Jobs, education, health care improvements are focus
Ned Norris Jr. has his work cut out for him.
As the new head of the Tohono O’odham Nation, he inherits a lot of problems, including a lack of economic development aside from casinos, the highest rate of diabetes of any population in the world and a problem with illegal immigrants and smuggler violence.
It’s his turn to improve the life of his people by attracting more business, increasing higher education, improving health care and combating poverty levels of 46.4 percent – along with dealing with illegal immigrant issues – all issues that affect everyone in the Old Pueblo.
He must oversee the rebuilding of one of the O’odham casinos, which will feature a hotel for the first time.
Norris outlined the priorities of his administration in an interview Wednesday with the Tucson Citizen, after winning the general election on Saturday.
Question: How are you planning to work on attracting businesses to the reservation?
Answer: Before we work on attracting businesses, we need to prepare the way. There is a lot of groundwork to be done. In many cases, we don’t have the laws necessary. We have no building codes, no infrastructure codes. We also need to set aside land for industrial development. The first step we need to take is (to) invest dollars in infrastructure: water, power, sewer. We need to give them (businesses) reasons to come out to the Nation.
Q: What kinds of businesses would you like to attract?
A: Caterpillar is here now. This is good, a good example of what we want. We need to look at what is out there. If there is an opportunity to bring (in) a manufacturing plant, we will do it. But at this time, we need to keep our options open. There may be a level of competition with Tucson in attracting businesses, but I don’t believe there will be a negative impact from this competition. What we do can be complementary to Tucson businesses.
Q: Do you have a specific plan of action to address issues such as economic development?
A: We;sij T-wem is a Tohono O’odham expression that means “all of us together.” We will engage our leadership to determine the future, make plans together, agree on a path together. This is very critical. We should all be on the same page. Everyone needs to buy into the issue and the solution so it can work. Everyone should have a role. I don’t agree with top-down policies.
Q: The casinos are very popular and very lucrative. What is their future?
A: We are building a new hotel and casino near the Desert Diamond (Casino) on Nogales Highway. It is a replacement facility for the existing casino. The hotel will have 150 rooms and it will be ready to open sometime in the fall. The hotel business is new to us. We need to do other things to keep growing. We need to diversify the way the Nation is getting its revenue.
Q: What can be done to help your people become more self-reliant?
A: Over time we lost that (self-reliance). Now some people are, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”
We need to rediscover our self-reliance, be self-sufficient again. But what we must do is provide some help for people to jump-start their lives. I am a very good example of that. At the age of 23, I was given an opportunity by the Nation. They hired me as a nonattorney tribal judge for juveniles.
Q: Will higher education become a more prominent part of your effort?
A: Our effort is not new. Since 1995, anyone (of the Nation) who wants to go to college has everything paid for. Some succeed and graduate; other don’t. The problem is what comes after. Some college graduates do come back, but most don’t. There is nothing for them to do here. We are not ready to receive them. We need to create 21st-century job opportunities.
Q: The Tohono O’odham land is one of the major corridors for illegal immigration to the U.S. What is your position on this issue?
A: Historically, my people have been very compassionate. They gave shelter, water and food to passing migrants for many, many years.
We have no problem with migrants. They want to come here for a better job and a better life. But Operation Gatekeeper came and then 9/11 came and with them came increased security to the east and west of our 75-mile border we share with Mexico. So there was a funnel effect to our nation. It has been estimated that 1,500 migrants come in every single day through our land. The Border Patrol says the numbers have decreased, but there is a difference of opinion.
With increased numbers, problems in our land increase, too. Our people don’t feel secure. People’s homes are broken into. Their cars are stolen. We are held captive in our own environment and our sacred sites are often desecrated by vehicle and human traffic.
Because of the increase in Border Patrol presence, there is a militarized zone on our border with Mexico, which creates sovereignty issues and cuts off about 1,500 members of our nation that live across the border. We need to work with both state and federal agencies to find a solution.
Q: What will your relationship be with the Bureau of Indian Affairs?
A: The Nation has exercised its sovereignty for some time now. It was not easy in the beginning, but the BIA is more accepting now. We work within the federal system, but much like the state of Arizona, we are sovereign. We don’t have to go to the BIA every time we blow our nose.
Q: What will you do to create closer ties with Tucson?
A: We have to understand them (people outside the Nation) and they have to understand us. Only by knowing each other can that be done. We need to bring the two together. (People outside the Nation) learn about our culture as well as how to engage ourselves when we leave the Nation’s land. Also, we have a lot to gain from existing organizations in Tucson.
We worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs. They came and showed us how to create our own clubs and we did. There are ideas in Tucson’s organizations and we should bring them here.
Why reinvent the wheel? We can also give to Tucson. Tucson has not taken advantage of our culture. An example of a city that did was Albuquerque, where the architecture reflects the local Native American culture. We can also partner with the University of Arizona. We already did that with Pima Community College.
Q: Health care has been a hot-button issue here for some time. What will your approach be?
A: For many years, health care has been a top priority. The Department of Health Care Services of the Nation is the biggest one we have. But our services are too centralized. Everything is in Sells. We need to decentralize services, make them more accessible to the people. We should decentralize personnel, equipment and offices so we can provide better services to the more remote areas.
ON THE WEB
Tohono O’odham Nation
O’odham choices: Juan-Saunders, Norris
THE TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION
The Tohono O’odham Nation is similar in size to Connecticut.
Its four noncontiguous segments total more than 2.8 million acres.
Within its land, the Nation has established an industrial park that is near Tucson. Tenants include Caterpillar, the maker of heavy equipment; the Desert Diamond Casino, an enterprise of the Nation; and a 23-acre foreign trade zone.
The largest community, Sells, (about 60 miles west of Tucson) functions as the Nation’s capital.
Of the four land segments, the largest contains more than 2.7 million acres.
Boundaries begin south of Casa Grande and encompass parts of Pinal and Pima counties before continuing south into Mexico.
San Xavier is the second largest segment and contains 71,095 acres just south of Tucson.
The smaller segments include the 10,409-acre San Lucy District near Gila Bend and the 20-acre Florence Village near Florence.
As of December 2000, the population was reported at nearly 24,000, and now it is close to 25,000.
The Nation has about 28,000 members, many of them living outside its boundaries.
The Nation is west of Tucson and shares 75 miles of border with Mexico.
Sources: Intertribal Council of Arizona and the Tucson Citizen
NED NORRIS JR. BIO
● He was born in 1955 and raised in Tucson.
● He attended elementary and junior high schools in Flagstaff and Sunnyside High School in Tucson. He received a certification in social work from Pima Community College and took classes at the University of Arizona.
● Norris started his employment with the Tohono O’odham Nation in 1978 as a nonattorney tribal judge and held the position until 1993.
● He served as a Sunnyside Unified School District board member from 1997 to 2000.
● Norris was hired as marketing and public relations director for the O’odham Gaming Authority. He resigned in 2003 following his election as vice chairman of the Nation.
● He works as assistant director of public relations for the Desert Diamond Casino.
The Tohono O’odham Nation general election
Ned Norris Jr., 51, won the election Saturday, running against incumbent Vivian Juan-Saunders
Norris received 1,766 of the 3,105 votes, said a spokesman for the Nation.
Norris served as tribal vice chairman, but resigned in July, citing his sense that Juan-Saunders lacked trust in his abilities.
Juan-Saunders and Norris were the top vote-getters in a field of five candidates in Saturday’s primary election.
Juan-Saunders, 47, the first woman to head the Nation’s 25,000 members, was elected in 2003.