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Technology, ingenuity deliver addresses to UT residents of Navajo Nation

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Monday, December 11, 2023   

By Peter Yeung for Yes! Magazine.
Broadcast version by Alex Alex Gonzalez for Utah News Connection reporting for the Yes! Magazine-Public News Service Collaboration


About five miles north of the Arizona border, drive straight along a sand-swept road as it snakes through brush-covered foothills, keep going beyond a row of barns with rusting reddish roofs, make a left after a gray boulder, and the road will eventually lead to a cul-de-sac lined by two dozen homes. This is Navajo Mountain, Utah.

The tiny Native American settlement is named after the sacred, 10,000-foot-high sandstone peak that dominates the craggy skyline. It has been inhabited for centuries. It is in one of the most remote parts of the Beehive State, and in turn, the entire continental United States.

“Everything on Navajo Mountain is scattered and isolated,” says Dalene Redhorse, who was born in the town of Mexican Waters, around 60 miles to the east. “There are many off-roads with just one house. It’s not like a city here. Everything takes time.”

Redhorse is one of two “addressing specialists” at the nonprofit Rural Utah Project who, since 2019, have been going door-to-door visiting every home in the western half of Utah’s San Juan County, which includes Navajo Mountain. Her goal: to connect off-the-grid residents with essential services that they have often been denied.

Across Navajo Nation—the largest and most populous Native American reservation in the country, spanning 27,000 square miles and three states—formal street addresses are a rarity. Out of the more than 60,000 structures, fewer than 500 are on roads with names and house numbers, according to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

The culture of the Navajo, who are also known as Diné, is ancient, but modern American governments have imposed a systematized, Western concept of territory onto these communities. This has effectively erased their holistic relationship with ancestral lands and created staggering inequality. More than 40% of the Diné live in poverty, 48.5% are unemployed, 60% lack broadband, and 40% don’t have running water at home. Those structural issues played a role when Navajo Nation at one point reached the highest COVID infection rate in the U.S. (though thanks to community mobilization it also achieved a far higher vaccination rate than the national average).

The Diné say they have suffered because fundamental services and amenities such as emergency healthcare, mail delivery, broadband internet, government-issued IDs, and the right to vote often require having a formally recognized address. 

“I had to describe landmarks to direct the ambulance,” says Gordon Folgheraiter, 66, recalling an incident when his brother once cut his head after falling off a truck in Navajo Mountain. “I said: ‘Go to the end of the highway, continue for two miles, pass a house on the left with a red roof, and then turn right,’” adds Folgheraiter, who was then told by the dispatcher to stand outside wearing bright clothing to flag down the vehicle.

But steps have tentatively been made in the right direction. Last year Folgheraiter had a bright blue plaque mounted on his front door after Redhorse visited. All of the 800 or so residents of Navajo Mountain now have one.

Each sign is embossed with a plus code (e.g., 859F365C+W2) in bold white lettering. This acts as a physical confirmation of the home’s location for deliverers, emergency services, and visitors. These fixed, simplified, 10-digit versions of traditional geocoordinates pinpoint a location to within three square meters. 

The open-source Plus Code tool, developed by Google, allows codes to be generated anywhere on the globe and instantly located on Google Maps. “It helps everyone get on the same page,” says Patricia Blackhorn, chapter president of Navajo Mountain. “People can just look it up.”

The technology is simple, but the ability to easily communicate a location without a street address could have a transformative impact on the world’s most marginalized populations. Beyond the sparsely populated expanses of remote Utah, creating addresses for informal spaces could bring change to densely packed urban areas that also lack addresses, such as in Lagos, Delhi, and Rio de Janeiro. One billion people lived in informal settlements in 2018, according to the UN, and by 2030 that number will triple.

The Rural Utah Project is focusing on Navajo Nation, where it worked to obtain buy-in from local officials. The project is also deploying plus codes in other San Juan County communities such as Bluff, Mexican Hat, and the White Mesa Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Separately, plus code projects are at various stages of deployment by other organizations in dozens of other countries, including India, Egypt, and Brazil.

For Folgheraiter, it means he no longer has to drive 50 miles to the post office to pick up packages from certain delivery companies. In San Juan County, there are countless uses—to buy vehicles, to locate ceremonies in remote areas, and, as one young student needed: to prove her residency for in-state tuition rates. The Utah Navajo Health System uses plus codes for patient home visits, and during the pandemic they proved invaluable for delivering supplies to those in need.

In addition to the technology, another crucial ingredient has been painstaking human labor: Initially, Redhorse and her colleague spent months scouring satellite imagery on Google Maps, zooming in over the arid landscape to locate homes. They identified 5,600 potential structures across San Juan County, but when they went to confirm each one in person, which involved long days of driving (the county has fewer than two people per square mile on average), many turned out to be rocks or abandoned houses—only half were occupied homes.

During her visits, Redhorse explains to residents how to use plus codes with emergency services, and also updates household voter registration and provides nonpartisan information about elections. The Rural Utah Project identified voting as a key target because flawed registration of rural, remote households has had a significant impact on democratic rights of the Diné: Research by the nonprofit found 87.7% of Diné residents were registered by San Juan County at the wrong location and a quarter in the wrong precinct

“That was a massive problem for democracy,” says TJ Ellerbeck, the organization’s executive director. “There had never been a Navajo majority on the County Commission even though there is a majority Navajo population in the county.”

