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Cursed by Coal: Mining the Navajo Nation

Episode 4C: A Young Public Health Professional In The Navajo Nation

In the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the U.S., members of the tribe in their 20s are taking on leadership roles. Celena McCray, 27, has a degree in community health education from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  She’s been working as the legislative district assistant to Jonathan Hale, one of 24 council delegates – the lawmakers of the Navajo Nation. He also chairs the Health, Education and Human Services Committee. 

Celena was laid off this week when the line item in the budget for legislative district assistant was vetoed. She plans to get her Master of Public Health (MPH) and continue working to help her people. 

“This is my roots, this is who I am and where I come from,” she said. “One of my main initiatives is really helping the youth… one of the areas I’m really interested in addressing is suicide prevention.”  

She’d like to see the Navajo Nation do more to address housing issues and take care of veterans. Another issue she sees is the lack of opportunity for young people who return to the Navajo Nation, after going to college.

“We have educated people who received their master’s, doctorates, you know they did so much – great credentials – but when they come back to the Nation, they get turned away, they get their job applications denied due to no experience,” she said. “That’s really hard, because you know I think these innovative, smart people who are encouraged to come back and help their people after receiving their education, they should have a place here. They should be able to have a chance to improve the Nation and move the Nation forward with their knowledge and skill, but that’s not happening.”

The Navajo language is a hot-button issue right now, as one of the two presidential candidates in the upcoming election is not fluent. There’s a question of whether that’s against Navajo law. But it’s common for people in Celena’s generation to not speak the language fluently. She wishes she could. 

“I came to question why my parents never taught me Navajo – because they’re full-blown fluent,” she said. Her parents explained, “‘we didn’t want you guys to have any troubles with academics’… but the funny part is today they do say they wish they taught us, and they came to understand why it’s so important.”

Celena says she’s proud to be Navajo, and she encourages people to learn about the Navajo Nation by visiting. 

“Being Navajo is a beautiful thing,” she said. “I think a lot of people should get a chance to just come out to the Nation – besides looking at our poverty levels and diabetes epidemic and so forth. I think they’ll really enjoy the beauty of being here, be surrounded by culture, really take a look at the landscape here, because the Nation is a very beautiful place. And then also the food - the food’s also a great thing.”

-Rachel

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