Tribe, NM help Navajos obtain birth certificates

Officials say collaboration helps many older Navajos finally have official documentation to prove they were born in New Mexico

Noel Lyn Smith
  • A number of Navajos do not have birth certificates because they were delivered at home, often by a relative.
  • Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage requested the tribe and state work together to help Navajos obtain delayed birth certificates.
  • This marks the second time the tribe and state officers have worked together to address the issue.
  • Nowadays, medical staff at hospitals enter birth information into the state's electronic system to issue a birth certificate.
Nancy Joe hugs her mother, Bessie Paul, after Paul completed her paperwork for a birth certificate Thursday at the Northern Navajo Agency Nataani Nez Complex in Shiprock.

SHIPROCK, N.M. — After spending years navigating the process to obtain a birth certificate in New Mexico, Betty Largo's efforts came to fruition today, thanks to a collaboration between tribal and state vital records offices.

"Finally, I got it," Largo said. She received the delayed birth certificate from the New Mexico Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics after paying an application fee and submitting the necessary documentation to prove she was born 67 years ago near Albuquerque.

Largo is part of a group of Navajos who do not have a birth certificate because they were born at home, which was a common practice before hospitals were established on the reservation.

Largo traveled from Blanding, Utah, to attend the event at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Shiprock because she needed the birth certificate to apply for a driver's license.

She worked with personnel from the state Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics and the Navajo Nation Office of Vital Records to complete the process and will receive her certificate within a week.

The effort was spearheaded by New Mexico Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, who requested the two offices work together to help tribal members obtain delayed birth certificates.

"There were a number of constituents who were having difficulty acquiring birth certificates, and they go to Santa Fe, only having to return numerous times because they didn't have the right documents," Clahchischilliage said.

Shenika Sam, left, and Myron Ben fill out paperwork for their son, Mikaiya Ben, for his birth certificate Thursday at the Northern Navajo Agency Nataani Nez Complex in Shiprock.

Due to the high number of people seeking certificates, many of whom had difficulty covering travel expenses, the state lawmaker said it was beneficial to hold the event in Shiprock.

Nancy Joe, a vital statistics technician for the tribe's vital records office in Shiprock, said the collaboration also reduced correspondence time between the two entities.

"We never get to work together side by side, and Sharon (Clahchischilliage) made it possible for us to work side by side and coordinate our office information and coordinate their documentation requests," Joe said.

Many older Navajos face challenges in proving their birth date and birth location, especially those born before the 1950s because of the likelihood they were delivered by a family member, she said.

"A lot of those elders are gone, so they can't provide ... documentation of any sort," Joe said.

The state recognizes that issue and allows individuals to submit documentation such as church records, elementary school enrollment, military service or discharge records, or medical records that show the person's date of birth and parents' names.

Mark Kassouf, bureau chief for the state's vital records and health statistics, said in a telephone interview that the number of people born at home in the early 20th century was high in rural areas and among tribes.

Today, when a child is born in a hospital, medical personnel are responsible for entering the birth information into the state's electronic system, which results in a birth certificate being issued, Kassouf said.

State of New Mexico Registrar Renee Valencia and State of New Mexico Quality Assurance Coordinator George Dominguez look over paperwork for birth certificates for Thomas Dobey, left, and Bessie Paul, right, on Thursday at the Northern Navajo Agency Nataani Nez Complex in Shiprock.

He added the information submitted at today's event will be reviewed by department personnel, who will copy the information, then create a new record of birth. Since these are delayed birth certificates, the record will show the date the information was entered, rather than a date of birth, Kassouf said.

Those who paid a $10 registration fee and a $10 fee to receive a certified copy will receive a certificate and their submitted documents within a week, he said.

Kassouf said this is the second time the offices have worked together on this issue. An earlier event was held on Aug. 23, and he remembered an 85-year-old Navajo woman who cried because she was receiving her first birth certificate.

"It was so heartwarming and really, really neat. …That's something they can hold onto, and it recognizes them for being born in New Mexico," he said.

Joe, the tribe’s vital statistics technician, reiterated that sentiment.

"When you see an elder that's 60, 70, 80 years old coming back in with that birth certificate, you see the big smile on their faces," she said.

As of 2 p.m. today, 15 people had applied for certificates, including Nenahnezad Chapter resident Thomas Dobey.

Dobey, 58, never thought about applying for a certificate, but changed his mind after regulations became tighter to apply for driver's licenses and passports.

"Being born at home, it's like you don't exist," he said.

Fortunately, he was told by his late mother that he was born on family land near Navajo Mine, and he was 1 year old when he first visited a hospital.

Dobey used that information to prove his birth date and location. He also submitted copies of his Certificate of Indian Blood, hospital records and voter registration.

"It's an accomplishment. I will have this document to show proof, if I'm asked for it again. It gives you a good feeling of self-identity about where you're from," he said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.