But the country’s largest Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation in the nation’s Four Corners region, actually saw its population shrink by 3 percent. The town of Ganado, Arizona, is one location where the decline is palpable.
The hallways at Ganado High School in the middle of the enormous Navajo reservation are bustling in between classes. But they are not nearly as crowded as they were just three years ago.
Principal Tom Rowland said he loses about 100 students per year.
“I’m looking at a high school that in the mid 2000s, ran about 850 students,” Rowland said. “Now we’re down to about 575-580. Families can’t find jobs here.”
Evelyn Begay, who has worked for the school district for 28 years, agrees with the principal’s analysis.
“They go to the urban areas to look for employment, and that’s where they move their families,” she said.
Begay should know. All five of her kids graduated from Ganado High School. All five went on to Arizona State University. And all five have stayed in the Phoenix area after graduation.
“Even though you hear politicians say we’re going to build jobs, we’ve heard that for 50 years, and we haven’t seen any significant impact on employment for our young people,” Begay said. “And as long as that’s continuing, we’re going to continue to lose our families, our children, to move away.”
Strong winds are whipping tumbleweeds across the lone highway that runs through Ganado. There is almost nothing here in the way of local industry.
The two largest employers are the hospital and the school district. That’s why teachers and staff like Nathan Brady, who’s the facility coordinator at Ganado High School, all tell students to leave the reservation behind when they graduate.
“Every one of them is going to encourage them ‘Go, go, get an education, get a job, then you can come back’,” Brady said.
But after heeding that advice, there are very few opportunities back home.
“They look back, and there’s nothing here, there’s nothing for them to build on,” the coordinator said. “There’s no employment, so they stay out there.”
Brady enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday. Now 40, he returned to the reservation a few years ago, turning down a duty station in Hawaii and full retirement benefits.
“I’d rather be out here to see the stars at night,” he said. “I’d rather be out here to hear the birds chirping. I knew I wanted to come back.”
A lot of young Navajo people feel that way. The reservation is isolated, it’s desolate, the economy is stagnant…but it’s home. Marden Kinlichee, 19, is a senior at Ganado High School.
“I think a lot of kids do want to come back,” Kinlichee said. “It’s just that if they come back, then they’re going to be stuck at home not working.”
In the fall, Kinlichee will leave for the University of New Mexico in Gallup to study nursing. But unlike a lot of her classmates, she plans to return. It’s part of the reason she’s choosing a career in nursing, because she knows she can find a job close to home, where she says she can help her people.
“That’s how I was raised: To come back and help my grandparents,” Kinlichee said. “And we need a lot of help out here.”
The population on the Navajo Nation is getting older. Two-thirds of the population is now over 18, up 7 percent from a decade ago.
But what is surprising is that people in Ganado are not that worried about what many call the “brain drain” away from the reservation. They are confident that the land, the culture, and the language will bring young people back when they are ready.
Despite the fact that her children live so far away, Evelyn Begay helps them retain their culture.
“I talk to them a lot in Navajo (language). I’m constantly reminding them, no matter where you go, no matter how high of an apartment you live in, you’re always going to be that Navajo,” the mother of five said. “That’s not going to wash off of you. You’re going to always be that person.”
Begay says all her kids plan to build homes back on the reservation, and eventually return home. For now though, she says, she has to let them go.