Breaking the code of the Navajo Nation

Gyill Holyan, 16, rides a horse while visiting family in Bird Springs, Ariz. The San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Ariz. serve as one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo. (Photograph by Mark Armao)
Gyill Holyan, 16, rides a horse while visiting family in Bird Springs, Ariz. The San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Ariz. serve as one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo. (Photograph by Mark Armao)

For many Americans, the word Navajo conjures up images of the World War II code talkers who used their unique language to encrypt secret radio messages sent to the front lines.

Here’s what many don’t know. It’s the most populous Native American tribe in the United States. Its reservation encompasses 27,000 square miles in three states. If the Nation had statehood, it would be larger than West Virginia.

Widespread poverty, rampant unemployment, low graduation rates and debilitating diseases like Type 2 diabetes are among the chief concerns of the Navajo. Obesity and alcoholism plague the area. Running water and electricity are a luxury.

Earlier this year, the Nation received a $554 million settlement from the U.S. government for the country’s misappropriation of Nation funds and natural resources. How that settlement will be spent is far from being decided. No decisions are expected until a contentious election for leadership of the Nation is held next year.

Yet many say the money will do little to solve the Nation’s ills.

The Nation’s full-blooded population, according to recent U.S. Census data, is 286,000, with 87 percent of those still living on the land. Promising strides have been made in the fields of health care, education and infrastructure over the past 50 years, but many issues remain.


Diabetes. Alcoholism. Obesity. Cardiovascular disease. All are health problems that confront the Navajo at rates greater than the national average.

At the moment, Type 2 diabetes in children is rampant.

In fact, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in Native American youth between 10 and 19 years old is more than nine times higher than in white children. Unlike Type 1 diabetes, a genetically based disease in which the body does not produce insulin, Type 2 diabetes is often linked to overeating and lack of exercise, which cause the cells of the body to become resistant to insulin.

Lita Scott, a full-blooded Navajo and a family nurse practitioner at the Winslow Indian Health Care Center, is involved in a study dubbed the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth, which has enrolled hundreds of diabetic children to study the disease in Navajo populations. Many of the weight problems seen in Navajo youth stem from a lack of structure in the home, Scott said.

“Some of them would eat in bed, right in front of the TV,” she said. “And their value of physical activity or exercising was low.”

Even for parents who would like to buy healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables, food access can be a problem on the Nation. The vast territory is dotted with rural communities in which grocery stores are few and far between.

Also, the largely impoverished people sometimes buy packaged foods out of necessity. Not only are packaged goods often cheaper than fresh food, they also have a longer shelf life, which makes them a better option for families whose lack of electricity leaves them without a refrigerator.

Along with environmental factors, Type 2 diabetes is highly heritable. For a child with one diabetic parent, the chances are 50/50 that the child will develop the disease at some point in their lifetime, Scott said.

Type 2 diabetes comes with a long list of secondary complications. Impaired wound healing, kidney failure and blindness are all associated with the disease, said Dr. Joachim Chino, the deputy chief of surgery for the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation.

For children with Type 2 diabetes, those complications could set in before they reach middle age.

“Several of them are going to end up blind. Several of them are going to end up on dialysis,” Scott said. “It’s really sad.”

To put a lid on the diabetes problem facing the Nation, Scott educates patients on how to alter their lifestyle to ensure long-term wellness, in addition to providing treatment. She emphasizes the fact that, with proper self-management, the downstream effects of pediatric diabetes can be reduced.

To encourage the Navajo people to make healthier food buying decisions, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly recently signed off on a bill that imposed a 2 percent tax on junk food like cookies and soda.

Other common health issues include cardiovascular disease and chronic obesity. Between 1995 and 2004, the most common cancer among the Navajo was colon cancer, while stomach cancer had the highest mortality rate, according to a report by the Navajo Epidemiology Center.

Alcohol abuse, and to a lesser extent, drug abuse, are also prevalent among the Navajo, which could explain their higher-than-average rates of motor vehicle related death, homicide, suicide and depression.

