The Road to Nowhere: Inadequate Transportation Hinders Tribal Economic Development

A school bus makes it’s way along a dirt road in Oljato, Utah. (Brian Leddy /Gallup Independent licensed via AP)

Arlando Teller’s earliest memory of the roads on the Navajo Nation is riding to market with his grandparents in their ’46 Ford pickup truck on the jagged, unpaved trails of Del Muerto, Arizona in the late 1970s. 

“I always remember that truck,” says Teller. “It was this big, heavy tank on a very rut-riven, rocky dirt road with my dad’s parents. It was always a very difficult drive ― especially if it had rained or if there was bad weather.”

Today, some 40 years later, Teller says the roads in Del Muerto are exactly the same as they were when his grandparents lived there. 

“It hasn’t changed at all,” says Teller, who is now the deputy director of the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation. “In fact, we still have thousands of miles of roads on the reservation that are unpaved and sometimes impassable, which we are working hard to address. But there is a lot of unmet need in regards to roads, bridges, school bus routes and airports, and all of it has an impact on our Tribal members.”

Teller’s anecdote is recognizable to nearly every land-based reservation Tribe in the United States, many of whom continue to struggle with a lack of paved roads and basic transportation infrastructure like curbs, sidewalks, signage, guardrails and proper drainage. This dearth impacts the quality of life and hinders crucial economic development that mainstream communities take for granted.

With approximately 17.5 million acres covering 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation is the largest land-based Tribal Nation in the country. Slightly larger than West Virginia, the Navajo Nation’s roadway inventory includes 14,221 miles of roads with a patchwork of ownership between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Tribe, the three states and the counties, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation. 

On the Navajo Nation, only 23 percent—or 3,270 miles—are paved. By comparison, West Virginia, which is the fourth poorest state in the country with a poverty rate of 17.7 percent, has approximately 27,000 miles of paved roads, according to the West Virginia Annual Roadway Statistics Report.

And because of the high desert topography of the Navajo reservation, factors like rain, snow, floods, dust storms and landslides render many of these routes hard to navigate and sometimes impassable. These treacherous situations affect public safety, the delivery of essential services, and access to employment and healthcare. 

Moreover, it inhibits access to education for the thousands of school children in Navajo communities where road conditions have created transportation-related attendance barriers throughout the reservation. Taken together, these factors, say Tribal leaders, present a major challenge to the development of the Navajo Nation economy.

Substandard road conditions on reservations across the United States impact the quality of life for Tribal citizens and inhibit the economic development and self-determination of Tribal Nations. (AP)

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The lack of basic infrastructure in Tribal communities has been an ongoing problem since the establishment of the reservation system by the federal government in the mid-1800s. As the expansion of wagon trails, railroads and white settlers exploded westward, Tribes were forced onto reservations that were, in reality, little more than prison camps—substandard, inarable parcels that were located on flood plains, in dry deserts, or rocky, untillable hill country mostly unfit for food production. 

When food, medicine, blankets and housing promised to Tribal communities never materialized, they were forced to live in cramped, cold, unsanitary conditions that led to hunger and disease. Under 24-hour armed military guard, Tribal members were forbidden from leaving to hunt or find food. This led to riots and uprisings at reservations across the Northern Plains and the Upper Midwest. In the case of Fort Peck, Montana, over 300 Assiniboines died of starvation in the winter of 1881.

Since then, Tribal leaders, historians and advocates across the country contend that the consequence of early policies intended to geographically and politically isolate Indian Tribes has also crippled Native economies to this day. And one of the centerpieces to achieving those ends was limited access to road systems on and near Indian lands.

“Economies revolve around the movement of people and goods,” says J. Eric Reed (Choctaw Nation), a Dallas-based attorney and Native historian. “Tribes traveled over vast distances and had very successful trading alliances. There was no such thing as poverty among the tribes before European settlement.”

He says that limiting access to transportation was used to control and marginalize the Tribes in a variety of ways during the territorial expansion of the United States in the 1800s, similar to the townships in South Africa. As the U.S. population went from 5 million in 1800 to almost 25 million in 1850, Manifest Destiny became the justification for the forced acquisition of Indian lands.

“The Tribes were intentionally isolated and cut off from access to any thoroughfare from which they would benefit in any way, but particularly economically,” says Reed. “The irony is that almost all of the major highways and roads were originally ancient Indian paths and trade routes—over land and water—that had been in existence for thousands of years that were highjacked for the benefit and movement of white settlement. At the same time, the Indians were moved far away from these routes and held captive. Even today, if you look closely at a map, you can see that the Tribes have very little access to major state and federal roadways.”