Since plus codes were deployed in San Juan County, which now accepts them as a valid address for voter registration, democratic participation has reached historic highs. Analysis by the Rural Utah Project found turnout in majority Native precincts has rocketed from 52% in 2014 to 87.6% in 2020. Along the way, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy were elected as commissioners in 2019 to form the first-ever Native American majority on the County Commission. Plus codes are considered a major factor in that rise, alongside the switch from mail-only voting and the provision of polling places with interpreters, as well as a redistricting of county seats after a court ruled they were gerrymandered against the Diné

While turnout dropped in 2022, a midterm election, it was still the highest-ever overall number of midterm Native votes cast in the county, only slightly behind the historic high of 2020’s presidential election.

Before plus codes, Grayeyes, who is a longtime resident of Navajo Mountain in Utah but was relying on an Arizona mailing address, was temporarily removed from the ballot after a complaint was filed against his residency eligibility. “I threw my hat into the ring and then sparks started flying,” says the 77-year-old, who helped establish the Bears Ears National Monument. “All this time, Native Americans have been disenfranchised and our lands have been taken,” he says. “But we won. We were rewarded for persisting.”

Despite the benefits plus codes have brought, however, they have limits. While UPS and FedEx recognize them, the United States Postal Service (USPS) and Amazon don’t. For Diné representatives, there’s exasperation at a system that continues to disenfranchise them. “The norm does not factor in places such as Navajo Nation,” says Leonard Gorman, executive director at Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. “It impedes our people’s human rights.”

A spokesperson for the USPS said plus codes are “not consistent with the sorting and delivery operations used by the Postal Service” since the company is limited to “what is considered a traditional address format.” Amazon said in an emailed statement that it uses the USPS “as our source of truth for U.S. address information.”

In addition, the broader issue of mapping Indigenous lands has led to skepticism due to the historic and ongoing exploitation of Native Americans by outsiders. “Some residents have been worried about being numbered, placed, exposed,” says Redhorse. “Even my grandfather used to say: ‘Don’t let the white man map your homes.’”

But plus codes are only given out to those who want one, adds Redhorse, and increasingly Diné are proactively reaching out to request them. 

Google developed the open-source software so anyone can generate a plus code for any location in the world. It’s free and instantaneous and no data is collected. The Rural Utah Project is using the tool (along with its ground-truthing teams) to confirm the location of homes and install the signs. 

Google says the company’s only involvement is to provide the signs for free. “We wouldn’t have designed Plus Codes if it wasn’t open source,” says Doug Rinckes, its creator. “An address is official, but nobody owns it. For me, an address is something that you are assigned, but not something you have to pay for.”

The Navajo Nation Addressing Authority is taking a different, longer-term approach: naming the streets. A team of three is working with the reservation’s chapters to create road names, which must be translated from Navajo into English—Naatsis’áán means Navajo Mountain, for example—before they can produce street signs. About 20 of the 110 chapters of the territory have put up signs since 2010. 

“Plus codes are only a supplement to what we’re doing,” says M.C. Baldwin, who oversees the authority’s rural addressing activities. “The part that’s missing is the physical address for the people that live out there. If we had a physical address for every house on Navajo Nation, it would be postal-compliant.”

So while Baldwin’s efforts and plus codes are making a huge difference for some residents and their representation, these solutions only touch on a fraction of the stark challenges across Navajo Nation: limited cell signals and grid electricity, contaminated water sources, and the threats of infrastructure development. But a new generation of Diné sees the technological advance as an opportunity to empower themselves and transform their homeland for the better. 

Shandiin Herrera, 26, lives in Monument Valley, a red-sand desert region along the Colorado Plateau marked by enormous sandstone buttes. After a lifetime without internet at home, she used her plus code last year to sign up for the satellite-powered internet provider, Starlink.

“I tried every other internet service, but none of it worked because I needed to enter an address,” says Herrera. “But I just tried my plus code on Starlink and it zoomed straight into my address. I was so excited. I can even watch Netflix now.”

A public policy graduate of Duke University and a fellow with Lead for America, Herrera has also used the tool for the betterment of her community. When the pandemic hit, Herrera became the leader of the Utah Navajo Nation COVID-19 response. Her team delivered food, medicine, and PPE to more than 1,500 households.

“The biggest challenge was finding people’s homes,” she says. “We’d hear: ‘Take the third dirt road, go past the brown house, and look for a place with a red car outside.’ For us, plus codes were easy. It was a luxury. But not everyone has one yet.”

For now, though, Herrera feels that after years witnessing the maddening difficulty in tracking down homes on the reservation, and often having lost ambulances turn up at her house asking for directions, the way forward might finally have arrived. 

“People always told me you need to get off the Rez to be successful,” says Herrera, leaning against her wood-paneled home; a tiny speck on the sandy horizon. “But I’ve always been proud of being Diné. I believe we can rewrite our own future.”


Peter Yeung wrote this article for Yes! Magazine.


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