Many of the health problems expressed by the Navajo these days can be linked with their gradual transition from an active population who ate healthy foods to a more sedentary population who tend to eat starchy, packaged foods. Such a lifestyle can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and chronic kidney disease.

“A lot of those illnesses have to do with self-management—taking care of yourself, eating the right foods, exercising and having the motivation to do that,” Scott said.

Medicine men were the traditional healers of the Navajo. They performed ceremonies to alleviate pain, remedy illness, and ward off chʼį́įdiis, or ghosts. Medicine men also served as political leaders and educators.

Although the influence of the medicine man has decreased with the rise of modern medicine, there are those who still practice traditional forms of healing for families throughout the reservation.

David Johns is the vice president of the Dine Hataalii Association, a group that aims to retain the beliefs and ceremonies of the medicine man and educate the public about the Navajo culture. His wife, Gloria, and daughter, Wahleah, also play active roles in the community.

Originally a sheepherder, Johns is an internationally recognized painter who creates both realistic and abstracted portrayals of Navajo life. As a traditional healer, Johns describes himself as an “herbalist,” meaning he uses sacred herbs to treat chronic pain, or soreness from an injury. Other types of healers are used to treat other illnesses.

David Johns is a renowned Native American painter who practices traditional healing ceremonies on the Navajo Nation. (Photograph by Mark Armao)
David Johns is a renowned Native American painter who practices traditional healing ceremonies on the Navajo Nation. (Photograph by Mark Armao)

“Medicine men were leaders but today it’s not like that,” Johns said. “The medicine person knows everything. He’s like a doctor. He knows a lot of prayers and songs. He knows the ins and outs of the universe and all the star systems.”

Nowadays, the Indian Health Service is charged with providing medical care and health advocacy to the Navajo, along with more than 500 other federally recognized tribes. The health care system for the Navajo Nation consists of eight hospitals and seven health centers, along with several scattered clinics. Much of the system is operated by tribal organizations through contracts with the federal government.

A continued potential health threat to the Nation is a remnant of the arms race.

During and after World War II, uranium mining was a booming industry on the Navajo Reservation. Anxious to keep up with the Soviet Union’s uranium stores, the U.S. government encouraged the extraction of the naturally occurring element used to make nuclear weapons.

The mountains and plains of the Colorado Plateau happened to have large stores of uranium, which led mining companies to build more than 1,000 mines in the region.

By the 1990s, the mines had all been shut down but tons of radioactive mine tailings as well as many of the contaminated structures remained. Over the last two decades, the EPA has worked with the Navajo Nation to map the contamination sites and rid them of the hazardous waste.

The cleanup efforts center around several problem sites including the mine site in Church Rock, New Mexico, where in 1979, a tailings pond overflowed, causing what’s been called the largest radioactive spill in U.S. history.

The miners who were, for years, exposed to the uranium-laden dust inside the mines suffered from high rates of lung cancer. These days, the sites present contamination risks in that the radioactive material could leech into the water table or be blown into the air.

Monica Yellowhair, Ph.D., is a toxicologist at the University of Arizona. She studies the effects that uranium has on the body. While uranium has long been known to be radioactive, not much was known about its chemical toxicity, Yellowhair said.

A graduate of Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, Ariz., Yellowhair set out to learn more about how uranium affected human cells and DNA processes. She found that uranium could damage DNA by causing tears in single strands of genetic information as well as preventing certain cell repair mechanisms.

High levels of uranium have been measured in many of the unregulated water sources—like windmills—in the Nation.

Yellowhair said she would like to perform a study on Navajo populations to determine uranium levels in their bodies, but the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board is notorious for rejecting studies on Navajo subjects. Although the policies can hinder scientific progress, Yellowhair respects the wishes of the board.

“[The board] can hold back the research, but it’s there for good reason,” she said.

While some Navajo view Yellowhair’s research as a cultural taboo, one of her elders compared it to the story of the monster slayers, heroes of Navajo folklore.

“In the modern days, the monsters have changed,” Yellowhair said. “They’re cancer, they’re alcohol, they’re drug abuse.”


Many factors hinder education in the Nation: graduation rates, distances to schools, quality and availability of teachers, and standards that some see as culturally flawed.

