For more than 80 years of his life, William Yazzie didn’t know what it was like to flick a switch in his own home and have light flood the room.
While others could eat in their living rooms in front of blaring television sets, Yazzie ate his dinner over a kerosene lamp in silence. If nature called in the middle of the night, he didn’t have the luxury of walking down the hall to go to the bathroom; Yazzie would have to answer by fumbling in the dark for a nearby flashlight and walking 100 yards in pitch darkness to the outhouse he built himself.
Yazzie first asked his chapter house for electricity in 1967. For the next four decades, he campaigned relentlessly, insisting that the power lines be extended to his small house in a remote corner of the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. The lines finally reached him in 2008.
Still, 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.
Nowhere in the entire country are there so many people without power, despite millions of dollars in federal grants that were supposed to bring electricity to parts of the Navajo Nation.
William Yazzie is my “Cheii.” That means grandfather in Navajo. While we share the same clans, bloodline and DNA, we were brought up in very different worlds.
I was born and raised in Phoenix. I never thought twice about the electricity going through the apartments I’ve lived in. I never thought twice about having running water. I never thought twice about having grocery stores within walking distances of my home.
But for Cheii, it’s a different story.
Born and raised within the boundaries of the four Sacred Mountains, Yazzie has lived in Lukachukai his entire life. The Navajo belief is that the Creator placed them on the land that falls inside of four very important mountains: Mount Blanca in San Luis Valley, Colo.; Mount Taylor north of Laguna, N.M.; the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff; and Mount Hesperus in La Plata Mountains, Colo.
His driver’s license gives this address: 1 ¾ miles southwest of the Thriftway on Indian Route 12. The Thriftway doesn’t even exist anymore. It was a convenience store and gas station, but the name was changed to Mustang a few years ago.
I remember when I was 8 thinking how out of place was the light glowing from that store at night. It was a bright, fluorescent, blue-white glow, much different from the orange dots scattered sparsely in the rolling hills of Lukachukai. Those dots represented houses with electricity.
While the bright glow of the gas station remains unchanged, the town’s nighttime landscape certainly has: There are more bright orange dots.
Sitting on a couch covered with a Pendleton blanket and wearing a worn jean jacket and a pair of Levis, Yazzie recounts his quest for power in Diné, the Navajo language.
“They would tell me they couldn’t help me,” he said of chapter house officials. There are more than 100 chapter houses on the Navajo Nation. These are the hubs for local governments where town citizens can voice their opinion on issues affecting their communities.
Yazzie said he was told to go to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority agency in Chinle, nearly an hour-long drive from his home, to make his request. There, he was told that it was the chapter house’s responsibility.
“After going back and forth, I was told there was no money for me to get electricity,” Yazzie said.
During the Clinton Administration, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., authored a bill that was signed into law in November 2000 giving $75 million to the Navajo Nation over a period of five years to bring power to homes without electricity. Money was distributed in 2008 and 2009, according to the NTUA, but it has been far short of the amount promised.
“Each year when the appropriations are enacted, we’ve been able to add some funds,” Bingaman said. “It’s not been near enough to get us to the $75 million. I think the total adds up to around $15 million.”
There are only two signs on the side of the dirt road that leads to Cheiie’s house. The first one reads “Obey all traffic signs,” followed a few feet further by a sign that reads “Road maintained for school bus traffic only.” I always laugh at the plurality of the first sign because there is only the one sign that follows on the dirt road.
After a heavy storm, Cheii hops on his tractor to clear mud off the road so that he can get to the main highway.
Cheii retired from the railroad, but he still works every day. At 85, he does more than I do at age 21. Before sunrise, he is up to herd the sheep and feed the horses. He chases the bulls and chops firewood in the colder months so that he can keep his house warm.
I can see the work in his hands. They are leathery, cracked and suited with crooked fingers. My hands are soft and supple, small compared to his.
When I look at him, I think: I will look like him when I’m his age. I will have wrinkles; my skin will be darker, looser. I will have gray hair with a receding hairline. There isn’t dread in this thought, nor is there anticipation. It’s just what I believe to be fact.
In my grandparents’ living room there is a picture hanging on the wall of my grandfather. He looks to be in his early 20s. His skin is smooth and his complexion is light. His head is full of thick black hair.
Next to his picture hangs a portrait of me taken during my senior year of high school. Side-by-side, I can see that we have smooth skin, a light complexion and full heads of black hair.
I will look like him when I’m his age.
According to NTUA officials, nearly 15,000 homes on the Navajo reservation have been electrified in the last decade.
