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The Struggle of Utah’s Working Poor: Isolation in San Juan County

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SAN JUAN COUNTY (ABC4 News) – Running water, cell service, and even a physical address can be things people living in urban cities often take for granted. But those are some of the resources that thousands of Navajo residents live without in rural San Juan County. Through volunteer efforts from multiple organizations, these challenges could soon be a thing of the past.

San Juan County, the biggest county in Utah, is known for its beautiful landscapes such as the buttes of Monument Valley. It’s also the only place where the Navajo reservation sits in the state.

But according to experts, San Juan County is also the poorest county in the state. Thousands of Navajo or Diné residents live in rural homes, sitting in the middle of one-acre parcels provided through home site leases. The location of these rural homes have personal meaning for residents like Davina Smith.

“My umbilical cord is buried here. For Diné people, when the baby is born, we were taught to always bury it to a place where your child will return to,” said Smith.

For Melinda Blackhorse, the choice to live in rural San Juan County comes from love and loyalty to the land her ancestors fought for and staying connected to Mother Earth.

“This is where I belong. This is where I come from,” said Blackhorse. 

But living in rural San Juan County comes with its challenges. It also means long drives for working family members. Blackhorse said it takes her approximately 45 minutes to drive through the unpaved and unmaintained roads from her house to work in Blanding. Extreme weather makes it nearly impossible to leave or come home.

“Here, if somebody wants to go to work, they have to have reliable transportation or they can’t make it to work. The only place we have nearby is Bluff, which is a lot of motels, restaurants, and schools. It’s pretty hard to get a job,” she said.

For those who are without utilities, it can also mean long and frequent hauls just to get food and water. Students have to wake up early for the long bus rides to school.

“For children, because of where we live and how far we live from the schools, their buses have to get on the road by 3 or 4 in the morning,” said Smith.

Blackhorse expressed that this is just a way of life for her. It’s the way she grew up, learning how to adapt and survive along the way with whatever she had.

“Even though I lived through all that struggle like it was the dark ages in a sense, it wasn’t hard. It’s something we’ve done all of our lives,” she said.

But what she and her neighbor, Daylene Redhorse can’t get used to are the issues that come with being without a physical address. Redhorse said it’s had near-deadly consequences for her family.

“One morning, my dad found my mom unconscious. 911 couldn’t determine where the residence was because all we had was directions to our house,” said Redhorse. “My mom was unconscious for about an hour before we could get her medical attention, which resulted in her losing mobility in the left side of her body.”

It’s a common concern for rural residents – Long wait times from emergency responders, who can have trouble finding these homes with no physical addresses. 

“One of my neighbor’s house caught on fire and they didn’t know which roads to take to get to that house. So it burned down to the ground,” she said. 

That’s why Redhorse said she volunteers with the Rural Utah Project out in the field, helping as many Navajo residents get on the map as possible. Through a partnership with Google, they are working on assigning ‘plus codes’ to 2,600 rural houses by the beginning of next year. The plus codes look different from urban city addresses, but can still be entered into Google Maps for a mapped route to their home.

Blackhorse read off her driver’s license with her old address, “Cattle Road, 436, Toda, 2 miles West, Blue House” and explained that residents normally use landmarks or commonly known locations to give directions. She is one of the residents who now have an address and said it means a new world of opportunities and resources for her family.

“I can get stuff delivered to my home by UPS,” she said. “For others, it means they could sign up for a bank account. It means if there’s a power outage, we can tell them exactly where we are.”

Meanwhile, Smith is one of several people working to register rural residents to vote before the special election on November 5th. She said the outcome could impact the Navajo majority voice on the San Juan County Commission.

“Community members that I’ve talked to have not been well-informed. They’ve received a piece of paper. But the majority of them here can only speak and read Diné,” she said.

Efforts to improve the quality of life for Navajo residents are just beginning, according to Smith. But the increasing efficiency, affordability, and accessibility of modern-day technology gives hope to residents that maybe one day, Utah’s Navajo Nation will be able to enjoy the same resources that the rest of the state has.

“We need to help our elders. We need to help our community members,” said Smith.


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