Navajos hope for stimulus dollars

Leupp, AZ – The massive federal economic stimulus bill includes nearly three billion dollars for Indian tribes; that's more than the entire budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A good chunk of that will likely go to the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the country. Tribal leaders there are desperate for jobs and for basic infrastructure. Nearly half of Navajos still live without running water and electricity.

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Early on a chilly Sunday morning, Johnson Chee positions his old, battered red Ford pickup next to a giant water tank. He sticks a huge hose into a 250-gallon container, and watches the water gush out.

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AX1: "I live a couple miles from here, hauling water for my little lambs."

Every week Chee hauls water for his livestock, and for his family. He, along with 90 percent of Navajos in this part of the reservation live without running water.

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They drive here from as far as 30 miles away to fill up their barrels, over roads so rough they rattle your spine.

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New roads and water infrastructure, schools and hospitals these are the projects the Navajo Nation is hoping to build with federal stimulus dollars. They're also looking to create thousands of new jobs, on a reservation where the unemployment rate has hovered around 50 percent for as long as anyone can remember. Thomas Cody is the president of the local reservation chapter here called Leupp. He says the economic crisis has made the situation even worse.

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AX2: "Because our people that used to do the construction work, are coming back onto Navajo, and here we don't have the homes for them, so they move back into their parents' homes, relatives' homes."

Which increases the demand for already stretched social services. Leupp has set aside 100 acres for an industrial park to try to lure new businesses, but the water infrastructure is too primitive to handle it. The Navajo stimulus proposal includes funding for an upgraded system. Tribal councilman Leonard Chee says the project would create 180 jobs.

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AX3: "In Leupp we have skilled people that can do construction work, they just need the opportunity, you put the Navajo people to work then they go to Flagstaff, Winslow to shop, they put money back into the economy, and there you have it."

Navajos spend an estimated 80 percent of what they earn off of the reservation buying everything from new trucks to groceries in Phoenix, Albuquerque and other nearby cities.

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I hop in Thomas Cody's big four wheel drive pickup to visit some local families. He flies past miles of scrubby rangeland. Then, like a tracker, he spots the telltale sign of a water hauler.

AX4: "You can tell someone just recently hauled water through here. There's still those little water drops. Oh, yeah. We'll just follow the water droplets see where they go "

We pull up to a small, neatly kept house, fifteen bone shaking miles from the water station.

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Dogs greet us; horses stare at us from a corral. An outhouse is visible just down the hill, and water barrels are lined up outside.

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Inside, out of the whipping wind, a wood stove is blazing. A solar panel powers a little refrigerator, TV and a few lights.

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Cecil and Linda Tso greet us with warm handshakes. I ask them about the possibility of federal money for jobs and infrastructure.

AX5: "I hope we see these plans work out, we've been waiting a long, long time.

Cecil commutes to Flagstaff to work at a furniture store. His wife often joins him.

AX6: "When you're in town, I go to the library and I use the computer, all this technology is going on, and then when I come home, it's like you go back in time."

The Tsos hope the stimulus package creates new jobs on the reservation, or at least provide some funding to grade their road more often. That would make it easier for Cecil to haul a little extra water every week, enough so Linda can grow roses outside her front door.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker