Meeting addresses difficulties for Navajo businesses

Leigh Black Irvin
Aztec resident Leroy Nelson, front, attends a meeting on Saturday organized by the Dineh Chamber of Commerce at the San Juan College Quality Center for Business.

FARMINGTON — People who want to own a business on the Navajo Nation face many hurdles, according to officials with the Dineh Chamber of Commerce.

"There’s very little private sector development, although we have vast reserves of scenic beauty, including Glen Canyon, Shiprock and Canyon de Chelly. There aren’t restaurants, hotels and other conveniences," said Jeff Begay, chairman of the chamber, before the group's meeting today at the San Juan College Quality Center for Business. "There are very few success stories about business people on the reservation."

Begay owned a construction-related business on the reservation and now works as a consultant for Navajo businesses. He says the lack of private sector development on the reservation stems from too little support from the tribe's government.

"What we need is a nation of leaders that advocate development for small businesses. Everyone has to be of a like mind on this," he said. "And we also need money to help businesses. There are no financing programs, although (the Navajo Nation) has billions of dollars tied up in stocks and bonds. There’s no money invested in helping build the economy. They should provide a mechanism to make it happen."

Al Henderson, secretary and treasurer of the Dineh Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a meeting Saturday at the San Juan College Quality Center for Business.

During today's meeting, Al Henderson, the chamber's secretary and treasurer, presented a YouTube video featuring Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design. Fleming, who is half Navajo, spoke about why it is difficult for private sector commerce to flourish on the Navajo Nation.

"Navajos are not good candidates for a business loan, because all of the property is tied up in a government trust,” she said in the video. "There are no paved roads, only 40 percent of those on the reservation have phones, less than 10 percent have access to broadband internet in their homes. This is why you see booths and stands outside of events — there are few real businesses."

After the video, Henderson discussed the purpose of the Dineh Chamber of Commerce, explaining the group promotes business, commerce and economic development on the Navajo Nation.

The group meets several times a year at various locations, including Gallup, Farmington and sites on the reservation, to help businesses with marketing, promotion, referrals and business plans.

Henderson echoed what Fleming said in the video, adding that many would-be business owners do not want to deal with the tribal government to start a business.

"The rain is not dropping hard enough on the reservation. Our leaders have said they want to bring our young people back, but our environment is not conducive to that," he said. "A lot of entrepreneurs are discouraged and aren’t doing what they’re trained to do. We want to become your voice and help build up the private sector economy. And we want to take the young people under our wings."

Business owners attend a meeting of the Dineh Chamber of Commerce on Saturday at the San Juan College Quality Center for Business.

Justin Jones, an attorney and expert in issues like Navajo preference laws, also spoke to the group. He said recent legislation has impeded private sector business on the reservation, in some cases making it difficult for smaller Navajo-owned businesses to compete.

"We have a problem here, and if we do nothing about it, a lot of small businesses will be dissolved," he said.

Jones also said several provisions to promote Navajo self-sufficiency, such as those in the Navajo Bill of Rights, have not been honored. In some cases, he said, non-Navajo firms have been chosen for projects on the reservation over Navajo ones.

"The government cannot prohibit an individual Navajo from economic self-sufficiency. This is a civil right, just as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are," he said.

Carmen Martinez, director of San Juan College’s Small Business Development Center, said many Navajo residents who participate in her program seek help establishing businesses.

"It is a challenge," she said. "We find a lot of people have issues with land leases on the reservation. It’s hard for them to get financing because they have to have a lease on the (reservation) land, but the tribe owns the land. So a lot have decided to do business off the reservation, and that’s too bad. But they’ve become successful business owners anyway."

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.