Itʼs a hardscrabble existence for many of the 175,000 Navajo who live on the 27,000 square miles of tribal lands that stretch across the borders of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The median household income hovers around $30,000 a year, and more than a quarter of homes have no electricity.
In early May, the coronavirus was spreading so fast that New Mexico blockaded roads in and out of Gallup, the picturesque town on the edge of the Navajo nation known as the “heart of Indian country.”
The pandemic followed a particularly tough winter for some families. In November, the Kayenta strip mine and the Navajo Generating Station it supplied, both on tribal lands, finished shutting down, eliminating 800 relatively high-paying jobs and a free source of coal used by many Navajo to heat their homes.
So now, the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. (NTEC) trucks coal around the reservation. Tribe members queue to get a load dumped into their pickups from a Bobcat dozer. “They’d love to have a good job and a gas furnace.
But it’s just not the reality,’’ says NTEC chairman Timothy McLaughlin, a 40-year-old attorney who grew up on the reservation and spent three and a half years as a federal environmental lawyer before turning to tribal law. It’s hard to worry about your carbon footprint, he adds, “when the alternative is freezing to death.”