Group seeks to strengthen Native voice in Flagstaff

By Janel States James

The Observer

The Flagstaff Area Commission on Urban Native American Affairs. Sound too good to be true? It’s not. A few motivated individuals in the Flagstaff community think an organization like this might be just around the corner, if they can garner enough support.

Joshua Mihesuah and Aresta LaRusso, who are spearheading the movement, presented their proposal to a group of about 15 Native American Flagstaff residents and to Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye in a meeting on Friday, March 17. Although Wayne Taylor, Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, was also invited, he was unable to attend.

LaRusso, a local business woman, and Mihesuah, the director of Native American Student Services at NAU, believe that the commission could be instrumental in making the Native voice heard in Flagstaff by becoming an official, advisory body to both the City of Flagstaff and to Coconino County. They hope that both these entities will pass resolutions to establish the commission.

LaRusso and Mihesuah said that they have discussed their proposal with both county and city officials. While the county is favorable, they said, they are not sure that the city fully understands the need for a group like this.

The two speculated that since the county itself is 33% Native American, it may more fully recognize the need for a stronger Native voice in decisions made on the county level.

“In the city,” said Mihesuah, “the sense of obligation to the Native population is not as strong.” The city thinks perhaps the commission should be more of a “rainbow coalition,” serving all minorities in Flagstaff, he said. Neither County Supervisor Louise Yellowman nor Flagstaff Mayor Chris Bavasi could be reached for comment.

While there are no official figures for the current Native population in Flagstaff, Jerry Conover of the NAU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said he would roughly estimate the population at 6,241, or 10.3% of Flagstaff’s total population, basing that percentage on the 1990 census. If that percentage has changed since 1990, that number may either be higher or lower. Conover said he would estimate that another 1,000 Native Americans live in the areas surrounding Flagstaff.

But numbers do not mean everything. Mihesuah believes that part of the problem is that Native Americans, no matter how great their population in a given area, are not seen as a group that really pushes for issues. In fact, Native Americans themselves too often don’t see how they can be empowered, he said.

But empowerment may not be as rare as it seems. Mihesuah pointed out that other Native Americans have already established urban commissions, in places like Tucson and Los Angeles. The Tucson commission used the political process itself to get its foot in the door, pledging support to a mayoral candidate if that candidate, in turn, would support them. It worked.

Kelsey Begaye indicated that “his office is receptive to this organization, which could also advise the Navajo Nation of the needs in Flagstaff.”

Begaye said that he has been traveling to areas around the country to check on the progress of Navajos off of the reservation. The

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needs of these Navajos are very similar, he said, to the ones expressed at the meeting. There must be increased educational opportunities, medical services in town, and the right to participate in Tribal elections must be established.

Begaye himself pointed out that Native Americans must be the ones to break the status quo. “We need to start dreaming and start dreaming big,” he said. “Take risks and be competitive, come up with new ideas.”

This means that Native Americans should vote, he said, pointing out that he recently went on record as the first Native American to cast a vote on the Internet. “Even in voting, we have been spectators. That time is over. We must vote for the candidate most sensitive to our needs.

“I can only encourage this group not to stop,” said Begaye. “Once the group begins moving and your needs are documented, my job is to huddle with my staff, make a site visit and make recommendations.”

Begaye indicated that an organization like this could be used as a model for other area bordertowns, working to improve business, education and housing.

Under Mihesuah and LaRusso’s proposal, the commission would help handle these problems. It would “review and make recommendations on proposed local, state and federal legislation affecting Native Americans;” “examine local policies in areas of employment, education, housing, social services, health and mental health and recreation as they affect or relate to Native American issues outside of the reservation;” and “conduct hearings, studies or an analysis of current needs of Native Americans in Flagstaff....”

“As Native people we need to have our voice, we know as Native People what we want from our city government, and what the needs are in our community,” said LaRusso. “We must get involved, not sit on the sidelines. We can’t just say nothing, because nothing is happening,” she said.

LaRusso stressed that the commission would represent the concerns of all Native Americans in Flagstaff, not just Navajo or Hopi. For more information on the Commission, interested individuals may call Aresta LaRusso at (520) 779-9752 or Joshua Mihesuah at (520) 523-8086.

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