While much of rural America suffers from loss of business and industry, the Navajo Indian Reservation has never had much. Traveling across the huge reservation, one is impressed as much by the emptiness as by the surrounding desert beauty. For about half of the 160,000 Navajos living here, the openness of the landscape translates into unemployment and lack of opportunity.
On Saturday, however, the Navajo nation launched a new initiative to fill some of that emptiness. At an ``economic summit'' here, Navajo chairman Peter MacDonald led participants in exploring ways to make the reservation more attractive to industry. Sens. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona co-hosted the summit.
The Navajo Economic Summit brought together some 40 corporate executives and top state and federal leaders to analyze how to put the tribe's large, underemployed labor force to work.
Supporters of the summit ranged from operators of small reservation mobile-home parks to President Reagan, who sent a videotaped message congratulating Navajo leaders for sponsoring the event. Mr. Reagan said it took courage for the tribe ``to set a policy that, for the first time, says a partnership with the private sector is the future.''
While Washington's trust relationship with the Navajo Tribe is almost 120 years old, the President said, ``instead of fostering independence, the government ended up doing just the opposite.''
Mr. MacDonald, who returned to office in January after a four-year absence, has made economic development and the creation of jobs his administration's top priority in order to fight his reservation's 30-to-50 percent unemployment rate.
For months, MacDonald has crisscrossed the United States meeting the chiefs of America's largest companies, encouraging them to ``bring your bottom line to Navajo'' before locating a new factory overseas. He said he wants to ``beat the pants off'' the tribe's competition in Taiwan and elsewhere.
Senator Domenici, who said that for 15 years he had watched the Navajo nation struggle in political turmoil, praised MacDonald's leadership and termed the summit ``a miracle.''
A controversial figure who previously served 12 years as tribal chairman, MacDonald has promised his people he will create ``1,000 to 2,000 jobs per year.'' He says he wants to see large segments of his tribe's young population transformed into Indian entrepreneurs, service professionals, and industrial workers.
But starting practically from scratch, with but a handful of companies composing the current Navajo private sector, the obstacles the tribe faces are formidable. Foremost is its rural obscurity. The 25,000-square-mile Navajo reservation is located mostly in the northeast corner of Arizona, comprising about one-sixth of the state's land area. It also lies across substantial portions of northern New Mexico and southern Utah. Yet it is not well-known to industry leaders.
``If they are patient enough,'' said Takuro Isoda, chairman of Daiwa Securities America Inc., ``they'll have a great future, I believe.'' He said the reservation's clean air and water and its reputation for excellent craftsmanship is what is most attractive to his company.
While the reservation is isolated from any major city by hundreds of miles, summit participants touted its centralized location as ideal to reach approximately 20 million consumers in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles.
What is lacking is an infrastructure to support industrial development on even a small scale.
New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers said he would see if highway and development funds from his state could be used to assist the tribe. He suggested a six-month exchange of state and tribal tourism personnel.
Another participant in the summit, renowned designer Oleg Cassini, declared that if the Navajo built a resort it would become world-famous.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D) of Hawaii, said legislation to create an Indian Development Bank ``would set up the mechanism for guaranteeing loans that are made by other banks.
``The federal government is watching this summit meeting,'' said Senator Inouye, ``and all the other Indians are watching. If this works, this will be the solution to all the problems.''
At this point the reservation's private-sector economy consists primarily of the few stores in its seven major communities of a few thousand people each. State, tribal, and federal jobs provide the bulk of employment. Navajo drive every weekend to thriving towns surrounding the reservation's borders, where over the course of a year they spend millions of dollars.
Layers of federal and tribal bureaucracy have blocked many would-be reservation businesses and discouraged innumerable would-be Navajo entrepreneurs. According to figures presented by Navajo leaders at the summit, 47 various kinds of approval, taking years to acquire, are needed for even a small business to begin.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who three years ago first sponsored a bill to create ``enterprise zones'' on Indian reservations, said that in exchange for employment and tax credits for industry, tribes should be willing to come up with a way to quickly resolve conflicts when they arise, as they frequently do.
He said business would not be interested in moving to Indian reservations if tribes could not dispense with the ``vagaries of tribal politics.''
His comment referred to the Navajos' current problem with a developer who last week said he would sue the tribal government because it is stalling development of a $30 million marina and resort project on Lake Powell. The former Navajo administration agreed to the development.