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Life without electricity is an ordinary Navajo Nation struggle. Some homes are finally getting power

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Herds of free-range sheep dash around a remote home site in the sparsely-populated Navajo town of Cornfields — a little more than 60 miles east of Gallup, New Mexico — as a team of Salt River Project, or SRP, employees tried to electrify a dark green home on this windy April day.

“Livestock, dogs, horses, cows, you name it,” said SRP working foreman Marc Sienicki. “You run into everything.”

He was overseeing a volunteer crew of diggers and lineworkers. This month, the Tempe-based nonprofit utility company, providing power to more than 2 million residents in central Arizona, sent two of their teams to the largest reservation in all of Indian Country.

They’re one of dozens scheduled to travel between now and July to donate their time and talents to the fourth annual Light Up Navajo mutual aid project. More than 250 volunteers from 41 utilities across 16 states are expected to visit and support families on the Navajo Nation these next several months.

“It’s just nice to come up here and help some people out. It’s hard to believe people are still out of power,” added Sienicki. “The joy I get is seeing their face when they turn that light switch. That’s why I’m here.”

But life without power is an ordinary struggle on the Navajo Nation, with up to 13,000 households disconnected from the grid.

So the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, or NTUA, partnered with the American Public Power Association five years ago to launch Light Up Navajo, originally modeled after mutual aid projects.

Light Up Navajo is unlike any other form of mutual aid since they’re often associated with offering relief following natural disasters. Whereas this sustained effort is solely focused on solving a widespread power problem.

Sienicki participated in every Light Up Navajo since 2019. Only 26 utility companies, including SRP, came to the Navajo Nation that inaugural year. Now, that number almost doubled by 2024.

But this spring, Sienicki and his crew spent two weeks living and working on the Navajo Nation before recently returning to the luxuries of the Valley.

“We’re out of power in the Valley for an hour and people are calling. These people have been out of power their whole lives, and they’re just happy to get it,” Sienicki explained. “That’s what we do, and we enjoy doing it, so as long as there’s people out of power, we’ll come up here.”

It was Jerome Shirley’s lucky day after seven long years.

He grew up without any power in Cornfields, whose population tallies less than 300 residents, and now, his green-roofed home is about to get hooked up. Even with electricity, his property is still a work-in-progress, with no TV, furniture or refrigerator yet.

All Shirley had is a dream to one-day create a welcoming space suitable for his children to stay following his difficult divorce, a stretch of homelessness and his retirement from a career in truck driving.

The wait to finally flip the switch, and in turn, bring hope for that brighter future was over as Shirley flickered a light bulb on and off for the first time.

“I’m glad this is hooked up. I’m not gonna stop here, I’m gonna branch and build off this, so I can do the things that I need to do,” said Shirley. “I wanna be able to bring my kids back out here, and make something of it.”

Another five miles away is Jerry Chee, who grew up in the neighboring community of Ganado, unmistakably renowned for its bold red-hued rugs.

“My mother was one of the master weavers,” said Chee. “There’s 12 of us out of the family, and I’m the only person that relearned.”

Chee sat inside his cozy modular home while the Window Rock-based, Navajo-language radio station KTNN was turned on, next to a hand-made metal loom with an intricate, partially finished pattern with grey, black and white yarns.

Without a steady light source, it’s virtually impossible to weave.

“The only thing I do at night is I sit there and spin the yarn,” added Chee, but now, “I’m gonna have to find me a lamp stand or something, you know, so that I can do this.”

Chee also remembered a childhood without power.

“We didn’t have electricity, so we had to use kerosene,” Chee said, “until about ninth grade. That’s when I went to Tuba City, and that’s where electricity, running water were all introduced.”

He later lived in Phoenix for four decades, but Chee recently decided to retire in Ganado.

This same home belonged to one of his sisters in Flagstaff, before she passed away. Chee then paid $7,000 to haul it more than 150 miles and park it next to another relative in 2022, and waited for electricity ever since.

Buying groceries had been a daily burden for Chee, who stored what little he could inside ice chests, while cooking indoors with a propane stove placed atop the unused burners of an electric oven.

Despite owning a solar panel, it doesn’t generate enough energy for all of his needs. Two years passed until he got his own power.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Chee. “Oh, my God, I’m happy. Oh, my God. All my worries are gone. I don’t have to worry about the solar anymore when it’s cloudy. I’m excited.”

But another 13,000 households are still waiting in the dark, and the financial future of Light Up Navajo remains uncertain, according to NTUA general manager Walter Haase.

Recently, President Joe Biden’s Tribal Electrification Program earmarked $10 million for NTUA in March.

“I feel we’ve got a little bit of breathing room,” said Haase. “That will help stretch those dollars out further.”

Haase also shared that it costs them up to $50,000 to wire and connect a home on the Navajo Nation, but COVID-19 dramatically changed the cost of materials and those calculations.

“We used to say a billion dollars for 18,000 homes,” Haase said. “We’re at $1 billion for 13,000 homes.”

Almost 40% of Navajo household incomes are below the federal poverty threshold, so affording the wiring and connections on their own is simply out of reach.

Without Light Up Navajo, estimates indicate that it would take half a century to electrify all homes across the sprawling reservation’s 27,000 square miles that extends into Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

At least 500 families are getting power between Light Up Navajo and NTUA annually. Their goal is to double it.

“A thousand families a year,” said Haase, “and that will get us to 15 to 18 years. Still a long way from where we should be, you know, in the United States today, but a heck of a lot better than 50 years, right?”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.