Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Follow Gunner, a student from Navajo Nation, on his daily truck commute along one of the U.S.’s badly neglected tribal roads.
Calling the pickup truck that runs through the Navajo Nation in Black Mesa, Arizona, to the Black Mesa Community School a “bus” may be a stretch. And calling the 119 miles of muddy path a “road” is misleading. Yet, that’s the only way Gunner, a Navajo Nation 6th-grader, gets to and from school every day. Each trip totals up to three hours.
A short film from videographer Jeremy Meek follows Gunner’s daily journey, documenting the bumpy—dangerous,even—ride the 13-year-old endures every day starting at 5 a.m. The “bus” traverses through puddles and unpaved roads, sometimes getting stuck so badly that a second truck has to come pull it out. When it pours, Gunner says in the video, the bus doesn’t come to his home.
But as Meek notes, Gunner’s case isn’t unique. He’s one of 85,000 students who use Navajo Nation’s unpaved tribal roads to get to school. More than three-quarters of the Navajo Nation’s 14,000-mile road network remains unpaved. And while repairing those roads alone will cost $7.9 billion, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has budgeted just $24 million to maintain over 30,000 miles of roads across all tribes.
When routes become impassable because of storms, students often have to skip school for the day. In fact, Navajo students miss 12 days of school every year on average for that very reason, argued Arizona congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick in an op-ed for Navajo Times. In July, Congress passed Kirkpatrick’s amendment, which requires the federal government to cover the costs of repairing and maintaining tribal roads. Currently, she said in a statement, the government covers only 20 percent of maintenance costs, leaving the rest virtually neglected.
She added in her op-ed that this is more than just another transportation issue. “It’s a civil rights issue,” she wrote. “Navajo students deserve the same access to education as any other student in Arizona, New Mexico, or Utah.”