Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Turn Off the Dark

October 25th, 2010 · 2 Comments

The mere act of flicking on a light switch is something that can’t be taken for granted on the Navajo reservation, where tens of thousands of homes still lack electricity. Nowhere else in America do so many live in darkness, a fact driven home by this eye-popping stat:

More than 18,000 households on the reservation are waiting in the dark. According to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the largest utility provider on the reservation, that number accounts for 75 percent of all U.S. households without electricity.

So who’s to blame for this failure to provide basic infrastructure? Though New Mexico’s senior senator says that the federal government has yet to deliver on a promised $60 million for Navajo electrification, I have to think that the tribal government hasn’t exactly acted with alacrity. The Navajo Nation Council appears to be thoroughly corrupt, as evidenced by the fact that 75 percent of its sitting members have been charged with abusing discretionary funds.

Such official misbehavior is sadly nothing new in Navajo country: Between 1989 and 1999, for example, three Navajo Nation presidents were bounced from office due to ethics violations. Yet the culture of graft persists, in part because of Navajo resistance to the meddling of federal authorities—a posture that is partly understandable due to obvious historical tensions. Many Navajo leaders who’ve been called out for corruption have argued that their actions were defensible according to tribal customs, which permit the acceptance of ceremonial gifts and the appropriation of communal money when emergencies arise. David Eugene Wilkins, a leading expert on Indian politics, points out that Navajo tradition actually has some tolerance for arrangements that the American legal system considers corrupt:

Should Navajo politicians be held to the same ethical standards as state or federal officials? Is the corruption and scandal that brought down Arizona Governors Fife Symington and Evan Meacham comparable to that which toppled Peter MacDonald?

These are important questions, particularly if it is true, as tribal leaders ad their constituents often insist, that Indian nations adhere to different cultural values than their non-Indian neighbors. But it is true for another reason. Since the Navajo Nation receives much of its funding from the federal government, many Washington officials insist that Navajo politicians must adhere to American ethical standards whether or not they clash with traditional Diné cultural standards.

It’s always tough to modernize political systems when a society places a high value on tradition. That said, I’d be willing to bet that many of those 18,000 Navajos who exist without electricity wouldn’t mind a little more financial rigor among their elected officials. Slush funds tend to pay for expensive steaks and golf outings, rather than for turning on the lights.


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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Doesn’t help that they’re likely going to be suspicious of any top-down schemes to change things.

    One of the most interesting things I learned from Tony Horowitz’ “A Voyage Long and Strange” is how little love their is for anthropologists among a lot of native groups. Not too surprising given how badly some of those anthropologists misinterpreted the cultures they were studying and the nefarious uses those misinterpretations have been put to. But then there’s also a lot of push-back against, say, the idea that Native Americans are descended from Asia.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: I guess the big question I have here is how much the Navajo politicians are aware of that sentiment, and are consciously exploiting it to their advantage.

    One thing I couldn’t get out of my mind while writing this post: State Sen. Clay Davis’s courtroom rant from The Wire:


    It’s the same principle at work: Politicians claiming that ethics rules created by outsiders don’t take full account of their communities’ situations. Of course, Davis was being completely disingenuous–I wonder if the same can be said of Navajo officials who offer similar defenses of their ethics-bending actions.