NAVAJO NATION – Neda Billie has been waiting to turn on lights in her home for 15 years.
“We’ve been living off of those propane lanterns,” Billie said. “Now we don’t have to have flashlights everywhere. All the kids have a flashlight, so when they get up in the middle of the night like to use the restroom, they have a flashlight to go to [the outhouse].”
Billie, her husband and their five kids live in a tiny one-room hogan, a traditional Navajo home. Their three sheep graze on sagebrush that carpets the rolling hills of Dilkon.
They watched two men in a cherry picker hook up the last wire to their home. Billie said they’ve gone through too many generators to count.
“My two boys they have really bad allergies, and they have asthma, so sometimes they need the nebulizer, so we usually go to my mom’s house travel in the middle of the night over there back and forth,” Billie said.
The Billies are not alone. About one in 10 Navajos live without electricity. And as many as 40 percent of the tribe have to haul their water and use outhouses. A poll of rural Americans conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found more than a quarter of Native Americans have experienced problems with electricity, water and the internet.
Northern Arizona University professor Manley Begay, who is Navajo, said the numbers are probably even higher. Begay said electricity provides more than just light. With electricity, a family can pump water, charge their phone, store food, even get and maintain a job.
“Electricity itself provides a tremendous amount of convenience and having access to the world at large,” Begay said. “You can just imagine if you were to fill out an application for a job, you do it online and you send it in. Or you’re Googling for information, if you don’t have electricity, you’re in trouble.”
Begay said he recently saw something strange when he pulled into a hotel parking lot in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. He noticed a bunch of teenagers in their cars.
“You could tell they were high school students,” Begay said. “And so they were doing their homework outside this hotel in the parking lot. They had the light on in their cars and doing their homework. It became quite clear that they didn’t have internet.”
Outside the Billies’ home, the couple waited patiently for the crew to finish the job. Brian Cooper from P&M Electric had an update.
“We’ll get a meter going and you should have electricity,” Cooper said. “Can’t wait to see the real smile here in a minute. Don’t cover it up I want to see it. That’s what joy looks like.”
Cooper traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to install electricity. The utility also donated a refrigerator to the Billies.
P&M along with several other crews from around the country have volunteered their time to connect people to the power grid.
On the Navajo Nation, the homes are so spread out it costs on average $40,000 dollars to hook up one home to the grid. And half the tribe is unemployed. So you can’t raise rates to energize all those homes. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the nonprofit American Public Power Association have put a call out to utilities across the country to help.
“I had no idea that there were people still in 2019 without power,” Cooper said.
Finally after waiting for so many years, the Billies watched the foreman turn on the meter behind their house and snap the cover shut. Neda then ran inside to flip the switch.
“It’s so exciting to finally have electricity here after so many years without it,” Billie said. “My kids are going to be so happy they keep asking everyday … They go, ‘mom we’re going to have light. We’re going to finally have light!'”
Now the family will wait and pray for running water and internet.