This fact alone, Reed says, puts the Tribes at an economic disadvantage, because travel to and from the reservations can be challenging and inconvenient for economic development purposes. Additionally, he adds, the amount of money needed to bring their road systems up-to-date would be astronomical. 

“Constricting the ability of Tribes to have adequate surface transportation definitely limits their options greatly in regards to economic development. And while that was an intentional policy in the 1800s, the ripple effect has continued simply out of apathy and neglect,” says Reed. “There’s been some legislation, but not nearly enough to address this massive transportation problem on Tribal lands, which includes not only roads, but infrastructure of every kind. But this is just one more spoke in the wheel of an overarching policy toward the Tribes. It’s ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

“It takes the feds three to five years to build one mile of Indian Reservation Road (IRR). Under their formula, however, it would take us 500 years to finish our roads. So they’re not really helping, which means that we’re using our resources to fix these problems.” —MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox (Getty Images)

The Bakken: Boom & Burden

The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is located in western North Dakota and is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes (known as the MHA Nation, or Three Affiliated Tribes). Established in 1870 during the peak of the so-called “Indian Wars,” the reservation covers nearly one million acres and is home to approximately 7,200 Tribal members.

Like most reservations located in the Northern Plains, the MHA Nation’s road system is a mixture of Tribal, BIA, county, state and federal roads, as well as the Four Bears Bridge, which serves as a vital link both to and from the reservation. After the construction of the Garrison Dam in the 1950s, over 80 percent of the Tribe’s previous road system was flooded, which displaced families, destroyed sacred sites, ruined farmland, isolated communities and destroyed the economy, according to the MHA Nation. The reservation’s geographic and transportation system was further complicated by the fact that its land base is split in two by the Missouri River. That division affects the provision of emergency services, and access to education and healthcare for the Tribe’s members. 

But the discovery of the Parshall Oil Field over the Bakken Geologic Formation in 2006 changed everything. Over the next decade, trucks carrying heavy equipment and hauling thousands of gallons of Bakken crude around the clock generated severe wear and tear on the reservation’s fragile, out-of-date road system that wasn’t built to withstand that kind of traffic. Additionally, North Dakota’s population also exploded by approximately 100,000 workers, bringing radical changes to Fort Berthold, including great wealth, along with a spike in traffic accidents and other transportation-related issues.

“Because of our oil revenues and our casino, people think we have a whole bunch of money―but it comes at a significant cost,” MHA chairman Mark Fox told Native Business. “And it’s far greater than anyone realizes.”

Fox told us in early 2019 that since the oil and gas boom began, the Tribes at Fort Berthold have spent over $200 million in road repair and maintenance, with over $120 million of that figure allocated in the last four years alone (2016-19). In fact, he estimates that the Tribes will spend nearly a billion in the next 10 years on road construction, maintenance and repair.

“It takes approximately three to $3.5 million to pave only one mile of road,” says Fox. “We have nearly 200 miles of road that need paving, which is about $600 to $700 million. And that doesn’t even include repair and resurfacing costs. But this is an important priority because we have kids and buses that need to get to school.”

But Fox also says that traffic safety has become a major concern in the last decade, as traffic fatalities increased by five-fold due to the massive increase in traffic on the reservation. Oil trucks, heavy vehicles, increased traffic and North Dakota’s brutal winters are just a few of the factors that explain why Fort Berthold has the highest rate of crash fatalities among all the Tribes in the region. 

“We are part of a consortium of energy-impacted Tribes under an administration that is heavily geared toward the oil and gas industry,” he says. “It takes the feds three to five years to build one mile of Indian Reservation Road (IRR). Under their formula, however, it would take us 500 years to finish our roads. So they’re not really helping, which means that we’re using our resources to fix these problems.”

For the MHA Nation, there is an understanding that oil and gas are finite resources that will one day run dry. Until then, the Tribes are working to build their communities with their long-term survival in mind.

“In the last decade, we’ve spent millions in ancillary costs, including law enforcement, health care, housing, water and sewage and so on,” says Fox. “A billion here, a billion there–it goes fast. But we are planning ahead so that 10-15 years from now, our standard of living is higher, and our GDP and economy continue to grow. My dream is that because we worked hard and did it right, we are not dependent on anyone.”