On The Navajo Nation, 5,000 Workers Dependent On A Federal Paycheck

Jan 12, 2019

With the partial federal government shutdown dragging on, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye says Congress should exempt tribes from feeling the effects. Historically, treaties with the U.S. government have guaranteed the Navajo and many other tribes federal financial assistance for health, education and economic development. So the shutdown is having an outsized impact.

On the Navajo Nation, half of the tribe is unemployed. But at least 5,000 tribal members rely on paychecks from the federal government. Missing one, which happened for the first time on Friday, can have painful ripple effects. Community leader Angela Cody said one paycheck often has to feed the immediate family as well as the extended family.

"People are worried about their next mortgage payment, their car payments," Cody said. "At the family level there's a lot of stress, finance [sic] stress. As a whole we are dependent on these employees and federal monies every day in some way."

Even if they aren't getting paid, many have to work and so they rely on the federally-funded preschool program, Head Start, to care for their young kids.

As a whole we are dependent on these employees and federal monies every day in some way. - Angela Cody, Navajo community leader

But the tribe's Head Start program is already shrinking. They lost ten centers last year because there were no buses available to shuttle kids from across the rural reservation to classes.

Now, the program doesn't have the enrollment numbers it needs to stay open.

"I have 12 now," Head Start teacher Jensen said. "We're supposed to have 15. We can't seem to get enough children because of the distance."

Many federal offices across the Navajo Nation are closed because of the shutdown. The federal money Head Start relies on to run the program has been slow to arrive.

"We don't have enough cleaning supplies," Jensen said. "It's a long process to get those kinds of things and so a lot of times we're buying our own supplies to get the kids hands clean."

To make matters worse, unplowed roads made it near impossible for parents to drive their kids to Head Start since the shutdown began. During snowstorms in recent weeks, only half of the Bureau of Indian Affairs crews who help the tribe maintain the roads showed up to clear snow. And those who are working aren't getting paid.

There are 1,600 of paved roads and almost 6,000 miles of dirt roads on the Navajo Nation.

Head Start teacher Shanelle Yazzie said she could barely get to work.

"The only roads being plowed over the last two weeks were the main interstate," Yazzie said. "We don't really travel on that so. The only way you can get by was probably on a four by four and not many people have that out here."

If a dirt road isn't maintained during a snowstorm, a couple things can happen. The snow can melt and make the road impassable or the snow piles up. Either way you're stuck.

Navajo president Russell Begaye said many Navajo live without running water and electricity, so they have to haul water to drink and wood to stay warm. And they have to eat.

"Getting out to buy groceries, or maybe there's an emergency where they have to transport a family member to a hospital, maybe to refill their medication or to refill their oxygen tank — so it's a life or death situation in many instances," Begaye said.

Begaye said if the shutdown continues it's only going to get worse, as the National Weather Service predicts more snow next week.

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There's new focus on R. Kelly and accusations that he committed sexual abuse now that "Surviving R. Kelly," the Lifetime docuseries, has aired. Pop artists, including Lady Gaga and the band Phoenix, have apologized for their collaborations with Kelly and expressed support for his accusers.

But Robert Kelly still has defenders and fans, including leaders in the gospel music industry. Candice Benbow wrote about that allegiance on her website in a piece called "Supporting R. Kelly: When Gospel And Black Church Get It Wrong." She joins us now from member station WUOT in Knoxville, Tenn. Thanks so much for being with us.

CANDICE BENBOW: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: R. Kelly has a deep relationship with gospel music and the black church, doesn't he?

BENBOW: He does. So from "I Need An Angel," with "I Believe I Can Fly," writing for Whitney Houston with "I Look To You" - these are songs that are sung in our churches - recently working with Marvin Sapp. So he has a record and a history of creating songs that speak to black Christians in particular. And that reach has been one that has been both long-standing and has allowed him a certain kind of insulation from critique.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that insulation. Is it as simple as a lot of people are indebted to him for extraordinary work? Do they like him personally?

BENBOW: It's a both-and, right? So on one level, because you've written these monster hits for people, there's a way in which that power insulates you from critique, right? But in a larger sense, we have to look at the structure of our churches and the structure of our theologies.

There was a point when the only place that black men could find power and respect and refuge was in our black churches, right? So during the height of the civil rights movement, during Reconstruction, if you could not be in larger society where you were respected, you definitely could come to the church and be a leader in our communities and our congregations. And so that leadership became protected over and above caring for and protecting black women and girls.

And so even when - before we saw "Surviving R. Kelly," there were a number of allegations that, again, nobody touched in this particular community because it was easier for us to say, I'm going to pray for him, rather than say, I'm going to attack this head-on because if we attacked it head-on, we will have to talk about other issues that are similar that are happening in churches every day.

SIMON: You mentioned Marvin Sapp. And that 2017 album "Close" has a track that he worked on with R. Kelly. Marvin Sapp is a bishop - isn't he? - not just a recording artist.

BENBOW: He is. So - and that makes it even more dangerous, right? Because when people critiqued Marvin Sapp for not only doing the record but intentionally keeping the record on his album, he said, you know, I would rather pray for him rather than condemn him and then went on to make a broader statement that God has used flawed men in the Bible, citing Noah and Moses, to do great things and great work. And while that's true, there's a difference between Noah and Moses and a pedophile, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

BENBOW: So we have to be very clear that when we decide to cloak a lack of accountability in Godspeak, what does that signal for our broader congregations every single day?

SIMON: Can you listen to R. Kelly's music?

BENBOW: I would be hypocritical if I said that I wasn't listening to "I Believe I Can Fly" because I was, right? But I think that there comes a point, particularly as I grew as a feminist and had experienced friends telling me their own experiences, coming into honesty around my own experiences around sexual trauma and assault - it became important for me to reckon with the fact that if I am going to support R. Kelly by listening to him, then I am saying that these experiences do not matter. And I'm saying that black girls' and black women's voices don't matter. And I can't say that because then that means that my voice doesn't matter.

And so I think that we are in a moment where we have to draw the line in the sand. There are so many black girls and black women who have experienced violation who look to gospel music and who look to pastors to help them navigate these experiences. And if they can't hear their favorite gospel artists or their pastor say, this is wrong, and we have to address it, then we really have to think about, what is the true message of the church? And what is the true message of gospel music?

SIMON: Candice Benbow. Her piece appears on her website, candicebenbow.com. Thank you so much for being with us.

BENBOW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.