WASHINGTON – Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren appeared before Congress on Wednesday to seek full appropriations on seven federally-funded Navajo programs in the amount of billions of dollars.
President Nygren was among the first of 17 tribal presidents, chiefs, governors and organization representatives to speak on the first of two days of oral testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.
“We request that this subcommittee, in acknowledgement of its trust responsibility, continue providing meaningful increases,” President Nygren reported in his written testimony submitted last week.
This was an opportunity for leaders throughout Indian Country to submit their federal appropriation requests for Fiscal Year 2024. Most of the funding requests were to address historic federal underfunding of unmet needs in housing, health care and public safety.
Each of the leaders who spoke Wednesday morning recommended increases to programs.
The president focused on health care, public safety, protection of children, housing, abandoned uranium mine clean-up, completion of the 60-year-old Navajo Indian Irrigation Project and continued services through the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation.
To begin, he asked that the subcommittee support permanent advance appropriations for both the Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs in the annual funding process.
The president cited historically limited Indian health care funding as directly connecting to high mortality rates among Navajo people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On public safety and the severe shortage of police officers and fire fighters, he said emergency calls are often delayed primarily because of huge distances responders must travel between Navajo communities. To address this, he said an increase of $26 million is required.
“The Navajo Nation’s Indian Child Welfare Act Program is critical to our ability to protect Navajo children and the future of the Navajo people,” he said.
The Navajo ICWA program has only 15 staff members who coordinate and collaborate with programs in 24 states, he said. Right now, the program has 354 active cases that involve 655 Navajo children. Its funding is less than $1.6 million annually.
The president said to function as it should, the Nation requests an increase to $5 million annually.
Housing is a critical issue across the Navajo Nation and is one of President Nygren’s highest priorities. He told the subcommittee the Nation needed $23 million for the BIA’s Housing Improvement Program.
This is critical, he said, because the BIA housing program provides much-needed resources to people residing throughout Navajo and Indian Country who cannot meet HUD’s excessive program income thresholds.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, more than half of the 523 abandoned uranium mine sites on the Navajo Nation severely lack federal funding for clean-up and monitoring. It is an environmental problem that was created by the federal government during the Cold War era.
“These sites subject our people to substantial ongoing cancer and other health risks,” President Nygren said. “Approximately $5 billion is needed to address clean-up at these sites.
In 1962, Congress approved the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, or NIIP, to improve Navajo economic conditions and encourage agricultural settlement for Navajo farmers. NIIP remains unfinished because of lack of federal funding for the past 60 years.
The project is supposed to build irrigation facilities that transport water from the Navajo Dam and reservoir to Navajo farms.
According to a 1998 report by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, “the project also served to partially fulfill promises the government had made to them in a treaty signed almost 100 years earlier in 1868. The project exemplifies many of the problems and benefits associated with Indian water rights within the purpose and function of the Reclamation Act of 1902.”
It reports NIIP’s implementation “is often criticized for poor planning, little or sporadic funding, lack of support, and an arduously slow construction process.”
President Nygren told the subcommittee that the Navajo Nation agreed to exchange water, which it has, for a federal promise to build NIIP.
“However, approximately 35,000 acres of the promised farmland remains undeveloped,” he said. “The Navajo Nation asks that the federal government finish its work, which will cost approximately $1 billion.”
Regarding the federal relocation of approximately 15,000 Navajos from land partitioned to the Hopi Tribe through the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Relocation Act, three generations of social, economic, health, psychological and spiritual problems to Navajos are the law’s ongoing legacy.
The Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, which was formerly named the Navajo-Hopi Relocation Commission, was created to carry out forced relocation that began in 1978, President Nygren said.
“This committee knows well the harm and trauma this relocation has caused to my people, as well as the related multi-decade construction freezes imposed over 1.6 million acres of land,” he said. “This harm is felt down onto the second and third generations of relocated families.”
To mitigate as many of these problems as possible, the President asked for an immediate transfer of $15 million of “excess” ONHIR funds to the Navajo Rehabilitation Trust Fund, funding for the Navajo THAW Initiative to rehabilitate the former Bennett Freeze Area, money for studies, analyses and reports concerning Navajo relocation and the ongoing impacts of the freeze and legislation that would authorize ONHIR to work in the former Bennett Freeze Area in addition to the Navajo Partitioned Land areas.
“This would eventually lay the groundwork for closure of ONHIR in a humane fashion through a multi-agency program of rehabilitation put in place over the next 10 years,” the President said.