SHONTO, AZ — Living conditions on the Navajo reservation resemble a third-world country. Households lack necessities taken for granted in much of America, including running water, electricity and internet access.
"I did not grow up with running water. It's normal. You just work 10 times harder than anybody else to obtain water," Shanna Yazzie, who grew up on the Navajo Nation and is raising her children there today.
Yazzie is a project manager with the Navajo Water Project, an indigenous-led nonprofit working to bring running water and solar power to homes on the Navajo Nation.
Dirt roads and worn gasoline pumps are a constant reminder of generations left behind. Through numerous treaties, the U.S. government made promises to maintain and support the needs of Native communities in exchange for land. But calls to address these failings have often been ignored.
"What's really struck me has been their resilience. It really is a strong sense of community," said George McGraw, founder of DigDepp. "And that's what's really allowed them to survive — despite a world around them that in many ways is organized to erase and destroy their culture."
Left vulnerable to the deadly pandemic, challenges on the reservation were put in the national spotlight. At one point, the reservation had the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in the country.
Now, these basic needs are within reach for tribal communities and reservations across the U.S., with the newly-signed infrastructure bill promising to address decades of unfunded projects and broken promises.
"This infrastructure bill is really like a once-in-a-generation opportunity to work on this problem," said McGraw. "It's hundreds and thousands of projects, all shovel-ready."
The bill allocates $3.5 billion for the Indian Health Service (IHS). The agency says the funding will be enough to address more than 1,500 projects nationwide on its list of water and sanitation issues, including water lines, bathrooms, sanitation facilities, and water treatment plants.
"It's really difficult to understate what impact that will have on native communities. To take, you know, decades of projects that have sat there unfunded and really languished and push them all forward," said McGraw.
He says 30% of Navajo homes don't have running water. Families must travel for miles to haul back every drop they need to survive.
The infrastructure bill also provides $4 billion in funding to fix roads and $2 billion to expand internet access.
"We're going to be watching that process really closely, assisting where we can, representing communities and making sure their voices are heard. But it will not solve the problem. It will not close the water gap fully in the United States. That's going to take significantly more investment," said McGraw.
Advocates are calling for better data collection on the problem.
"We're using old data to estimate access," said McGraw. "We're going to have this new influx of money. What collection mechanism do we have to prove that that money is getting where it's needed? That that number is shrinking? And it's something that we're talking to federal agencies and to lawmakers and to tribal officials now, but I don't have a good answer to that question now."
But he says the bill is historic and gets tribal communities on the path to finally accessing life-saving infrastructure needs.
"It gets us, you know, into that fight," said McGraw. I have a lot of hope."