The Navajo Nation’s horrendous roads keep killing people and holding students hostage, but nothing changes

Published on
September 4, 2019

Early in 2018, on assignment to write about education on the Navajo Nation, I wandered into a public school in Gallup, a tumbledown city on the border of the reservation. I’d been driving around somewhat aimlessly when I found myself on a potholed road. And there was the school: a building that looked to be failing in every way. Only 6% of its students were proficient in reading, a quick Google check showed.

I decided to see if the principal or a teacher might talk to me about the troubles facing students. Gallup schools predominantly serve children from the surrounding Navajo Nation, one of the poorest regions in the country. Up to a third of families live without running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, or enough food to eat.

Inside the school I was greeted by an administrator — white, middle-aged, and leery of the media — who agreed to talk to me on background only.

The school’s biggest problems were absenteeism and tardiness, he proceeded to tell me: Parents were to blame, he spouted. They should be thrown in jail and “kicked off welfare” if their kid missed school. He declined to discuss the many well-proven reasons that Native American students struggle in New Mexico (for starters: trauma, discrimination, and a public school system so flawed that it’s been declared unconstitutional by a federal court).

As objectionable as the administrator was, I thought I’d give him one last try before I walked out. “Isn’t there anything that could help your students — anything that doesn’t involve punishing their parents?”

“It would really help if the roads got fixed,” he conceded.

Thus, the idea for my 2018 National Fellowship project was born. In all the years I’d written about social issues, I’d never heard an educator mention road construction as a key to learning. What on earth did he mean?

Roads are a key to everything, I soon found out.

Navajo Nation roads — many of them little more than tire tracks in dirt, rocks and sand — are so deplorable, they make it impossible to get to school. They cut off access to food, water, and health clinics. They increase infant mortality, because pregnant women can’t get to doctor. They boost the rates of obesity, unemployment, illiteracy, and crimes against women and children (law enforcement can’t respond to their 911 calls because they can’t navigate the roads). Police show up too late to stop crimes or properly investigate them. If there’s an accident on the Navajo Nation, the injured might lie in the road all day — emergency vehicles can’t reach them or find them. There are no street signs, street lights, or addresses in many parts of the reservation.

“Democracy dies in darkness,” The Washington Post famously says. Democracy also dies in mud, it turns out. Bad roads keep people from reaching polling places on election day. They keep people isolated and disconnected.

Good roads are the antidote, according to voluminous studies from around the globe. Roadbuilding is “by far” the most efficient and effective way to combat poverty in remote areas, the World Bank says. Roads are the essential building block without which all else fails, in this view. New schools and hospitals aren’t worth much if no one can reach them. Roads must come first.

When bad roads in a community are replaced by “all-season roads” — routes that can be safely traveled in all weather — it improves school attendance, educational achievement, health, wages, worker productivity, and even gender equality (parents are more likely to let their daughters go to school when there are safe roads, among other things).

These were a few of the facts knocking around in my brain during the weeks I spent on the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile expanse, roughly the size of West Virginia. The reservation holds an estimated 11,600 miles of roads — enough miles to stretch from New York to Australia.

About 80 percent of those roads are unimproved dirt and sand, the dry ingredients for disaster. When it rains or snows, they turn into gumbo.

Of the reservation’s paved roads — 1,500 miles in all — fully half are in poor condition. Many lack basic safety features, like guard rails, painted divider lines, street lights, crosswalks, shoulders, and turn lanes.

The federal government has known about — and essentially ignored — the deplorable conditions for some 90 years.

As far back as 1928, the federal government established the Indian Reservation Roads program, ostensibly to help Native Americans gain access to schools and other basic requirements of life. Little was accomplished. In 1946, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Federal Highway Administration took over the reservation roads program, with the BIA in the leadership role. The agency never did its job.

Today, Indian Country roads are in such colossally bad shape, one could argue they’re a lost cause. On the Navajo Nation alone, bringing all existing roads and bridges up to safety standards would cost $7 billion, the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation (NDOT) estimates. The federal government gives NDOT about $54 million a year.

These troubles are well-known in Washington. In the last 20 years, the abysmal road conditions have been lambasted in Congressional hearings and GAO reports. Bad roads are regularly decried by Navajo Nation leaders, New Mexico’s state legislators, and residents in each of the Navajo Nation’s 110 chapters. Elected chapter leaders spend much of their time in office trying to get roads fixed.

