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ASU works with Navajo planners to map out tribe's destiny through training program

woman conducting training program

Shea Lemar (center) conducts a community-planning training session for 16 members of the Navajo Nation on June 17 in Tempe.
Photo by: Courtney Pedroza/ASU News

June 24, 2015

The Navajo Nation is continuing to map its own future, and ASU is playing a key support role.

In 1998, the Navajo Nation passed the Local Government Act, which decentralized community planning for the Navajos and gave significant governing authority to the nation’s local jurisdictions, called chapters. However, the legislation came with its own set of problems.

The Navajo Nation hired outside planners and consultants, but the results were not effective, possessed little creativity and the plans mostly sat on a shelf for years.

After conducting a two-year study, ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning concluded that a new planning approach was needed. Furthermore, a training program was developed to provide the latest approaches and techniques for the tribal community's own regional plans.

That training is happening right now for the first time over a 12-day session at the Tempe campus, ending on June 26.

“We spent a lot of time and money on consultants, and they didn’t necessarily do very good work,” said Elerina Yazzie, one of 16 Navajo Nation planners participating in the training program. “To me, all they did was copy and paste their plans for every single chapter. They didn’t do the community work that was mandated, and they weren’t familiar with the land or people. It was a failure.”

David Pijawka, a professor of planning in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and director of the Community Planning Training Program for the Navajo Nation, said the mistakes of the past can be corrected through proper guidance and use of the latest Geographic Information Systems and planning technologies.

“What we’re doing is bringing Navajo planners the decision-making tools they need to be effective and showing them the most advanced training possible,” Pijawka said. “Many people attending the program see the importance of what they’re doing here and will be going back to their chapters and transforming their communities. It’s groundbreaking.”

The coursework includes: Community-Based Planning in the Navajo Nation; Geographic Information Systems and Mapping; Tribal Legal Issues in Planning; Planning Methods; Land Use Issues, Grazing and Jurisdictions; Environmental Resources Assessment, Sustainable/Heritage Cultural Tourism and Social Entrepreneurship, and Transportation Planning.

Approximately 320,000 people identify themselves as Navajos, and the Navajo Nation covers land that is roughly the size of West Virginia.

Planner Faye Nez, who oversees 29 chapters near Gallup, New Mexico, said the training program has been invaluable and hopes that others will follow in her footsteps.

“Development means growth, and often that means getting a formal education,” Nez said. “It’s very hard to come from one culture and enter another. I know there are a lot of Navajo students with great minds, and they’re finally going to get organized training.”

For senior planner Louis Shepard, the program is an opportunity for dialogue and continued learning opportunities.

“I’m learning about methods and models that are currently being used and the planning environment, principles and applications,” Shepard said. “Hearing the different perspectives on the rural versus urban settings and how to address the needs of the people has been particularly helpful to me.”