Tony Skrelunas was raised by his grandparents on the Big Mountain Navajo reservation in Arizona, in what he calls “the old lifestyle” of the Diné (Navajo) tribe. His family would move their traditional wood and mud hogan dwellings with the seasons to rotate croplands and pastures. His early life sparked an interest in the economic development of his community and others like it.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a MBA from Northern Arizona University, Skrelunas embarked on a career in sustainable community-based development. As executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Economic Development and Government Development Division, he helped engineer large-scale changes to the nation’s laws and policies to enable effective, thoughtful development. Skrelunas is also a managing partner of Indigenous Community Ventures, Inc., a company that produces hogans made of kiln-dried ponderosa pine. Skrelunas is regarded as a foremost expert on community-based development and is one of the most respected Native American leaders in the US Southwest.
In his current role as the Native America Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust, Skrelunas focuses on building and strengthening sustainable development among native communities on the Colorado Plateau. As part of this work, he manages the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Gatherings – large-scale community meetings that help to reinvigorate and spread traditional knowledge. These gatherings, he says, help uncover new ways of working with tribal communities that respect and honor their traditions and promote knowledge-sharing among tribes.
What inspired you to go into this work?
I was really interested in the dynamic of our communities and how they make decisions related to development. And I saw our nation constantly promoting Westernized development. There wasn’t even an acknowledgment that we have people who are sheepherders, or who grow heirloom seeds, or who know how to build hogans. That’s development that mainstream development forgets about. There’s going to be a day when we don’t have any more sheepherders or plant gatherers. I saw that as a vision of what could happen if things didn’t change. Then I just got into the work. I knew that the processes had to be traditional. There had to be elders guiding it. I knew I’d have to spend a lot of time educating a lot of people, reacquainting tribal people with these processes.
What are some obstacles to community-based economic development?
Say there’s a family with a cornfield or a sheep herd, and let’s say they want to [develop] some of it commercially. They might want to sell some of it at the flea market on Fridays. Right now there are hardly any policies that consider them. There are no incentives for them to incorporate or good financing programs designed for them. In a lot of the tribal work, these are sectors that do not get acknowledged in any of the planning.
For example, grazing permit law, in the old way, allows people to move their herds. But there’s not enough land anymore to rotate sheepherding areas, and there’s no planning or development for that. Or let’s say somebody starts a hogan B&B to do a home-based business on their traditional land. If they incorporate under Navajo tribal laws, the nation wants them to track all their revenues and other things, and it kind of overdoes it. It’s a disincentive to do anything official.
How do you change those things?
The Western economic driver is to maximize revenue and the economic potential of an area, and that really collides with the traditional rhythm. So what we’re trying to do is to design a platform that doesn’t bring those pressures – an investment platform for those who want to help a business but don’t necessarily need the high return. And we have a breakthrough: We have an incubator – the Native American Business Incubator Network – that’s helping businesses that are really, really small. Then we have a social venture, the Hózhó L3C [a limited liability company], that’s going to do enterprises that are social ventures. We changed Navajo laws to accommodate the L3C set-up.
The Hózhó is creating markets for produce, and we want to create a larger venture that’s all about processing and packaging. Things like processing sheep in a way designed for the Navajo consumer: butchered in a traditional way that’s maximized, but that’s also processed and packaged. One of the businesses that we helped extensively was the Mesa Demonstration Ranch – 40 Navajo ranches that run premium Angus cattle. They monitor the land using traditional knowledge and they rotate grazing areas. We worked to help them find a market for their food, and are helping them think through their business and marketing.
What opportunities does your work provide Native communities?
Most of our work is about protecting language, culture, environment. We bring people together around issues. It ties to the economics – elders coming together to say: “We want to preserve our farming systems and seed. And to teach new farmers how to do low-water farming. And to share knowledge across tribes. We want to share cooking methodologies. We want to support tribal sharing of knowledge.”
It’s been the strongest part of our work over our past five years. We have built a learning center around that work on the reservation. We have farmers mentoring new farmers. We’re funding things like watershed restoration, spring restoration. We’re supporting tribes to relearn cultivation techniques.
We also collaborate around protecting sacred places. For example, we’re helping facilitate an ongoing project of 10 tribes to establish the Bear’s Ears National Conservation Area in southern Utah, which would be a National Monument. The tribe will be at the table co-managing the whole thing and deciding levels of protection and access. And under the Navajo Nation, there’s now an effort to create a major national-park-caliber tribal park covering the whole east side of the Grand Canyon all the way to Monument Valley.
What is the process for working with many tribes at once?
All this work that I’ve been talking about is underneath the gathering. It guides all our work on social entrepreneurship. Right from the start, we’ve said this is a tribal effort. We did years and years of gatherings. We studied the old processes. We studied how tribes came together and shared their intimate knowledge of certain mountains, deserts, canyons. There really are common teachings, and so we studied how those things occurred and we tried to replicate that in this intertribal gathering process. We found the cultural leaders and the people who still know these things and who have been involved in these gatherings for years. So it really was easy, because there was a high level of trust and credibility.
The Grand Canyon Trust is a nonprofit that represents the Colorado Plateau, and the Trust was the impetus for the gathering. They wanted to have something that was directed by the tribe. They didn’t want to say, “We have solutions for you guys.” The gathering permeates the Trust in every aspect of its work, but it’s run by the elders. It’s unique for an organization to do this.
What are your favorite parts of doing this work?
My favorite part is working with the people, and having an organization that stands behind you to do what the tribal people want. I just got back from Montreal. I met with a bunch of Navajo youth who were marching across the reservation in the heat – they want to raise awareness of all these environmental issues. Having a late dinner with them and agreeing to support them. That’s the kind of organization that we have. Being able to make that decision right there without a doubt.
This is full-on engagement. It’s nice to be part of an organization that’s full-on engaged. The Trust is really representing the plateau. We’re at the forefront of new ways of structuring work with tribal communities in a respectful, honorable way where the tribes are the ones that tell us how to do it.
One of the best things is that we have been able to find young people from different tribes to work for us. We have kids that are in their mid-twenties, and they’ve totally bought into this. They’re the ones who have learned everything about farming. They’re running the workshops. They’re making the videos. They’re running farmers’ markets. They’ve really taken this work to a whole other level. When I started this work – which I did in grad school about 20 years ago— I had few colleagues. But now the youth are just all about this kind of stuff. I think the future’s really, really bright. I’m very hopeful.
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