies of energy extraction. Will we ultimately be able to live here, drink water and breathe the air?” she asked.

It is not easy. Othell Begay, 32, lives on the reservation, where he was born and raised. He graduated from Columbia University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and stayed on for a few years in New York, where he spent time as an HIV microbicide researcher for the Population Council.

But after his recent move home to the reservation town of Shiprock, he finds himself, as he put it, “sitting on my ass searching for jobs.”

He laments his lack of choices. “Despite the huge investment educating my peers, there’s really nothing available on the rez,” he said. “I’m not the only person whose skills aren’t being utilized by my tribe.”

Last month, Eldridge and other community organizers aimed to bridge the gap between unemployed young people and their elected officials in an event called a Meeting of Diné Minds. But only five of 24 Navajo Tribal Council delegates attended the meeting. Eldridge and others said there are lots of things to discuss, not least a complex system of obtaining land that many would-be business owners say discourages them from setting up enterprises.

Navajo land operates on a land-trust system that local officials explain is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Applications for leases can take months and can cripple small businesses financially. And according to the law, if one local resident opposes a lease application, the application is rejected. That leaves the process, critics say, open to abuse by anyone holding a personal grudge.

It's easy to understand, therefore, why some Navajo travel off the reservation to nearby Gallup, N.M., to start businesses, where office spaces are ready for lease in a matter of minutes, said Katherine Benally, one of the Navajo legislators overseeing development. Benally told Al Jazeera she started her home-care business in Gallup, though it is now also operating on the reservation.

“It took me 15 minutes to start my business in Gallup,” she said. “In Gallup, all of the infrastructure is there — water, power, even a building to rent … If you start a business here, you have to start ground up. Our people don’t have the patience or wherewithal to do that.”

In the rural Navajo Nation, not many, even those with an entrepreneurial spirit, have the seed money to wait months — some say years — for a lease deal to go through and construction on retail space to commence. Benally said the council is “working on cutting the red tape for land status.”

Deswood Tome, an aide to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, told Al Jazeera that in addition to attempting to bridge the electronic gap on the reservation, bringing Internet providers to this very rural area, the administration is in the final stages of passing legislation that would put land leases entirely under the supervision of the Navajo government — expediting the commercial and personal land-lease process, he says by months.

Over the course of the recent eight-hour Meeting of Diné Minds dialogue at the Window Rock–based Navajo Nation Museum, some 100 people attended, said one of the organizers, Ed Becenti, 59. “Most of them were young people. We had some elders, but most were college age and college graduates,” he said.

‘Wealth of a nation’

Under a tarp in a parking lot outside the reservation town of Ganado, Priscilla Begaye makes Navajo mutton sandwiches. She tops golden, lightly salted fry bread with savory roasted mutton, sauteed onions and cherry tomatoes.

Begaye’s eats are popular with locals. She’d like to start a restaurant — a formal, taxpaying business, where opening and closing isn’t contingent on the elements, the sometimes extreme weather in these parts. But she says it takes a long time to get a lease.

Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim agreed that land-lease issues are what keep Begaye’s business from contributing to the local economy. In a place where flea markets are popular, it’s a common problem. But Jim said that informal economy is something the Navajo Nation does not want to lose. Flea markets “are part of our culture,” he said. “My family loves to go to flea markets and have local food, as opposed to being inside of a room. It’s a little bit too formal for me sometimes.”

“When we talk about the wealth of a nation, there’s so much more to wealth than just money,” he added.

But not everyone agrees with that defense of the status quo. Eldridge, as she searches for a job on the reservation, wants the government to work to create more and different opportunities — especially away from the mining industries. She sees her generation as starting to alter the traditional way of doing things. “I think lots of young people want to challenge the discourse of progress,” she said.

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