In 2012, high school graduations rates among Native Americans hovered around 68 percent, compared to 85 percent for white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Native Americans are the only ethnic group not to have seen an increase in graduation rates over the last six years.

The rural, widely dispersed population of the Navajo Nation presents unique challenges in getting students to class. At schools across the nation, hour-long bus rides are commonplace.

An extreme example is the detour that buses in the Page Unified School District are making due to a collapsed road 25 miles south of Page, Ariz. A landslide in 2013 caused a 150-foot stretch of US 89 to buckle and sink, prompting the Arizona Department of Transportation to immediately close the highway.

The closure means that bus riders from places like Lee’s Ferry, a tiny town on the Colorado River, must spend twice as long on the bus to school.

To keep the younger students of the district from spending inordinate amounts of time on the bus, PUSD Superintendent Jim Walker proposed that a classroom for kindergarten, first and second graders be set up closer to the affected communities.

Surprisingly, many of the parents said that they’d rather send their children on the long rides than have them schooled at a secondary location.

“They think they have more opportunities when they come to Page,” Walker said.

Catering to students who come from the reservation is a huge priority for a school district that is 75 percent Native American, Walker said.

“A Native American kid who lives in Page might have different needs than a Native American kid who lives 60 miles out and comes from a home with no power and no water,” he said. “Making sure that we’re serving everybody is really important.”

Another challenge facing the Nation is a lack of educators, said Kalvin White, education administrator for the Office of Dine School Improvement. More specifically, White said, the problem is that universities aren’t training educators on how to teach the newly adopted Common Core standards.

“There’s a huge disconnect between higher education and K 12 education,” White said. “We get teachers from these universities that come to the [Navajo reservation], and they’re not ready to deal with the mandates of the school.”

Gloria Johns, a member of the Navajo Nation Board of Education, said that part of the problem is the recent emphasis on “high-stakes testing,” such as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS test.

The focus on standardized testing, Johns said, leads to a curriculum that doesn’t take into account the specific needs of Navajo students.

“The educational system does not fit our children,” she said. “It’s been such a waste. Now, our children are so far behind.”

Many educators and parents want education on the Nation to teach respect for the people, plants, animals and the environment around them, and respect for the Nation’s language.

“Our language is very sacred, because when it comes out of your mouth, all of creation hears you,” Gloria Johns said.

In the 1800s, education came to the nation with federally operated boarding schools. Thousands of Native American children were taken from their homes to attend boarding schools where they were often forbidden from speaking their native language or practicing their traditional ceremonies.

Gloria Johns was among the many Navajo students who were brought up in the boarding school system, which was overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We’re the generation that were ridiculed,” she said. “[The boarding school educators] were very brutal.”

Nowadays, roughly 80 percent of the 100,000 Navajo students in the Nation and surrounding border towns attend public schools, said Tommy Lewis Jr., superintendent for Navajo Nation Schools.

By 1986, legislation passed that allowed tribes to contract with the federal government for the total operation of a school under the governance of a local school board. The so-called contract or grant schools are becoming increasingly prevalent on the Nation. Of the 66 BIA-operated schools that were built on the reservation, 34 are now run by the tribe as grant schools, Lewis said.

The grant school movement is part of a larger trend in which the Navajo people are taking more ownership of their education.

“Government should not operate the schools,” Lewis said. “That belongs to the local community, the local board—they know what’s best for the children.”

Lewis is tasked with overseeing more than 200 schools in three different state school systems. And although the Nation has made considerable strides in improving its education system, serious challenges persist.

What’s holding the Native American students back? Factors such as lack of funding, low student-engagement and lack of parental involvement are frequently cited but the problem is clearly multifaceted.

Along with professional educators, Walker said, parents play a key role in preparing their children for success. Whether it’s by encouraging their children to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or simply asking them how their day went, parental involvement is crucial in cultivating an educated society.

Mary Jimmie teaches Navajo language and culture to the 81 elementary students at Little Singer Community School, near Bird Springs, Ariz.

“We’re worried about our language going extinct,” Jimmie said. “So, we have to do everything we can to keep it going.”