“We generally have about $10 million a year that is devoted to hooking up homes through electric programs,” said NTUA General Manager Walter Haase. The money comes from the Tribe, chapter houses, the state and federal governments, he said.
“This next year, we have $17 million available to hook up families,” Haase said.
It can cost up to $150,000 to hook up a single house to electricity. Most Navajo families don’t have that kind of money.
According to the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development, the unemployment rate on the reservation is among the highest in the nation. From 2001 to 2004, the unemployment rate rose from 42 percent to 48 percent. It was 28 percent in 1990. Earlier this year, it was estimated over 50 percent. In some places it is as high as 70 percent.
The 2000 Census found that 43 percent of Navajo Nation residents were living below the poverty level. The median household income was $20,005, less than half of the median household income in the United States.
Whenever we go to my grandparents’ house my mom always says, “We’re goinghome”.
When I was younger, I remember going “home” and staying with my grandparents in their hogan. A hogan is a traditional Navajo house, a single room, usually hexagonal in shape. The hogan’s doorway always faces toward the east to greet the rising sun.
My grandparents’ hogan was small and dusty. A couple of beds, a couch and a table lined the walls. My mom would tell me stories about how she and her 10 brothers and sisters would all sleep on sheep wool on the floor of that hogan.
There was no electricity; no running water.
When I was 11 or 12, Cheii, my uncles and older cousins built a house right next to the hogan.
This house is more Western in style: a yellow four-sided home, with four bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen.
This home was built for electricity – there were outlets, switches. Cheii seemed to be saying he knew that electricity would come, sooner or later.
Sometimes the family would use a portable generator to watch movies. For a couple of hours, they would be like every other U.S. family sitting in the glow of a television set. But if there was no gasoline for the generator, there was no power. The generator worked for a few years; then it was stolen and too expensive to replace.
When Cheii’s house got electricity during my senior year of high school, my sister and I were ecstatic that we could bring our iPods and cell phones and charge them on our visits.
“We’re getting old,” Yazzie said. “I just barely got electricity after 40 years. It seems like we are forgotten people.
“The Navajo Nation president always says he’s going to do this, he’s going to do that, but nothing ever gets done,” he said in disgust.
Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah has heard this before. “They always blame the leader,” said Zah, who now works as a special advisor to Arizona State University on American Indian Affairs. “It’s not easy, there are many things to focus on.”
During his tenure, Zah said he was more focused on educating than electrifying the Navajo Nation.
“There are more Navajo students going to college than ever before,” he said.
He added that the chapter houses have most of the responsibility in deciding what homes get electricity.
“They would identify pockets on the reservation that more people were moving to, like Chinle,” Zah explained, “and they would hook up a power line to those areas.”
Chinle is a small Navajo town in northeast Arizona near Canyon de Chelly with a population less than 6,000.
Zah said that he’s not surprised that the entire Navajo reservation still isn’t hooked up to electricity.
“There are many Navajos who are still traditional and don’t want electricity,” he said.
But that kind of mentality is what is holding the reservation back, according to the utility authority’s Haase.
“It’s a little disheartening,” he said. “The federal government says it’s not worthwhile to hook up a home because it’s a tremendous amount of money. They’ll use misconceptions of electricity, too. They’ll say they [families] don’t want electricity. That it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s true there are some people who don’t want it. But just from our experience, it’s not really like that. A lot of them would like to have access to electricity.”
Requests to speak with President Shirley Jr. made through his communications director, George Hardeen, were never granted.
Hardeen said only this: “If this were a big problem, why wasn’t anyone banging down my door to talk to us about this before?”
It’s much different now when I go to my grandparents’ house. Years ago, if we drove in at night, they would either be sleeping or sitting in the living room with a kerosene lamp burning. Now as we drive up the dirt road at night, I can see that a light is on. They’re usually watching a DVD that my cousin has brought to them.
I thought it was hilarious when I visited a few months ago and they had their very own HDTV. It wasn’t small either.
Electricity has changed my grandparents. They seem happier. They can turn on the light outside if they need to visit the outhouse at night. They can charge their very own cell phones, which give them another important link to the world. They can keep food from spoiling in the fridge. They have a microwave.
One of my aunts pays for the electricity, so my grandfather and Shima’asani (my grandmother) don’t have to worry about it.
It took my grandfather 40 years of running around and asking NTUA and Chapter House officials to make it happen.
In the end, he said, it was worth it.
“I’m old now,” said Cheii.
He stared out the window.
“People told me that I should move to the city, but this is my home,” he said.
After pausing for several minutes, he turned his head from the window and looked at the washbasin near the front door.
“Now, all we need is running water.”