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Alum embraces window of opportunity

June 25, 2010

Growing up on the Navajo Nation in a dwelling without running water, Kee Allen Begay Jr., now 41, could hardly wait to get away. The fourth youngest of 10 children, he was inspired by visiting the ASU campus when he was in high school ROTC. He saw how modern families lived off the reservation.

But when Begay finished an Army stint and earned his marketing degree at ASU years later, he saw an opportunity to make some changes at home. So he headed back to the red rock mesas of the reservation, where he taught school for a while. In 2003, he was elected Council Delegate for the Navajo Nation. He has been an activist and political representative for the Navajo people ever since, and currently serves as chair of the council’s judiciary committee.

The problems Navajos face are enormous, Begay says: an unemployment rate of 50 to 60 percent, many homes without plumbing or electricity, a lack of paved roads, plus limited funding for schools and health services. Many children in his community travel 13 miles over dirt roads to get to school, missing class for a week at a time in bad weather.

Begay expected to “move ahead quickly and accomplish things” once he returned home, he says. “But when I got to Window Rock (where council meetings are held), I found a whole new world of politics. We’ve made some progress, but it’s slow.”

His committee helped build a new court facility, secured funding for preconstruction of 23 miles of paved road and urged through a sales tax increase to build a public safety complex.

But his people still struggle, Begay says. He helped care for his parents until they passed away, and now he and his nine siblings and their families live within walking distance of each other in Many Farms. Only three graduated from high school; he alone holds a college degree.

“I’m a role model for all 30 of my nieces and nephews. I’m challenging them to accomplish more than I did, to get their master’s or Ph.D. I tell them to reach out and do their part to make this a better community.”