Navajos mourn passing of Eddie Basha

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, March 28, 2013

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(Curtosey Photo)

Eddie Basha

W hen he came to the Navajo Reservation in 1993 to open his latest supermarket in Pinon, Eddie Basha took some time out to do some politicking since he was thinking about running for governor.

"One of the things I am most proud of," he said at the time, "is that I am considered to be a friend of the Navajo people."

Basha, 75, died on Tuesday. No immediate cause of death was released but family members said he had been in failing health for some time.

Former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald said he was saddened to hear that Basha passed away.

"He was a good friend of mine and a good friend of the Navajo people," MacDonald said, adding that Basha came through when other supermarket chains were afraid to come onto the Navajo Reservation. "He believed in us when the others didn't."

Basha had been an economic force on the Navajo Reservation since the early 1980s when he began setting up supermarkets throughout the reservation in big communities like Tuba City, Chinle and Window Rock and in smaller communities like Crownpoint and Piñon.

By the mid-90s, he was one of the top five employers of Navajos in the private sector, employing more than 400 workers at his various stores, all of which he would say were making a profit.

This was a good thing as Basha, from the very beginning, made an annual contribution to the Navajo scholarship program based, in part, on profits from his Navajo stores.

"A percentage of our profits on the Navajo Nation is returned for redevelopment and education, and we make an annual donation to the Navajo Education Scholarship Fund," he said in 1993. "We were honored to have been invited to the Navajo Nation as their grocery retailer in 1981, and we look forward to a continuing healthy association."

He first became aware of the need here on the Navajo Reservation back in 1980.

Al Henderson, who was then on the board for the Dineh Food Cooperative in Chinle, said his group was looking for an anchor tenant for a shopping center that was being built in Chinle at that time.

The board held a meeting and went down the list of major supermarket chains to see who would be interested. Then they heard the name of Eddie Basha and no one on the board knew who he was but they decided they would approach him to see if he would be interested.

So they wrote a letter and Basha would later say that when he first read it, he was surprised that he had never considered setting up a store on the Navajo Reservation.

Within an hour of reading the letter, he would say later, he called a meeting of his distribution people to see how feasible (and how costly) it would be to send his trucks to the reservation.

Three hours later, he called the group. "Hi, my name is Eddie Basha," he told them. "I'm from Basha markets, and I want to be your grocer."

The board members' big concern, said Henderson, was whether or not Basha would be able to make a profit in Chinle, but he said that once the supermarket opened, all of their concerns went away when they saw the customers flock to the new store.

MacDonald agreed that these concerns were unjustified.

"After five years (here on the reservation), the most profitable stores in the chain were here. That made him happy and us as well," MacDonald said.

Basha would run for governor in 1994 and although he carried most Navajo precincts, he lost the election.

When word of his death was made public late Tuesday, hundreds of people, including some of his friends on the Navajo Reservation posted condolences on the Basha's Facebook page.

Marcine Curley, who was raised in Thoreau and now lives in Phoenix, sent her condolences.

"There is no doubt that he will be greatly missed…" she wrote. "He was a great person with a big heart, a very good man. I am thankful for what he has done in Arizona."

Josie Neztsosie said, "As a former member of store #42, I thank you for 10 years of employment. He was a remarkable man and he will be missed."

Navajo economic development officials would say that over the years hundreds of Navajos would benefit from the scholarship monies he provided to the tribe and thousands more would get their first work experience at one of the Basha's supermarkets on the reservation or elsewhere through the state.

In a statement released Wednesday by family members, they said Basha "always reinforced to us the importance of our members (employees) and giving back to our community. Some of his fondest times were being with Basha's members and customers, whether at the office, the distribution center or in the stores."

He will be remembered for giving away and raising millions of dollars for worthwhile causes throughout the state and friends said it was not uncommon to see him hand out $100 bills to panhandlers or come up with major contributions to small community-oriented charities. There was no cause that was too little for Basha's generosity.

The last letter that Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly wrote to Basha was on December 6, 2012: "With the gratitude of the Nation, I extend a sincere thank you for the large contributions of turkeys you made which will go to families and organizations for the holiday season. My staff will work in getting these distributed to families in rural areas and as they are delivered, it will be noted they came from the generous Mr. Eddie Basha."

At age 31, Basha took over the family business, which was started in 1910, in 1968 when his father died. At its peak, the chain had 165 stores throughout the state (and one in New Mexico). But the economic downturn in 2009 hit the business hard and the company closed down 30 stores that weren't making a profit.

There was some concern at the time that Basha would close down one or more of the stores on the Navajo Reservation but he put out word to the Navajo Times immediately that he had no intention of closing any Navajo store, partly because they were all making a profit and also because he said he realized how important these stores were to the people who lived in those communities.

That's another thing he brought up in 1993 when the Piñon store was opened. He pointed out that the Piñon store was probably the most remote store in his chain and he promised that most of the prices at that store would be consistent with what the stores in Phoenix and other places were charging.

There had been talks over the years that Bashas would open more stores on the reservation and based on the success of the one at Piñon, in smaller Navajo communities but nothing really came to fruition.

Back in the 1990s, tribal economic development officials would point to Basha as someone who not only understood the Navajo but also understood the way the tribal government operated and they would encourage other companies that wanted to set up business on the reservation to look at the Basha model and follow it.

Funeral plans were still pending on Wednesday. He is survived by a wife and six sons.

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