Home Addresses On Navajo Nation Are Rare, Officials Working To Change That
Imagine trying to find a house when your directions sound like this: when the pavement ends, drive one mile and turn left at the bus stop then we're the third house on the right. On the Navajo Nation, this scenario is common — having a real, physical address is pretty rare.
When there’s an emergency, and getting accurate directions can be a matter of life and death, this can be a real problem. But one department on the reservation is hoping to change that.
Paula Tso lives in a pale blue house at the end of an unpaved driveway. She and her family have set up four homes and a traditional structure known as a “hogan” in this one acre plot of land just outside of the northeastern Arizona town of Red Valley.
Tso has lived in this area for years and knows it well, but for out of towners, finding her house can be a challenge.
"My nephew had a girlfriend. And I had explained the place but she didn’t know where it was," Tso said. "You have to give like one and a half miles off the 5020 but still they don’t find the road."
Long story short, the girlfriend didn’t find Tso’s house with those directions and ended up 20 miles down the road. While Tso can laugh at that situation, she’s concerned this kind of confusion could happen if an ambulance needs to find her home.
"We don’t know if they could find this place or even if the police or anyone could find the place," said Tso.
But that won’t be the case for long. M.C Baldwin, with the Navajo Nation Rural Addressing Authority, is at Tso’s house today recording her information and determining how many how many structures on her property will qualify for an address.
Down the road, Tso’s neighbors are getting their new addresses and Baldwin is installing the coordinating street signs.
"So we’re doing two signs, 1477 and 1479," said Baldwin, as he pushed the the steel street signs into the ground.
It takes a lot of work to get to this point. First officials have to go out and find homes on tribal roads. But not every structure qualifies for an address, like abandoned homes or sheds. And sometimes several houses can be found at the end of one driveway, each of which must be numbered.
"The Navajo Nation is so huge. It’s vast. And you have people living at every point," said Jesse Delmar, the Navajo Nation public safety director. "And that’s the biggest challenge, is trying to find some of these homes which are way out in the country."
He added the issue is compounded by the fact that the Navajo Nation doesn’t have an official 911 system that could connect emergency calls to community dispatchers who know the area well. Calls can get rerouted to other systems. Sometimes it’s close like Gallup, New Mexico, but calls can get kicked out to cities hundreds of miles away, like Albuquerque.
"We have to pinpoint where that incident might have taken place," said Steven Nelson, the Navajo police chief. "We have to resort to the old way of practice of turning right at this location or past this trading post."
Nelson said knowing someone’s address and the exact GPS coordinates would help a lot.
Eventually the addressing authority will get there. But right now — the police don’t have access to the addressing data because the two departments have different computer systems.
Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez said this kind of communication barrier is a well known issue on the reservation, that he’s hoping to correct soon.
"We are looking at ways to bridge the communication barriers between all divisions and not just public safety. But the tribal utility authority and our community health representatives," said Nez.
Nez and Navajo President Russell Begay have focused new attention on rural addressing since taking office in May. In July the administration listed it as a priority among needed tribal infrastructure developments. He added the next step is finding additional funding. Right now, the tribe has only allocated enough money to fund two full time employees for the department, which means progress is slow.
Back near Red Valley, resident Paula Tso is starting to get excited about the benefits that her new physical address will bring, like FedEx delivery for her nephew.
"He’s getting stuff delivered, but he doesn’t get it delivered here. He gets it delivered at another aunt’s house. So this would be a big help," she explained.
Having an address also makes it easier for Tso to qualify for a home loan, register to vote and even have a pizza delivered.