Navajos seek business models that make sense
LEUPP, Ariz. — “There’s an intense pressure nowadays to improve the
economic situation on reservations,” said Roberto Nutlouis, Navajo. “It’s
called progress. But everything the government does to make this happen is
destroying the local economies that do exist. Bringing in supermarkets or
Burger King is not progress. Instead, it undermines the traditional food
When grocery stores and fast-food operations are constructed on
reservations, they tempt community members to consume food that is neither
safe nor culturally appropriate, while siphoning money away, Nutlouis
explained. “When the government tries to help Indians, it just kills us,”
While Nutlouis spoke, the 24-year-old graduate of Northern Arizona
University’s Department of Applied Indigenous Studies was chopping
vegetables — all locally grown — with Valencia Herder, Navajo, a student
in the same program. It was mid-morning, and the two were starting to make
a type of succotash for a community meal.
Herder and Nutlouis wear many hats — working with elders, youth groups and
grass-roots rights organizations, as well as creating community gardens
under the auspices of NAU’s Health Sciences Diabetes Prevention Education
and Healing Gardens Program, which sponsored the gathering.
As Nutlouis and Herder cooked, they described the need for Indian country
economies that take into consideration traditional cultures and their
resources and needs. Both felt it was important to support communities as a
whole, as well as the people within them. They didn’t envision a future in
which individual Navajos had been turned into small-business owners,
isolated within their own enterprises and operating independently of their
neighbors. That would be the corporate model, and thus foreign to their
culture, they agreed. Instead, they sought ways to encourage the formation
of vibrant local economies that supported traditional kinship structures.
Slicing squash as she spoke, Herder noted that local products must overcome
many obstacles to become established, even in their own region. First, they
face competition from large stores: and not just supermarkets and fast-food
eateries. She pointed out that Wal-Mart and Home Depot are trying to
establish themselves on reservations countrywide, and that operations of
that size can easily undercut the price of a huge range of artisanal goods.
Nutlouis agreed, adding that a second hurdle is convincing Native people
that their goods have any value at all. “Years of the government devaluing
and demonizing Native culture has had a terrible impact. We’ve been told,
‘You’re backward, you’re crazy.’ So we have to give community members a
sense of the value of what they make and grow,” he said.
Yet a third stumbling block, according to Herder, is the difficulty of
contacting off-reservation buyers for goods that would be perceived as
luxury items and thus command a high price. “There is a good market for
hand-processed Churro wool, particularly when dyed with native plants, but
it’s controlled by non-Natives who purchase it here on the reservation,
then sell it over the Internet,” she said. “The Navajo producers don’t have
computers — they may not even have electricity — so they can’t access
those buyers themselves.”
To resolve this dilemma, the chapterhouse in Hard Rock, where Herder lives,
is currently studying the feasibility of marketing hand-processed Churro
wool in their own area and nationally.
Export isn’t the only answer, though, said Herder: “After years of
colonization, we’ve been given the idea that we must export our resources.
Why can’t we use them in our communities?”
Cash need not be the basis of those local exchanges, offered Nutlouis as he
stirred a steaming pot of corn. “Barter is an alternative. It’s our
traditional system,” he said. “A rancher has cows or sheep; a farmer has
vegetables. They trade. How do we get back to that? Native people have to
look to all the business models and come up with one that is unique to us.”
Even education has created obstacles for Native economies, since it
typically prepares children to leave the reservation, not to stay.
“Education causes a real brain drain,” said Nutlouis. “And often when
educated people do stay in the community, they have dominant-society
values. Their skills and experiences don’t work here because we have a
different way of doing things; sometimes, they even become oppressors.”
Herder suggested that the goals of acquiring mainstream knowledge might be
transformed. “People always tell children to go to school and become a
doctor or a lawyer. Why not tell them to go to school and become a farmer?”
Finding help to put these ideas into motion is difficult. “We’ve been
forced to depend on the federal government, and its end goal has always
been assimilation,” said Nutlouis. “It doesn’t encourage a rich tradition
and sacred knowledge. As an alternative, we’re trying to tap into
nonprofits and foundations — in other words, non-governmental,
“Of course, they come with their own problems. Organizing in our
communities requires a holistic approach, while foundations tend to be
focused on single issues. A foundation may say they only do youth, or they
only do environmental justice, whereas for us all these things are linked.
We do everything. So we explain our approach to them. Some understand, but
In the end, said Herder, the solution is where it has always been: “It’s up
to us.” She eyed the pile of squash she’d been slicing. Midday, and the
arrival of the guests, was quickly approaching. “Hmm, I’d better start
working faster,” she said with a smile.