Keeping the Tribal Dollar in our local communities while Honoring our Tribal Values
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
As a child growing up on the Navajo reservation at a placed called Big Mountain, I always looked forward to traveling to the Tonalea Trading Post. I remember that my great grandparents did also. We would motor down about thirty miles of dirt road passing through the juniper and pinyon trees that blanket the southern side of Big Mountain and into the prairie grass and corn fields of Tonalea. As we approached the store from a distance much activity could be seen. We would pass and greet people traveling on horseback, on foot, or in pick-up trucks journeying home from an exciting visit to the store. A small pond surrounded by grass was nearby where horses could drink and graze.
This particular trading post was designed in a way that invited people to gather and socialize and people could be seen cooking and picnicking under the cottonwood trees. I couldn’t wait to meet up with my cousins, devour several popsicles and candy, and play on the cottonwood trees and nearby rock cliffs. It was a place where my grandma would hear the latest gossip and the elders would talk about an upcoming ceremony, wedding, Kinaalda, or even a camp meeting. Folks would converse amiably and line-up help with planting, sheep shearing, or even building a hogan. Some would play cards in the shade as they joked with friends and relatives.
I still remember the awe I felt when I walked into the trading post -- the feel and smell of the wood floor and the sight of fine goods hanging from the ceiling of a store that was in essence “Navajo.” The store’s offerings met the basic needs of the area’s people and offered marketing opportunities for native artisans such as my great-grandmother who wove Navajo rugs. Many times, the trading post was the only option for her to earn money from this ancient art form. In addition, in-store pawn and credit were very useful services which, if not available, might have caused my family to go hungry many times.
Most trading posts were constructed using local technology and workers. Many were built by Navajos using stone and materials native to the area, which allowed construction costs to be kept very low. Not surprising, many of these buildings were also efficiently designed and landscaped, requiring minimal resources for cooling and heating.
In the 1970’s, a modern shopping center was built in Tuba City and initially many people flocked to it to sample the vast variety of goods for sale. Competition became keen and dollars started leaving the reservation when towns bordering Navajo and Hopi lands developed shopping centers as well. K-Mart set up shop in Flagstaff and suddenly a short drive to shop turned into an all-day trip. A few years later the Flagstaff Mall opened followed by the number-one attraction for Navajo shoppers, Wal-Mart, taking retail patrons even further off the reservation and into town. Similar development has occurred in Gallup, Farmington, Winslow, and most recently Page.
Due to many reasons, our Nation has been unable to respond well to border town competition. The obvious reasons are low land costs, tax rebates and other incentives put forth by municipalities, timely planning and zoning decisions regarding land use, availability of infrastructure, and vibrant stores with a variety of tenants offering the products and services needed and demanded by consumers.
The primary reason for our problem is that we did not recognize and acknowledge the increased competition, and therefore did not counter with our own competitive strategies. Instead, we got comfortable with our shopping centers and sat on our accomplishments.
It is sad to see that few of the values once so celebrated in the Tonalea Trading Post are visible within our current shopping centers. I can only imagine what it would be like to travel to one of our centers with my great-grandmother today. Where would we rest before our long drive home? What would we do if we showed up with a rug or needed credit? Where would children play? Where could we sit and visit with friends and relatives? Obviously, we have missed something very basic in our attempts to assimilate our culture into the modern world.
The need to aggressively respond with our own competitive strategy is paramount. The state of the economies of the Navajo and Hopi is alarming: Unemployment rates over 40%; too much dependence on coal mining revenues; and leakage of 71+% of retail revenues and 93% of tourism revenues off reservation. According to past quantitative research conducted by the Navajo Nation Shopping Centers, there is $1.2 billion of total personal income earned within the Navajo Nation. Of this, only $348 million is spent on the reservation while $880 million or 71% is spent off the reservation. This results in an incredible loss of job and business opportunities, decreases local tax revenues, limits resources for local schools and offices, and diminishes the quality of life for our families and friends.
I think the Chapters and Villages have some of the tools needed to be competitive – the most important being proximity to the market. We can start with informal surveys – simply asking our children and young adults what their shopping preferences are. We’ll most likely learn they want places to play, meet up with friends, enjoy an ice-cream, watch a movie, purchase the latest apparel, buy cell phones, cds and dvds, or enjoy a latté. The foundation of our society, the elders, still value the old traditions and the things that made the Tonalea Trading Post a gathering place for all ages. Adults want a good shopping mix combined with a nice place to enjoy a relaxing dinner while perhaps watching a football game on a big screen -- all while the children play. Our visitors want to experience the local culture and need information about the history of the places that they are visiting.
Our Chapters and Villages, empowered with some highly useful governance tools, can be partners in building and expanding retail opportunities. Meeting the needs of the Navajo and Hopi consumer will require a large investment. For example, I estimate it will take over $4 million to expand, upgrade, and create an truly attractive retail and service mix for just one center such as Tuba City Shopping Center. It will take an additional $500,000 per year to keep it fresh and ahead of the competition.
To secure this level of financing, Chapters, Villages, and businesses need to be highly creative and flexible. Local Governance Act Chapters have the ability to create revenue and enter into business ownership ventures. Those Chapters should consider creating a business entity that can joint-venture with developers. These kinds of ventures not only provide jobs and tribal revenue from profits from the businesses but also create additional revenue for the Chapter governments from sales taxes. Other options that should be considered include: creation of a special tax district for the center; secure financing by pledging a fixed percentage of the newly generated tax revenue to service loan obligations; and ensuring the development of a high quality center. There are likely many other strategies that can be identified through collaboration between tribal governments, enterprises and developers, and Chapters and Villages.
I ask the people and leadership of both Tribes – isn’t it time we end our dependence on coal mines and power plants as our economic engine? Let’s sit down with our retail centers, village and chapter leaders, and develop a mutually beneficial strategy. If we don’t our future will be forever locked in the present.
To honor our past, we must find ways to integrate our values into modern shopping gallerias. It can be as simple as incorporating landscaping with a picnic area or a safe playground with grass and a sheltering cottonwood tree. We can also incorporate architectural features such as shade ramadas, traditional garden, a hogan or pueblo visitor center, an amphitheater, or a vendor village. My expectation is the students in local schools would jump at the opportunity to help design and maintain these community spaces. They will create local pride and a place for respite.
Our culture also values mother earth and father sky. Thus, it makes business sense to utilize energy efficient design and renewable energy technologies including solar and wind power. “Green businesses” -- as they are known – are increasingly attractive to both native consumers and tourists.
There are many great ideas to be explored. Making this vision a reality will require assistance and support from the local Chapter and Village governments, business owners, consumers, and tribal agencies, and a renewed entrepreneurial spirit from our people. Working together we can make it happen