But, for all the attempts to bring Navajo culture into the classroom, Gloria Johns said that an understanding of what it means to be Navajo cannot be found in any textbook.

“It’s something that you internalize yourself,” she said. “You experience it and create an understanding. Let that become a lesson. Let that become your teaching.”


Roads and water rank among the highest infrastructure needs on the Nation.

Seventy-six percent of the more than 14,000 miles of roads are unpaved. The high volume of dirt roads leads to a number of issues like longer bus rides for students as well as more motor vehicle crash fatalities per capita than the nation as a whole.

“Every road has a problem, it’s just pinpointing it and finding the right safety measures to implement,” said Garren Burbank, a geographical information systems technician for the Navajo Division of Transportation.

Burbank is responsible for logging the crash reports from the Navajo Nation’s seven police districts. He compiles a yearly report that is used by the NDOT to determine problem areas and figure out ways to make them safer.

A major traffic safety issue is the livestock that frequently cross the roads freely due to the lack of “right-of-way-fencing,” said Burbank. One stretch of road near Ganado, Ariz., is particularly dangerous, Burbank said. BIA Navajo Route 15 frequently sees cows and sheep along the shoulder, or even the middle of the road.

“There’s continuous animal collisions because there’s nothing to keep the animals from crossing the road,” he said.

The lack of good-quality roads also contributes to the Navajo’s high rate of death by trauma. Motor vehicle crash death rates in Apache County are more than four times the national average, according to the 2013 Tsehootsooi Medical Center Community Health Needs Assessment.

Part of the problem is the time it takes for injured patients to reach a hospital, said Dr. Joachim Chino, the deputy chief of surgery for the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation.

“Some people aren’t able to reach [care in time] because of the vast distances and rural nature on the reservation,” he said. “When there are big slabs of highway where there is limited cell phone coverage and limited EMS services… That’s going to be an issue.”

While alcohol is prohibited on the Navajo Nation, many of the crashes occur as a result of intoxicated driving. Many of the alcohol-related crashes occur near large border towns like Flagstaff, Ariz., where alcohol is sold.

Perhaps a greater problem than roads is the availability of clean water on the reservation.

For years, the Black Mesa Mine, a coal strip mine, used Navajo groundwater to slurry coal through 273 miles of piping, causing mass water depletion and pollution. The Black Mesa Mine was shut down in 2005.

Today, the Kayenta strip mine, owned by Peabody Energy, provides roughly 8 million tons of coal annually to the Navajo Generation Station, near Page, Ariz. The energy produced at the plant provides electricity to customers in Arizona, Nevada and California.

Despite the fact that native resources are being extracted, the Navajo people see little benefits from the mining operations, said Wahleah Johns, a founding member of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, an environmental advocacy group.

“Unfortunately, in our community, a lot of people still haul water and a lot of people don’t have electricity,” she said. “The irony is absurd.”

She heads a project intended to bring solar arrays to remote locations on the reservation.

“Whether it’s a community or a school or a tribal nation, we have to demonstrate that there is clean technology… and this is an opportunity to design a system that could actually be beneficial to everybody,” she said.

Solar is capable of “producing energy in a cleaner way and using very little water compared to coal mining. I think most consumers would want their energy to come from renewable sources.”

Despite the challenges, Wahleah Johns said she is committed to bringing environmental justice to her homeland.

“It really is an injustice to communities that have been treated like batteries because of resources extraction,” she said. “Their stories really haven’t been heard.”


Traditionally, tribal elders were the educators of the Navajo.

Long before the arrival of red brick schoolhouses and standardized testing, children gathered under the stars or around a crackling fire and listened to the elders describe the history and beliefs of the Navajo using their native language.

Many of the lessons centered around everyday life—building fire, growing corn, tending livestock. Others were religious teachings about the origins of the Navajo people, and the creation of the universe.

Going forward, the Navajo will have determine how to spend their recent half billion dollar settlement. While the money will certainly help advance the tribe in various ways, Gloria Johns said it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to preserving a people.

“Money comes and goes,” she said. “The fire is where the teaching begins. We were taught to respect and be aware of everything that has been created.”

Mark Armao is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him a

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