Coming home to Navajo Nation
Originally published October 15, 2013
Two NTUA electric line men providing general maintenance in the northwestern part of the 27,000 square mile Navajo Nation. Photos courtesy of NTUA.
A cultural shift is happening in Navajo Nation, a transition back toward what its residents call the “old ways.” While the culture is turning to its roots, it is the technology made possible by electricity from a public power utility that some Navajos believe is bringing the young generation back to their traditional homelands.
“We are tied to the land here and that is the very essence of our culture. This has always been the belief of our people,” said Deenise Becenti, public affairs director for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. “As a utility we now have an incredible mission—it’s one that is bringing families back together. Once they have utilities available, the younger generation is more apt to move back home. It keeps our culture, traditions, and beliefs strong and moving forward.”
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority covers 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah—a territory roughly the size of West Virginia, Becenti said. The authority is separated into seven districts, which Becenti said, run like municipalities to address the needs of Navajos in each given region. The utility was established in the 1950s through the nation’s tribal leaders.
Before the tribe established its own utility, the Bureau of Indian Affairs operated small coal plants throughout reservation territory, said Walter Wolf Jr., counsel to NTUA for 54 years. Wolf helped the Navajo Nation negotiate a contract with Arizona Public Service to build a coal plant on tribal land. Through the negotiations, Navajo Nation secured a power supply agreement, Wolf said, and later took over the Bureau’s operation. “That was the start of NTUA,” Wolf said. “Now we have almost 40,000 customers and we cover pretty much the whole reservation.”
It wasn’t until 1965 that Navajo Nation became concerned enough about where the utility’s money was going to turn it into a business, Wolf said. “So we created an enterprise and decided that this would have to be a self-governed, self-financed operation,” he said.
The biggest problem for the utility in building its business was lack of experience, Wolf said. Navajo Nation had little access to education. The utility had no access to business personnel with experience, Wolf said. But now, more than 95 percent of the utility’s employees are of Navajo descent, he sad. “And we’re doing fine. We’re [a Reliable Public Power Provider] utility. I think we’ve come a long way and I’ve been proud to be part of it.”
Unique challenges, opportunities
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority came under the management of Walter Haase five years ago. Since then, Becenti said, he has kicked the utility into high gear.
“Since Walter Haase arrived, the atmosphere here changed. It became one of significant progress. He gave this enterprise a huge jump start. We’ve been very busy for the last five years,” Becenti said. “When we hear our customers saying ‘Ah’ee’ee’ (the Navajo word for gratitude), it’s a great to hear because then we know we’ve done our job.”
Haase, originally from Chicago with utility management experience in Illinois, New York and North Carolina, said NTUA was a whole new world and, upon his arrival, he wasn’t sure how business would run smoothly. With a low customer density, Haase said, it is difficult to recover costs and with little industry within the reservation, it is hard to have a rate class subsidized.
“It definitely was a unique challenge,” Haase said. “It’s a whole different setting, different environment.”
But Haase also sees the unique opportunities within Navajo Nation and is harnessing them to make the utility thrive. There are tremendous resources available within the tribal boundaries, he said. “That gives you lots of different opportunities to grow the business and to help raise the standard of living of the people you serve.”
Haase’s goals go beyond simply running a successful utility business. It is his goal to strengthen some of the Navajo Nation’s core businesses as well, and provide more services and employment on the reservation.
“We actually try to create jobs; most utilities don’t,” Haase said. “We’re creating brand new products and that’s important because there’s such a high unemployment rate. The average Navajo person supports eight people. We have about 100 to 150 apprentices at any given time. We train our own workforce in all the disciplines.”
NTUA Electric Journeymen Jessbert James (right) and Bruce Todecheenee spent one afternoon at the Shonto school to talk about their jobs and provide safety tips to elementary students.
Serving the community
A job at NTUA is a good one to have. Flora Paddock knew that when she was in grade school. Paddock has been with NTUA for more than 20 years and now works as an electric utility planner after starting as a cashier.
Paddock went to school in the Dilkon district of Navajo Nation. When she was in middle school, NTUA set up a booth at a job fair at her school.
“I’ll always remember when our class showed up and I saw NTUA and I saw the NTUA logo and they were wearing these [badges],” she said. “No one else mattered and I just watched them and thought it was really, really cool. Years later I just happened to apply with them.”
Paddock said just the fact that NTUA was located in her community made her want a job with the utility. Many of the residents in her community commute as far as Flagstaff, more than an hour-long drive, for work. And since getting hired at NTUA, Paddock as built a deeper relationship with her community.
“Ever since I was hired, it’s been a learning experience,” she said. “Being a cashier was probably the most challenging for me. My Navajo speaking skills were probably, on a scale of 1-10, at a 3. I was really afraid of that. I would go home every night and my husband would help me and also my mom on the weekends. I learned a lot through that.”
Her husband, James Paddock, also works for NTUA and has for nearly 12 years. James Paddock came to NTUA after a career with the professional rodeo. He’d had home construction experience and began doing linework as a temp with NTUA in 2001. He learned from the experience that he wanted to be a lineman, he said. He’s now a journeyman for NTUA.
“What I did in the rodeo was bull riding—one of the most dangerous sports in America, I guess,” he said. “Then I became a lineman, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. I guess I always live on the edge—I guess that’s what I like.”
But it is interacting with his community that James Paddock likes the most about being a journeyman for NTUA. Since he is fluent in the Navajo language, it is easy for him to explain the work he’s doing to community elders. His wife said many elders in the community really appreciate his work.
“Sometimes when they build a brand new line, they’re out there for two or three days getting that line built,” Flora Paddock said. “Some of those customers will go all out and feed them. Out here, when it’s appreciation from the heart, they butcher a sheep for them and they feast. It’s very rare, but it does happen.”
James and Flora Paddock work in the Dilkon district of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Photo by Laura D'Alessandro.
Bringing it home
Some Navajos, however, do not want electricity. Haase said some families prefer their traditional dwellings, called Hogans, not be wired for electricity. Flora Paddock and Vircynthia Charley say these families do not want to completely leave the “old ways” behind, whereby generations before managed without electricity. But at the same time, they say there are many more who see the utility’s services as a way to keep the old ways alive.
Charley started in NTUA’s apprentice program in 1996. After becoming the utility’s first female electrician, Charley, a journeyman, now manages a district. She’s had the privilege of interacting with NTUA customers at nearly every level of the utility’s business.
Charley said some Navajos have been waiting 22 years for the most recent electric hook-up. Once they have that electricity, their grandchildren might move back to the reservation. Charley herself moved near her grandmother when she returned back to the reservation.
“You learn about the land, learn about where you came from, and learn to identify yourself,” Charley said. “It is harder for us to revert back to our traditions but the grandparents, they want you to excel but not to leave them behind. I’ve seen the community continue to grow and advance. The challenge is now we’re going to grow out of some things, but how do we keep other pieces of our tradition alive.”
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