There was this song by “Dance to Trance” in 1998 which was called “Power of the American Natives”. It’s not exactly the musical quality of this song that made me remember it these days but a visit to the Navajo Nation – the Indian settlement that embraces parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. With approximately 250.000 inhabitants it is the largest Indian tribe in the U.S.
The federally recognized tribe got the land 1868 as a compensation for the historical trauma of displacement and brutal suppression. They maintain a good relationship with the federal government – no less but also no more. “The tribes talk to us, they don’t trust us. Which is a reasonable approach considering history” says Bill Hume, Director of Planning and Policy in the office of the Governor of New Mexico.
Driving through parts of the land it becomes pretty obvious that this is one of the very poor parts of the U.S. And maybe the one least globalized. This was the only region I travelled where you couldn’t find a Starbucks coffee (though there was McDonalds).
The statistics emphasize this impression: With a poverty rate of 40 percent, one third of the population without electricity and an unemployment rate that is said to be around 50 percent (some observers estimate it up to 80 percent) it is probably not a region people would imagine as their preferred place to stay.
And that’s not what makes the Indians stay. They want to preserve their heritage and culture. Therefore they were given this land as well as the right of self-governance (secured by several treaties with the federal government). The Nation has a an 88 member popularly-elected council located in window rock. Visiting the council in session we can observe: the blessings of new technology have arrived: Most of the council members listen to their President while at the same time surfing the Web.
But innovation does not necessarily mean improvement. One of the sources of income – the most important one indeed – is gaming. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act from 1988 provided the right to the Indians to operate gaming. First seen as a real opportunity to develop their economy it became quickly clear that gaming is not just a blessing but also a burden. As there is a steady income stream from gaming a lot of young people don’t even think of education and striving for a good job.
And that is what makes the future of this tribal nation uncertain. The talented young people leave for education. And even if they want to come back they can’t. There are no jobs, no facilities and no business opportunities. What we can observe in the Navajo Nation is a dying diversity. It might take 50 more years but sometime in future it will probably become a nation without a people.
The poverty is one reason for that. Another one is hidden in the bureaucratic governance structures that have produced a mixture of very little private enterprise, poor economic incentives and a lack of entrepreneurial effort. Against this background we were not even really surprised by reading in the newspaper the next day that the Navajo government is planning to set up a new legislative building for 50 million US$.
In case of the Indians diversity is at stake. But diversity is not only about cherishing cultural heritage. It’s also about real politics and priorities.