Very few succeed. In a vast sovereign nation that stretches across three states, only about 16 miles of new roadway are constructed every year. Meanwhile, more than 9,000 miles of roads need help. They are crumbling, cracked, muddy, slick, steep, rocky, potholed, flooded, and often impassable.

My challenge? Road issues in New Mexico were a fairly familiar story, like a low-level hum that’s so much a part of life, you stop hearing it.

How could I raise the volume? The answer (of course) was to find people who could bring the story to life.

But this was a challenge, too. First, I had thousands of square miles to choose from. Where to begin?

Second, I needed to find families who were willing to talk and who lived along treacherous, inaccessible roads. But families who lived along that kind of road often lacked electricity, cell phone service, and Wi-Fi, which meant I couldn’t call or email them in advance. To locate my main characters, I’d either need an introduction from someone (this worked well) or needed to drive around and knock on random doors. (This was difficult: Homes were remote and often guarded by large, unfriendly dogs.)

There were more complex challenges, as well. Among them:

  • I was a white reporter. I couldn’t help but look like one in a long line of bilagáana (European, in Navajo) journalists who parachute in to write about tragic things and then quickly leave, never staying long enough to put the story in context.

The National Fellowship gave me a crucial advantage: I blessedly had the ability to report the story for months and stay on the Navajo Nation for weeks at a time. I was also lucky enough to find a trailer home to live in, in the Sanostee Chapter, for weeks at a time. Still, I’d always be an outsider.

I often addressed this head-on. I asked people’s forgiveness for being white and clueless. (I said this in seriousness, but it always made people laugh.) I told people I wanted to understand things correctly; I asked them for their help.

  • More problematic: My questions sometimes led people into forbidden territory. The story involved deaths, and I needed to ask people about the deceased. But discussing the dead is taboo in the traditional Navajo view. The dead are inhabited with malevolent spirits; if you talk about them, the ghosts can awaken and haunt you, I was told. Most people I met were not strict traditionalists — they were willing to mention a death. But they were uneasy. Some did not want to discuss the details.

All people, of course are likely to be distressed when they talk to a reporter about the death of loved one. But reporting on the Navajo Nation made me particularly aware of the potential risks. I did whatever I could to make people feel comfortable. I made a point of spending hours with sources if the interview was about grief and loss. I didn’t want to stir up emotions and then appear to be beating a hasty exit. I also frequently reminded people they didn’t have to tell me anything. I asked them, “Are you okay?” at various intervals. (The more I gave people permission to stop, the less they wanted to.)

  • In some cases, I had to give up the journalistic urge to pin down dates and times. Some of the older Navajo people I spoke with, for example, might mention several different years for someone’s death, or for an event. Often, their stories were not linear. The facts didn’t add up. But it was more important to listen to them without interruption and focus on forging a connection than to stop them and ask when and where things happened. (Some people simply didn’t know.)
  • The downside: When I didn’t get the facts from people, it wasn’t easy to fill in the blanks later. I couldn’t rely on follow-up interviews — people didn’t always want to talk to me again. Even if they did, they might not have a working phone or email access. I couldn’t always find them.

There was almost no paper trail or digital record to rely on, either. Navajo Nation obituaries, deaths, and news events aren’t widely recorded. I did manage to track down one man’s death date via online records from the federal Railroad Retirement Board (many Navajo men worked for the railroad). But even this was fraught with peril. Many people on the reservation share the same surname (Begay, Yazzie, Bennally, Tsosie, and Nez, for example). It took a lot of work to make sure I was looking at the right record for the right person.

  • Other challenges: The people I met on the Navajo Nation were extraordinarily gracious, warm, and accommodating. Almost anyone would talk to me if I approached them. The downside was that even if they agreed to talk to me and seemed pleased to be interviewed, it didn’t necessarily mean they actually wanted to be interviewed. Some people were just answering my questions to be polite. (In truth, they preferred not to be talking to a reporter.) I realized in hindsight that my attentions probably felt more intrusive to people than I knew.
  • Sometimes I might not have been intrusive enough. One morning in Gallup I was panhandled in a parking lot by an elderly woman with a black eye who told me she’d slept in a drainage ditch the night before. I talked to her for half an hour. I asked if I could take her to the Gallup homeless shelter, so she wouldn’t be sleeping out in the cold. She was adamant: She didn’t want to go to a shelter, she said. The rest of the day I alternately kept an eye out for her and talked to homeless advocates about what I should have done. They told me I should have called the homeless hotline so that she’d get picked up and taken to the shelter, whether she wanted to go or not. Every year, people freeze to death in Gallup because they get intoxicated and sleep in fields and ditches.

