Navajo Reservation Offers Insights Into Poverty

Markus Creachbaum, a member of John Carroll University’s Class of 2015, explored his interest in poverty alleviation as an intern with St. Anne’s Mission on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona as part of the 2013 Shepherd Internship Program.

Each day I wake to the sounds of horses nuzzling a dry wheel barrel. I get out of bed, pull on a sweatshirt, and walk outside into the cool, refreshing desert air. First, I fill the wheel barrel with water for a dozen horses that are feeling the effects of a night without water. While filling the wheel barrel I look out over the desert landscape where I can see nothing but faded-green sagebrush and brown dirt for miles, the effect of a decades-long drought. Soon after, I walk to the hogan, a traditional Navajo home with the door facing east, where I eat my meals with Theresa (the other Shepherd intern), Brother Charles, and Sister Monica. Following breakfast, my day begins where each day brings something new. This is St. Anne’s Mission, located in Klagetoh, AZ, on the Navajo Reservation.

St. Anne’s is a Catholic mission operated by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and founded in 1927 by the Franciscans. The Mission has worked with and for the Navajo people since its beginning, serving them through different programs, like AA for the many Navajo who suffer from alcoholism, and direct service projects. Annually, different mission groups come from across the country to live with the Diné, meaning the people in Navajo, for a week. During the week, groups run Bible camps for the children and work with residents in renovating their homes, which includes anything from painting an entire house to building a brand new one. As an intern for the Mission, my job was to assist each of the groups that visited with its projects. While there I helped to organize two weeklong Bible camps, painted an entire house, re-roofed a house, finished an addition that was built off-kilter and had leaky roof, and taught eight kids how to swim. It was a busy summer to say the least. What I found most interesting about my summer experience was the deep-seated poverty that plagues most of the Navajo Reservation.

From the moment I stepped foot on the reservation, I knew I would leave a different person. I entered a world so different from the one I knew at home. The most obvious difference was the terrain, but it was more than that. Over the course of eight weeks, I visited family homes that had a series of bunk beds in one room and a small kitchen in the next. Some homes lacked basic necessities like electricity and running water. As I walked along the dirt roads, the ground was littered with broken liquor bottles and remnants of beer cases. On the surface, these were all indications of the poverty the Navajo face but looking deeper there were many other indications of poverty. Where I lived, the closest grocery store was 45 minutes away; the closest major hospital was over an hour away in Gallup, NM. Further, on the reservation there was a breakdown of the family. The Navajo have a matriarchal culture, but the men are still expected to provide for their families. A huge shortage of jobs is why many of the men become idle. This idleness often turns into alcoholism and other addictions in order to fill the gap in their lives. Of the men who provide for their family, most work off the reservation and only come home on the weekends because they travel hundreds of miles just to get to work. As a result of the job shortage, many Navajo rely solely on their craftsmanship, such as rugs or beadwork, as a source of income. Lastly, there is a huge lack of local resources for the people. Every government resource is located in the capital, Window Rock, which is a great distance away. The only places that provide direct resources are the missions run by different religious organizations. All of this explains why poverty festers on the reservation.

Within the borders of the “greatest country” in the world, people are living in what many would consider third-world living conditions; yet many choose to ignore it. This is contrary to what was promised 50 years ago when Lyndon B. Johnson made a war on poverty. Since then the gap between the poor and the rich has grown exponentially. We currently live in a self-centered society, where everyone is taught to fend for themselves. In what I have seen and experienced, the first way to alleviate poverty is to live in solidarity. This idea of solidarity is often seen in the religious perspective, but it is more than that; it is about recognizing our shared humanity. Although the government has the monetary means to solve a lot of the systemic issues in our society, it is not enough to finish the war on poverty. In the words of Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., we must let “the gritty reality of this world into [our] lives” in order to live in solidarity. With solidarity will come understanding, and with understanding will come generosity and the end of poverty.

As I reflect on my time in poverty, I realize I experienced a lot of firsts. It was the first time I actually experienced poverty on a daily basis. It was the first time I felt like a minority. I realized this when we visited Wal-Mart. I had been so use to seeing people who looked more like me, but this was not the case. At first it made me feel uncomfortable, but I learned how to adapt. Finally, it was the first time I realized that those who have so little in the world are often the most generous. I witnessed this firsthand when Jayce, a young Navajo who became a first generation college student this past fall, gave half of his earnings from working at the mission to his two younger cousins, who are growing up without a father. The other half of his earnings went to putting concrete down in his family’s house, which has had a dirt floor for the last six years. Jayce could have used that money for school or to enter an approaching basketball tournament, but he decided to give it to others. This act of his has left a deep impression on me.

In my last days on the reservation, I felt so much love from everyone I met, whether it was through gifts, a home-cooked traditional Navajo dinner, a long hug from my Navajo grandmothers, or the tears we all shed. This opportunity not only impacted my life in many ways, but it also confirmed the type of population I want to work with as a physician’s assistant (PA). While many feel uncomfortable with the poor and marginalized, I feel the most at home with this group. Now more than ever, the poor are dying from the world’s most curable diseases and I hope that as PA, I can help alleviate this injustice. Klagetoh, AZ, and the Navajo people will always have a special place in my heart, and I will carry them with me through my job, my family, and the rest of my life.