Neda Billie has been waiting to turn on lights in her home for 15 years.
“We’ve been living off those propane lanterns,” she says. “Now we don’t have to have flashlights everywhere. All the kids have a flashlight so when they get up in the middle of the night like to use the restroom they have a flashlight to go to [the outhouse].”
Billie, her husband and their five kids live in a tiny, one-room hogan, a traditional Navajo home. Their three sheep graze on sagebrush that carpets the rolling hills of Dilkon, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the U.S.
They watch two men in a cherry picker hook up the last power line to their home. Billie says they’ve gone through too many generators to count.
“My two boys, they have really bad allergies and they have asthma, so sometimes they need the nebulizer,” Billie says. “So we usually go to my mom’s house, travel in the middle of the night over there back and forth.”
The Billies are not alone. About 10% of Navajos on the reservation live without electricity. And as much as 40% of them have to haul their water and use outhouses. A poll of rural Americans conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that more than a quarter of Native Americans have experienced problems with electricity, the Internet and with the safety of their drinking water.
Northern Arizona University professor Manley Begay Jr., who is Navajo, says the numbers are probably even higher. Begay says electricity provides more than just light. With electricity, a family can pump water, charge their phone, store food, even get and maintain a job.
“Electricity itself provides a tremendous amount of convenience and having access to the world at large,” Begay says. “You can just imagine if you were to fill out an application for a job, you do it online and you send it in. Or you’re Googling for information — if you don’t have electricity, you’re in trouble.”
Begay says he recently saw something strange when he pulled into a hotel parking lot in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation. He noticed a bunch of teenagers in their cars.
“You could tell that they were high school students,” Begay says. “They were doing their homework outside this hotel in the parking lot. They had the light on in their cars and doing their homework. It became quite clear that they didn’t have Internet.”
Outside the Billies’ home, the couple waits patiently for the crew to finish the job. Brian Cooper from P&M Electric has an update.
“We’ll get a meter going and you should have electricity,” Cooper says. “Can’t wait to see the real smile here in a minute. Don’t cover it up! I want to see it! That’s what joy looks like.”
Cooper traveled from New Mexico along with several other crews from around the country volunteering their time to connect people like the Billies to the power grid.
On the Navajo Nation, the homes are so spread out that it costs $40,000 on average to hook up one home to the grid. And half the tribe is unemployed. So you can’t raise rates to energize all those homes. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the nonprofit American Public Power Association have put a call out to utilities across the U.S. to help.
“I had no idea there were people still in 2019 without power,” Cooper says.
Finally, after waiting for so long, the Billies watch the foreman turn on the meter behind their house and snap the cover shut. Neda then runs inside to flip the switch.
“It’s so exciting to finally have electricity here after so many years without it,” Billie says. “My kids are going to be so happy. They keep asking every day. … They go, ‘Mom we’re going to have light! We’re going to finally have light!’ ”
Now the family will wait and pray for running water and Internet.