That night, for dinner, I met with a teacher to talk about how children are affected by bad roads. Once we sat down together, however, she wanted to tell me about the students she’d tried to save from suicide, some successfully, others not. Suddenly she told me that her own daughter, a teenager, had died just a few weeks earlier, from an accidental overdose. We talked for hours, and she showed me photo after photo of her gorgeous girl. It was heartbreaking.

It was a week when almost everyone I spoke with had a life story that included either the death of a loved one, suicide, drugs and alcohol, neglect, abandonment, or abuse. And yet, they were functioning, compassionate, active adults, trying to tackle problems, to raise kids, to take care of aging parents — and to get to the store without getting stuck in the mud on an infernal road.

My main character, Sharon Begay, a mother of two, worked at a trading post, raised sheep, sang in a Navajo music group, took care of her mother (legally blind) and grandmother, and dealt with the road problems in between. “Rez life is hard,” she said, and shrugged, when I asked her how she handled the frustration. The amount of equanimity was astonishing.

* * *

Of all my sources, Johnny Foster, 64, seemed closest to running out of patience. He’d spent decades thinking about roads and trying to get them fixed: He’d formed a political coalition and had written a successful grant to get a road constructed in his Sheep Springs chapter, all to no avail.

Foster took me on a tour of some of the worst roads in Sheep Springs, 35 miles south of Sanostee. One of the roads caused his grandfather’s death, he said.

In the 1970s, when Foster was in high school, his grandfather was in what he thought was a minor car accident. He didn’t think he was injured. But once he got back home, he became gravely ill. He had internal bleeding, it turned out. He needed to get to a hospital right away.

Ambulances refused to get him: The mountain road to his house was too treacherous. To make things worse, a blizzard had swept in and buried the route in ice and snow.

Foster and his relatives set about rescuing his grandfather themselves. They worked 12 hours straight, digging out the road by hand, using picks and shovels in the freezing cold and darkness. At dawn they reached his grandfather’s house and rushed him to the hospital. He died there.

“I don’t think I ever got over it,” Foster says. “It was one of the most intense things I’d ever been through.”

He’s been trying to improve roads ever since. One year he won an $88,000 grant to fix a road in Sheep Springs, he said. The check ended up in the Navajo government’s hands in Window Rock, the capital. “They pocketed it. We never saw a penny of it,” he said.

“After people get elected, they just look the other way,” he said. “You go to the chapter meetings, and they tell you they don’t have any money. You just go ’round and ’round like that and the roads get washed out, and nothing ever gets done.”

A few days after talking to Foster, I met Sharon Begay, who worked at a trading post next to the mobile home where I was staying. Begay told me how her father, 75, suffered a stroke and collapsed in front of the family’s Sanostee home in 2004. A downpour that day had made a quagmire of the dirt road leading to the house. Two ambulances tried navigating it and got stuck in the mud. Hours later, a third finally reached her father and took him to the hospital. He died shortly afterward.

“Sometimes I feel like the road controls my life,” Begay said. Every day, roads held power over people. They let your children get to school, or kept them home. They let you get to work, or stranded you on one side of a flooded culvert.

“It’s heartbreaking,” former state Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage told me.

Clahchischilliage, a Republican who represented the Shiprock area (she was unseated in the 2018 election), said she spent all six years in the state legislature trying to get something done about the roads. “But Native Americans are not a priority. No matter how bad your road is, no one will do anything about it.”

The roads pose a health threat to children. Kids as young as 6 spend up to three hours a day on a school bus. And sitting in a vehicle for more than an hour a day increases a child’s risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and educational failure, public health studies show. Every hour on the bus reduces the available time for exercise, study, play, sleep, socializing, or eating a healthy meal.

Healthy meals, of course, are also stymied by bad roads. To get fresh produce, a Sanostee resident has to drive an hour or more to a grocery in Shiprock. Many people end up buying food at the closer option, a Shell Station convenience store, which offers a few bruised apples and over-ripe bananas amid a sea of junk food.

What does the federal government do about it? It underfunds the Navajo Nation every year, typically giving NDOT about 5 to 15 percent of the funds requested. In some years, Washington denies transportation funding to tribal governments even as it boosts the funding for states or counties.

“The whole thing sickens me,” Clahchischilliage said. “It’s institutional racism, loud and clear.” And there’s another thing she’d like to point out: People need to stop comparing the Navajo Nation to a Third World country. It’s patently wrong, she says. “Third World countries get a lot more money for roads than we do.”