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Science and Innovations

Nonprofit Tackles Housing Crisis On Navajo Nation

Don Graham/WikiCommons

The Navajo Nation faces a housing crisis. Many homes don’t have electricity or running water, and large families share small spaces with few options for isolating if someone gets sick with COVID-19. Carmirae Holguin has started a new nonprofit to address these issues and revitalize traditional building practices. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with her about the Nááts'íilid Initiative.

Talk to me about some of the problems with housing on the Navajo Nation

We did a regional research study, and the regional research study showed that majority of the homes were multigenerational families, so there would be 3 or 4 families that live in a single family home of 520 square feet…. So there’s overcrowded situations, and then there’s other families living in dilapidated homes. For instance, this family that we helped build her home, in her octagon when it would rain, she would have water come through the middle of her octagon, so she would have a little river going through… and on the outside of her drywall, she would have plastic bags for insulation…. The other thing that we’re also coming across is that there’s a lot of homeless families… They find shelter anywhere… From my research we found a Navajo man that was in Chilchinbeto, he dug out a side of a hill and he lived in there…but it wasn’t safe because the roof was starting to cave in, the walls were starting to cave in, and what he used to support his roof was an old Chevy hood of a truck. 

Have you seen that these housing issues are becoming worse in the last year with pandemic?

I think yes, a lot of it has become worse …. In one of the pictures that I’ve seen, there was a man that had COVID but he built a little shack outside and that’s where he stayed to separate himself, and I’ve been hearing more and more cases of people that built little shelters for themselves outside so they could separate themselves from their families if they were COVID positive.

Tell me about this initiative and how you’re trying to solve some of these problems.

We want to help the people here on the reservation as much as we can with the sweat equity housing project. We want to help people understand the traditional and modern architecture and engineering process. The process of building of a Hogan, there’s certain songs and prayers that go with it, and I feel like we’re losing that part of our identity…. So we want to combine it with the modern architectural and engineering and using earthen floors, natural plastering, and stuff like that, to incorporate some of our traditional teaching into a conventional home that’s going to be built. The families get to work together and they get to learn from each other what their strengths and what their weaknesses are, they learn to do team building…and in the process they learn to appreciate each other. When they built their home, when it’s finally complete, they learn to appreciate what they have and what they’ve worked for.  

Sweat equity, what do you mean by that?

So the participating family, they would have to put in about 420 hours of sweat equity hours, so they would build their home and then they would help pay it forward by helping another family build their home as well.

You were talking about it’s not just about building homes but about honoring the cultural practices that go into building homes.

We’ve always had the Hogan and the octagon as part of our traditional building. I would say, in the last 20 years or so, we’ve lost a lot of that traditional teachings, and through this whole pandemic, I feel like we lost a lot of our elders that knew a lot of these traditional practices and teachings, so now it’s up to us, the younger generation, to reiterate that into some type of practice that could interest people and bring it back. I feel like through this program, Nááts'íilid Initiative, we could do that.  

Carmi, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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