Phoenix Diné Inc. a Phoenix-based organization, insists that urban Diné receive the support and recognition they deserve from the Navajo Nation.
As part of an effort to spearhead a national alliance—a result of a meeting held earlier this year—Phoenix Diné, Inc. (PDI) and key leaders from other urban Navajo groups formed the National Urban Diné Alliance (NUDA).
Although NUDA members had hoped to gain a tribal-level seat in May’s Navajo Nation Statutory Reform effort held in Gallup, New Mexico, members were able to participate and feel that a step has been taken towards educating the Nation regarding the needs of urban Diné.
Patty Dimitriou, Board President of PDI, admitted that, “It was both a frustrating and rewarding process for us. We see that a lot of ignorance exists back home about urban Navajos.
“Most of our Navajo government and chapter officials are completely unaware of the population that exists off the reservation, the reasons we have to leave our homeland, and the services some of our people desperately need.”
PDI and NUDA members hope to improve the relationship between urban Navajo and their Nation by garnering their inclusion in Navajo Nation governmental affairs including the Government Reform Committee.
Further, the group hopes to see urban input in Constitutional revision, with respect to Diné sovereignty in protecting the rights of all Navajo tribal members, on or off the reservation.
Recognizing the power of the vote, PDI is aggressively encouraging voter registration as well as urging urban Navajos to vote for Navajo candidates that support urban issues.
Leland Leonard, a PDI board member, points out that there are more Navajos living in Phoenix than voted in the last election. He estimates the Phoenix Navajo population at 26,000-plus.
In theory, Phoenix Navajos could vote in the next president.
These efforts are lauded by the former president of the Dook’o’oosliid Planning Committee (DPC), a Flagstaff based organization seeking, among several issues, the formation of a Flagstaff chapter of the Navajo Nation. Curt Yazza, a former Northern Arizona University student and Flagstaff resident, remembers many of the obstacles facing DPC efforts.
Simply put, they were lack of community support and funding, fear from existing chapters, and a lack of land base to justify an off-reservation chapter government.
Yazza, who has since returned home to the reservation, says that many of the chapter delegates in office at that time feared that a Navajo Nation Local Government in Flagstaff would decrease their shares of Navajo Nation funds budgeted to their individual chapters.
“In addressing that concern, I attempted to educate the council delegates by stating that if each of the existing 110 chapters gave an even share to a Flagstaff Chapter, it would mean that each would have to give less than one cent of each dollar.” Nonetheless, DPC’s planning committee proposal was rejected by the Nation council.
Further, Yazza says, there was very little participation in these efforts to involve urban Flagstaff Navajos in Nation government. Of an estimated 6,000 population, Yazza estimates the largest attendance at one meeting at 120.
Many Flagstaff Navajos told Yazza that they feared losing benefits they held back on the reservation, such as grazing and residential permits.
The DPC, active during the early and mid-1990s, slowly dissolved. The concerns of involved members live on in Flagstaff Diné.
Mary Jane Kahn remembers attending some of the meetings. She still believes it would be nice to have a Flagstaff Chapter. “It would be a place where people could get together, the youth maybe. We used to get together in the library or city hall and talk about it. A lot of people wouldn’t get involved—and there are a lot of relocatees here [in the Flagstaff area].
People relocated off the reservation because of the so-called Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute are indeed without a political voice. Rachel Tso is married to an HPL resident—she and her husband work all week long in Flagstaff, and make a weekly trek back to the reservation every Friday evening. She shares her own concerns for her family.
“We don’t live on the reservation because we need jobs. But there is a language loss. My six-year-old daughter spent the first three years on the reservation and she primarily spoke Navajo. Now she primarily speaks English. I worry about health care, and our livestock that is still out here.”
Ironically, her husband is a member of the Hard Rock chapter, but as a resident of the HPL, his chapter has no jurisdiction over the home site that now sits on the Hopi Reservation. Many HPL residents are seeking their own chapter—at least 13 chapters have been affected by the Relocation Act. This fact—many, including the Tsos point out—have left HPL residents without political representation and necessary benefits.
Dimitriou welcomes Flagstaff Navajos to join NUDA. “We were founded to create services and outreach for the urban Diné community. Because urban Diné don’t have the benefits nor cultural experience available back home on the reservation, there is a serious void. Phoenix Diné, Inc. and NUDA are working to fill that void.”
Acknowledging that the road ahead will be long and hard, Dimitriou stresses that the first task facing PDI and NUDA will be educating Navajo Nation leadership about the urban Diné population. “Very few people back home understand who we are, what our needs are, or how many of us are here.”
For now, there will be no effort to form either a Phoenix or Flagstaff Chapter by PDI and NUDA. Dimitriou acknowledges that until the Navajo Nation Constitution is changed, that cannot happen.
“Currently, the way the Constitution is written, we are not allowed to organize a Navajo chapter off the rez. That is one of the reasons we chose to incorporate our organization as a not-for-profit entity. Our ultimate goal is to have a Diné Community Center established in Phoenix and other metropolitan areas across the country that have a significant urban Diné population.”