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Wall Street, Navajo Way Meet

Navajo Times, Robert Yazzie, Lorraine Ruffing and James Singer Posted: Jan 03, 2009

With the American economy falling to unprecedented lows and Washington politicians scrambling to stick a Band-Aid over a gaping, bleeding wound, the question crossing a lot of minds is, "How is this to affect me?"

Although we may be physically quite isolated from the rest of the United States, the Navajo economy is highly connected to what happens in the American economy.

Consider that roughly 70 percent of Navajo income is spent off the reservation and that President Shirley in his state of the nation announced that the Navajo Nation's trust portfolio "has declined in market value by nearly $240 million" along with other financial declines in other tribal accounts.

Consider also that roughly 70 percent of Navajo Nation income derives from the federal government and the picture painted looks a lot like a Picasso during his "blue period."

During the last Great Depression of the 1930s, an elderly Navajo said, "My families and relatives didn't even know there was a depression. We didn't know there were people in big cities who were starving and a lot of people without a job. Navajos had food and a place to live. We had sheep, livestock, and crops. We took the time to teach our children the important things in life."

This was also during a time in Navajo history when we were still rather isolated. Such is not the case these days.

Americans, in general, bought into President Bush's economic philosophy of "let the market work" no matter what the consequences in terms of sustainability and equity.

As a result, corporate greed and unrestrained consumerism have led to continued environmental degradation and unwillingness to believe in climate change, corporate failures, an unbalanced society in terms of education and wealth, and now the unraveling of an unregulated financial system.

Americans are taking little responsibility for this mess, preferring to put all the blame on "Wall Street" (where much of it belongs).

But here's a news flash: the American people put the current administration in office thus sanctioning the policies that have led to the current situation.

This crisis should signal a general reform of the expansive imperfections and inhumane policies of the neo-liberal capitalist ideology, but it's not - as is evident with the "bail out."

It should also validate our own Navajo notions of economic sustainability outlined in our stories, prayers, norms, and even in the Fundamental Laws of the Din. But will we let it?

Looking through this Navajo lens there are two major components that are dismissed in the discussion of growth and development in Indian Country, that of sustainability and equity.

Navajo philosophy promotes sustainability and balance with both nature and kin - in fact, all of creation and sharing what there is so that all benefit, now and in the future.

This lens informs us regarding behavior, respect, and responsibility. These principles can then be conveyed into economic planning in the Navajo Nation.

Traditional stories name the Hero Twins in their battle against monsters that were ravaging the Navajo. The stories point out that the monster called poverty was spared as a way of keeping balance.

In this story we can extract that although credit and material wealth may temporarily cover poverty, it is ever-present and therefore balance and prudence must be exercised in our finances to ensure a fulfilling life.

On the other hand, the recognition of balancing poverty is a foreign concept to Wall Street.

With the onslaught of this crisis Navajo leaders should redouble their efforts to create a resilient Navajo economy based on both traditional and modern activities consistent with the Fundamental Laws.

Some suggestion include: Partnerships between Navajo small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, and big business should begin that stress relationship, respect, and turning to the local industry first before sending it off to China or even Gallup, Page, or Blanding.

Big businesses should reflect and respect Navajo values and be contracted on our terms based on Navajo beliefs.

SMEs should account for a majority of the jobs in the economy (only one small business loan was given out last quarter for the entire reservation).

The expansion of a sustainable and diverse economy will wean the Navajo Nation off of federal dollars and create a livable environment for the Navajo today and in the future.

With the current economic crisis we as a people have the freedom and responsibility to examine where we are and where we are heading.

A choice, then, is laid on the road before us: whether to continue down Wall Street or hang a U-turn on Navajo way.

Robert Yazzie is a retired chief justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. James C. Singer is a research assistant for the Din Policy Institute. Lorraine Ruffing is a visiting scholar.

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