‘I wasted my time’: Urban Diné angry, frustrated with Phoenix assistance event
Poor planning led to good intentions falling apart.
That’s what Arizona State Sen. Theresa Hatathlie and Arizona State Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren said last Thursday in Phoenix.
They referred to the tribe’s attempt to help Navajo residents of the Valley with Hardship Assistance applications and questions about returned checks.
Other matters involved Navajo Housing Authority rent payment assistance and filings for a Certificate of Indian blood.
Hatathlie and Blackwater-Nygren were appointed by their respective counties when former incumbents Jamescita Peshlakai and Arlando Teller vacated their seats to take positions in the Biden administration.
The areas they represent, District 7, cover the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
Hatathlie said she was contacted last Wednesday by individuals who wanted her to find out if there was a better system the tribe could use.
The Navajo government-conducted event was held at the Steele Indian Park Visitor Center in north Phoenix.
The intense heat was one of the critical concerns Hatathlie said she was told of.
“When I left the Capitol at about 2-2:30, I looked at my temperature, and it was 104 degrees,” she said. “And instantly, I started thinking about the event that was taking place there.”
Hatathlie, during an interview by Zoom, said when she returned home, she heard messages from people who told her they had to stand in one of four lines for six to eight hours.
For many, she added, the event closed an hour early without anyone being told the event was over.
Earl Tulley, veterans liaison for Navajo Housing Authority, provided a brief message last Thursday from the visitor’s center. A long line could be seen behind Tulley as he provided details on how Navajos could apply for rental assistance.
Since February, efforts to contact the thousands of Navajos living in cities like Phoenix, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, and Denver have occurred.
Skirmish breaks out
Tribal officials from the Navajo controller’s office, Office of Vital Records and Identification, and Navajo Housing Authority’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program were on hand in Phoenix to help urban Navajos when a skirmish broke out between several people waiting in line.
Phoenix city police quickly arrived on the scene, said Hatathlie, adding she was told young kids, adults, elders, and people in wheelchairs had been standing in four separate lines for hours.
If they stepped out of line, they had to go to the back of the line, she said.
Hatathlie shared a message from Kalanderson Haskie, who was in line last Thursday when the event was canceled.
“First and foremost that this is unacceptable,” Anderson said. “Some of us have work and can’t ask for other days off to fix this issue. Please help the people with this problem.
“Some of us came from out of the city to not only to be let down by the government workers but also just closing the doors without giving us other resources,” he said.
Wilvina Zah, who was also waiting in line, wrote on her social media page that President Jonathan Nez “has lots of explaining to do.”
“I waited 5 hours in line just for them to close the doors on hundreds of people. Which caused so many frustrations and even a physical altercation,” Zah wrote. “Smh! They said they’re postponing because of the safety of the people.
“All of a sudden, they wanna worry about our safety but scheduled doors to be open from 9am to 3pm,” she said. “If they were so concerned of our safety, they could have scheduled times from 6am to noon.”
Zah went on to say that hundreds of people were turned away without explanation.
“At this point idc about the assistance. I wasted my time today!” Zah stated.
Before the skirmish Wednesday morning, Hatathlie said she reached out to Blackwater-Nygren and Arizona state Sen. Myron Tsosie asking how they could help the tribe.
“Maybe somehow we can work together to take water over there, some food, some snacks, and maybe look into, you know, the possibility of moving this event indoors,” Hatathlie said.
Blackwater-Nygren started gathering donations from other fellow state representatives at the State Capitol.
They planned to take the donated items to the event and start handing out water and snacks on Thursday, anticipating they’d be helping about 250 people. After their sessions ended, they loaded the items into their vehicles and went to the visitor center.
Hatathlie said she arrived just before noon when she realized her estimation was off. She called Blackwater-Nygren and told her there were about a thousand people.
“And people were sitting in shades, the palm tree had some shades, and that’s where people were sitting and standing,” Hatathlie said. “NHA, and I think Phoenix Indian Center, had put up some little pop-ups — there were three people congregated underneath.
“Some people brought chairs,” she said, “some people had umbrellas, some people had whole ice chests that they were rolling around out there.”
Blackwater-Nygren said it was “all-hands-on-deck” as soon as she parked her van.
“It was just nonstop; I didn’t even have time to close my van,” she said, adding her babysitter helped her with donated pizza.
Blackwater-Nygren said she witnessed a “physical altercation” involving four or five people as they walked toward the crowd.
“Fists were flying, individuals were being shoved, and, you know, here we are just trying to get people, help get them hydrated and fed,” Blackwater-Nygren said. “Regardless of what was happening — if there was violence, if people were intoxicated — we wanted to help provide some relief.”
She said she learned the fight caused the event to be canceled. So, she went to the visitor center entrance to get some answers from the organizers.
She was told by the people standing in the line they were used to the Phoenix heat and were more than willing to continue waiting in line, even after the fight. She was told the people involved in the fight had left.
“And so, they were hoping to get helped because they were still there,” she said.
But they never got help. Instead, Tulley could be seen in a video explaining why the event was being canceled. He stopped because people started shouting at him.
“The individual, the guy who was talking to them, went back inside, closed the doors,” said Blackwater-Nygren, referring to Tulley.
When police arrived, Blackwater-Nygren noticed their aggressive demeanor. She was told by her colleague Arizona State Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, that their mannerism could turn violent, potentially jeopardizing the crowd’s safety.
“The representative I was with immediately was like, ‘This is not OK, they’re showing us dominance, that this is a real safety concern for the crowd,’” Blackwater-Nygren said of Sierra.
“And he’s coming at it from an urban perspective where white police in uniform, like it’s a scary thing,” she said, “and so he was very concerned for the public’s safety.”
To ensure everyone was safe, she said Sierra called Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallegos to inform her of what was happening at the Steele Indian Park.
Hatahlie said after the police arrived, the crowd began leaving. A few people remained expressing anger and frustration, she said.
She added the tribe had held the same event in Phoenix and Tucson, and people who stood in line at those events told her their experiences were similar.
“They said we’re just tired of the Navajo Nation coming down – and you would think that they learned from the last time,” Hatahlie said. “They set up a similar situation where people were standing in lines waiting for hours.
“And they said, ‘I thought that they would have learned and to know that at this time of the day at this time of the year, the heat is very high. And at least secure a facility where it’s cool instead of having people stand in line outside,’” she said.
Both state officials said they are willing to help should the tribe hold future assistance events in Phoenix. Blackwater-Nygren said she has not heard back from the tribe as of Wednesday.
She added the Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education & Human Services Committee contacted Hatathlie on Monday, asking for a report on what happened last week.
“We will be submitting a report and recommendations,” she said.
Hatathlie said a father and son drove in from Barstow, California, to get an update on their applications. She is not sure if they were able to take care of business before the event was canceled.
“I hope they were seen,” she said.
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