Hope for Native America

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Some of the poorest areas in the United States are found on Native American reservations. You may be wondering why, especially when many tribes have large casinos for revenue.

CBN News looked into that issue, to find out what is being done to help American Indians break free from poverty.

The scene resembles what you might see in a third world country. A Navajo couple huddles together on a mattress outside a makeshift home, surrounded by old furniture and a landscape filled with dirt and rocks.

Click the player to see the report from CBN News Reporter Mark Martin followed by comments from Pat Robertson.

"We don't have a lot of things, for instance, adequate housing, adequate running water, electricity," said Kelsey Begaye, the former president of the Navajo Nation.

Begaye knows that all too well. He has lived on the reservation his entire life.

Lots of Land, Yet Few Jobs

Navajoland encompasses more than 27-thousand square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It's about the size of the state of West Virginia. Unfortunately, employment opportunities don't match the nation's size or its population of more than 310,000. Jobs are hard to come by in this remote area.

"We don't attract the business people to come on," Begaye said.

Like Native American reservations across the country, the Navajo Nation also battles intense poverty. The unemployment rate is around 50 percent. Will a new casino help? That depends on who you ask.

Casinos a Quick Fix?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about one of every four Native Americans lives below the poverty level. After years of resisting, over concerns of alcohol and gambling addictions, the Navajo Nation built its first casino late last year, with the hopes of turning its economy around.

"Casinos denote, for one thing, jobs," said Joe Shirley, Jr., the current president of the Navajo Nation.

Shirley says the new Fire Rock Casino now employs more than three hundred people. He hopes it will ignite a financial explosion for the tribe. He says the new casino is expected to generate $32 million a year for the Navajo Nation. That's about one-fifth of the tribe's annual budget.

Billions Made, Poverty Remains

Still, in spite of the billions generated from casinos nationwide, poverty is rampant on many reservations, so is the money really going to where it needs to go?

"That revenue is not spread evenly over tribes, certainly, and even amongst gaming tribes," explained Jerry Gidner, the director of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. "A lot of them, the ones in more remote areas, they may have a casino, but it's not bringing in the kind of money that you would have, if you were a big east coast casino."

Take for instance, a casino on the remote Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. It's found in the poorest county in the country.

But geography isn't the only concern. In some cases, there are allegations of casino mismanagement.

"We do hear occasionally, and I'm sure the Gaming Commission does, of complaints that tribes are not spending the money, according to that plan," said Gidner.

"A lot of times when people begin making a lot of money, greed sets in, and they lose focus of what the money is actually supposed to be used for," Begaye said.

When Kelsey Begaye was president of the Navajo Nation, he opposed casinos. He's now a supervisor at a treatment center for people addicted to alcohol and drugs and is concerned casinos can foster addictions as well as crime. Begaye believes there's another way to generate revenue.

"I really felt that we would be much better off if we could invest in our small business outlets, and help them stabilize their businesses," Begaye said.

Seeking Alternative Measures

The federal government is also looking at other ways to boost the finances of tribes. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently announced as part of the economic stimulus plan, two billion dollars to create jobs and develop economies in Indian country. The money is to be used for housing and health services, along with repairing and building schools and roads.

"If you don't have good transportation in or out of a reservation, the economic possibilities there are just going to be limited," Gidner said.

The Need for Quality Education

In the quest to help Native Americans escape a life of poverty, many are looking to the next generation, emphasizing the need for a quality education.

"We were given a very specific mission to educate students so that they can go to college, become contributing members of their communities," said Betty Ojaye, the Executive Director of the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico.

"I graduate next year," said Navajo Prep Junior Consuelo Gurule. She is all smiles, thinking about her future. Gurule plans to go to college to become a veterinarian.

Fellow student Delshayne John wants to study architectural design. "My whole family's into architecture, and it's just kind of rubbed off," John said.

After graduating from Navajo Prep School, Senior Kendrick Jackson wants to major in civil engineering and use those skills to help his family on the reservation.

"They're so out there, and it's like dead, and it's remote," said Jackson. "What I would want to do is help them like start building a community."

Making Room for God

"God is raising some good leaders here among our people," said Gerri Begay.

Begay and her husband, Joe, co-pastor Grace Fellowship Community Church on the Navajo Reservation. They believe a heart change is necessary for true prosperity to take place among their people.

"Jesus came and changed my life," Pastor Joe Begay explained. "I was an alcoholic for 18 years, and now the LORD just opened my eyes to see a lot of things that we could help with the people."

"Jesus can make a difference in a person's life, and that's the greatest hope that I have for my tribe," Pastor Gerri Begay emphasized.

The president of Navajo Ministries, Jim Baker, agrees. The organization has been reaching out to the Navajo people for 56 years.

"Really, the only hope is through Jesus Christ," said Baker. "You just can't find it in a casino, or you can't find it in other things of this world has to offer."

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley knows the road ahead is tough, and he's asking for prayer.

"They need to be praying for us, not only for us, but for Native America," he said.

*Original broadcast March 17, 2009.

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CBN News
Mark Martin

Mark Martin

CBN News Reporter

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