CROWNPOINT, N.M. — Along Interstate 40, between Grants and Gallup, New Mexico, there’s a sign for Crownpoint, Chaco Canyon and Farmington that points drivers north to New Mexico Highway 371.
The highway leads into vibrant red hills and mesas; gateways into the Navajo Nation, which spans more than 27,000 square miles and is the largest Native American reservation in the country.
With a population of about 3,000, Crownpoint, the capitol of the Navajo Nation’s Eastern Agency, is a hub for offices and federal programs. It’s also an oasis of education where students attend secondary schools and two tribal colleges.
Food choices, however, are in short supply.
There is Bashas’, the only grocery store for 56 miles, where residents can find almost anything, even kimchi, the Korean side dish.
Nearby is Grandma’s Restaurant, the only sit-and-eat restaurant in town with a basic diner menu. It includes Mexican favorites like red or green chile smothered breakfast burritos, tacos and enchiladas. The owners are from Gallup where they have another location.
There also is the Indian Market, a flea market with a large collection of food trucks where vendors sell a variety of Navajo, Native American, regional and fusion foods like frybread, mutton stew, roast corn stew and Frito pies.
Most food trucks are actually horse trailers or small RVs, with panels or plywood sides that make them safe to sell from. A few of them are semi-permanent and they never move.
Silago’s Food Stand is one.
Owner Lorena Silago is quick to strike up a lively conversation. She laughs a lot.
Silago, who has culinary arts training, has cooked and sold Navajo foods for 45 years in and around Crownpoint.
“My mom always said, ‘you have to be nice to people and food is a good way to be nice to people,’” she said as she leaned over the counter on the side of her food truck.
But she never achieved one goal: owning her own restaurant.
“Every time I started my paperwork, the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) was there to stop me,” she said with indignation.
Crownpoint is a tough place to start a business. In part, because aspiring entrepreneurs confront a tangle of challenges.
Among the challenges is a now defunct federal policy dating back a century that creates difficulty today for some Navajo entrepreneurs to qualify for a business loan. The General Allotment Act of 1887, also called the Dawes Act, split large swaths of reservation lands across the country into individual and family allotments. While it is possible, obtaining clean title to allotment land is often difficult because the original parcels have become so fractionated over time among heirs. A single plot could have 100s or 1000s of owners who have an undivided interest in the land, the majority of whom need to give consent to anyone who wants to utilize the land.
The Dawes Act also introduced a policy that continues to this day in which non-allotment land on reservations is largely held in trust by the federal government.
In a 2014 law review article, Dr. Gavin Clarkson, associate professor in the finance department in the college of business at New Mexico State University, argued that the Dawes Act hampered economic development on the reservation, and its legacy continues to do so.
“An artifact of a long since discredited congressional policy called Allotment, federally-imposed restrictions on trust land make it nearly impossible for on-reservation entrepreneurs to secure startup financing, as they cannot borrow against the equity they have in their homes,” he and his co-author, Alisha Murphy, wrote last year (The author of this article, Andi Murphy, and Alisha Murphy are sisters). “As a result, there are fewer entrepreneurial ventures on reservations and thus fewer options for on-reservation consumers to spend their money on reservation.”
“It (the Allotment Act) was one of the most devastating, stupid congressional policies,” Clarkson said during an interview. “Only in Indian Country do you have to get permission from Washington D.C. to do things with your land.”
These land issues might be unknown to non-Native populations, but they are part of the historic fabric of reservation life. There is particular complexity in the Eastern Agency, often referred to in northwestern New Mexico as the checkerboard area of the Navajo Nation.
“On the eastern side, that’s a whole different story,” said Ryan James, Navajo Nation Land Department GIS analysis. The Eastern Agency is considered Indian Country, a patchwork of trust, fee, BLM, state and federal lands, plus private property. All other parts of the Navajo Nation reservation are trust lands (held in trust by the federal government), James said.
Victoria Largo, who operates Victoria’s Pizza, a popular culinary fixture in Crownpoint, knows the challenges first-hand.
In the front of Largo’s yard is a pizza trailer fitted with a conventional oven and stocked with take-out boxes, sauces and toppings. Largo, a tall woman who is even taller with her chef’s hat on, moves quick in the trailer and shouts commands to her children to fill orders in 20 minutes.
At dinner time, pizzas fly out of the trailer. Largo and her children are working like a well-oiled pizza machine.
“I really wanted to open up a restaurant here,” she said.
Largo made the first moves to start a restaurant a few times and gave up due to bureaucracy or complications with land issues, she said.
Starting a restaurant in Crownpoint requires a person to find the means to construct a building because there are no vacant restaurant locations to choose from.
And they would have to do it without any home equity loans, which are the most common loans that start up small businesses, Clarkson said.
That’s money many people don’t have on the Navajo Nation where 43 percent live below the poverty level and the unemployment rate is 42 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
As a single mother of three, Largo couldn’t see herself affording the $2,000 monthly rent at the Navajo Nation Shopping Center, she said.
Off the reservation and in border towns, Native and non-Native businesses are easier and cheaper to start, Clarkson said.
Money made from people living on the reservation supports those off-reservation businesses. According to a survey by the Navajo Nation Support Services Department (page 13 of: http://www.navajobusiness.com/pdf/CEDS/CEDS%202002-03.pdf), 71 percent of all money made by Navajos living on the Navajo Nation is spent off the reservation.
Clarkson refers to this broken economic cycle as “tribal leakage.”
It might be challenging to start a sit-down restaurant in Crownpoint. What is apparent is that there is a market for food lovers. The town is a destination for tourists who visit Chaco Culture National Historic Park, 37 miles northeast, and the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction, which takes place every second Friday of the month at Crownpoint Elementary School. They come from all over the country, and from all over the world, for these attractions.
Largo recalls the time she fed visitors from Switzerland. She let them park their RV in front of her house, where she makes and sells pizza from a small trailer parked in the driveway.
“It’s not like we have nothing out here,” said Rita Capitan, Crownpoint Chapter House president.
Homemade signs in front of houses and along the main streets advertise ice cream sundaes, enchiladas or shaved ice for sale. In the evenings, cars or trucks drive around the neighborhoods slowly. The kids in the back shout “Sno Cones!” and the adults in front honk the horn twice. Sometimes, neighborhood children knock on doors to sell cupcakes or banana bread straight out of baking pans and Tupperware.
And, if one knows where to look, they can get Thai food from K.K.’s Thai Kitchen, as advertised on a business card pinned to Bashas’ bulletin board.
“Navajos love Asian food and Mexican food,” Capitan said. “So actually we kind of have it made even though we don’t have much.”
Largo, after 18 years of operating Victoria’s Pizza out of her house and food trailer, still occasionally hears questions about her on-hold plans for a restaurant.
“I hear people tell me, ‘when are you going to open up?’” Largo said. “I have a lot of support from the people in Crownpoint.”
Andi Murphy, Navajo, is originally from Crownpoint. She currently lives in Albuquerque.