Ganado, AZ – The hallways at Ganado High School in the middle of the enormous Navajo reservation are bustling in between classes. But they're not nearly as crowded as they were just three years ago.
"I'm looking at a high school that in the mid 2000s, ran about 850 students," says Principal Tom Rowland. "Now we're down to about 575."
Rowland says he's losing about 100 students per year.
Evelyn Begay, who's worked for the school district for 28 years, thinks she knows why.
"Families can't find jobs here," she explains. "They go to the urban areas to look for employment, and that's where they move their families."
Begay should know. All five of her kids graduated from Ganado High School. All five went on to Arizona State University. And all five have stayed in the Phoenix area after graduation.
"Even though you hear politicians say we're going to build jobs, we've heard that for 50 years, and we haven't seen any significant impact on employment for our young people, and as long as that's continuing, we're going to continue to lose our families, our children, to move away."
Strong winds are whipping tumbleweeds across the lone highway that runs through Ganado. There's almost nothing here in the way of local industry. The two largest employers are the hospital and the school district.
That's why teachers and staff like Nathan Brady, who's the facility coordinator at Ganado High School, all tell students to leave the reservation behind when they graduate.
"Every one of them is going to encourage them," says Brady, "to go, go, get an education, get a job, then you can come back."
But when they get that education, Brady says, "They look back, and there's nothing here, there's nothing for them to build on, there's no employment, so they stay out there."
Brady enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday. Now 40, he returned to the reservation a few years ago, turning down a duty station in Hawaii and full retirement benefits.
"I'd rather be out here to see the stars at night," he says, "rather be out here to hear the birds chirping. I knew I wanted to come back."
A lot of young Navajo people feel that way. The reservation is isolated, it's desolate, the economy is stagnant but it's home. Marden Kinlichee is a 19 year old senior at Ganado High School.
"I think a lot of kids do want to come back," she says, "it's just that if they come back then they're going to be stuck at home not working."
In the fall Kinlichee will leave for the University of New Mexico in Gallup to study nursing. But unlike a lot of her classmates, she plans to return. It's part of the reason she's choosing a career in nursing, because she knows she can find a job close to home, where she says she can help her people.
"That's how I was raised," she says, "to come back and help my grandparents, and we need a lot of help out here."
The population out here on the Navajo Nation is getting older. Two thirds of the population is now over 18, up seven percent from a decade ago.
But what's surprising is that people in Ganado aren't that worried about what many call the "brain drain" away from the reservation.
They're confident that the land, the culture, and the language will bring young people back when they're ready.
Remember Evelyn Begay? All five of her kids now live in Phoenix.
"I talk to them a lot in Navajo," she says, "constantly reminding them, no matter where you go, no matter how high of an apartment you live in, you're always going to be that Navajo, that's not going to wash off of you, you're going to always be that person."
Begay says all her kids plan to build homes back on the reservation, and eventually return home. For now though, she says, she has to let them go.