As Navajo Businesses Work toward Reopening, Federal Official Visits to See Their Progress

As Navajo Businesses Work toward Reopening, Federal Official Visits to See Their Progress

Ashkai Baa LaFrance-Chachere had always dreamt of owning a beauty store on the Navajo Nation. That dream came true in 2020 with the opening of Ah-Shi Beauty store in Window Rock.

The store enjoyed about two weeks of normalcy before the pandemic hit and on March 17, 2020, she and other Navajo small business owners shut their doors. She had also opened a beauty studio and gift shop in Gallup, New Mexico, but that location remains closed and won’t be opening anytime soon.

“This place right here is still super slow,” said LaFrance-Chachere about her Window Rock location. “I haven’t seen potential in this place yet.”

The toll the pandemic took on Navajo-owned small businesses was harsh. It was over a year before small businesses were allowed to reopen slowly, while the rest of the country had already reopened. Tour businesses on Navajo waited even longer to restart, causing concern they wouldn’t be able to open in time for the summer crowd.

The Navajo Nation has been extra cautious with COVID-19 mandates and continues to hold in place strict mask mandates, while other tribes, such as Laguna Pueblo, have lifted that mandate. Throughout the pandemic, Navajo President Jonathan Nez emphasized listening to health care providers and scientists when it came to making decisions to keep tribal members safe. That included when to reopen businesses.

“It’s not easy to keep that ‘open’ sign open. We are still dealing with the pandemic,” said LaFrance-Chachere.  “Still dealing with the variant. I’m very happy that our nation is being cautious with mask mandates and making sure we operate and care for our people accordingly.”

U.S. official tours businesses

Isabella Casillas Guzman, the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited the Navajo Nation in February and spoke with small business owners about their concerns and recommendations. She also discussed the economic impact of the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

During her visit, she toured LaFrance-Chachere’s Ah-Shi Beauty store in Window Rock. Ah-Shi beauty is the first Native American-owned beauty brand in the country to open a store, and when Guzman visited the store, she saw the display of makeup on sale. Guzman was also able to try the coffee the store sells, and see the chaha’oh (shade house) that LaFrance-Chachere wanted specifically in her store.

“They really liked the chaha’oh,” said LaFrance-Chachere. “The story behind it is, we don’t just do things. Everything has a purpose. This chaha’oh, our people cooked under it, we still do. Weavers wove masterpieces under it. We met and traded. We planned. Everything goes down underneath the chaha’oh.”

When Guzman visited Ah-Shi beauty and other local businesses and met with business owners at a roundtable discussion, she was given insights into what economic development on Navajo looks like and what the challenges are.

“I am truly inspired by the Navajo entrepreneurs I met who have innovated to navigate the unique challenges rural business owners face — including a lack of delivery facilities and street addresses to receive shipments and limited broadband access,” said Guzman.

She said the SBA is committed to helping ensure Navajo entrepreneurs seize the opportunities available through President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law. The law will bring $11 billion in new infrastructure projects across Indian Country, including affordable high-speed internet.

The infrastructure bill includes $3.5 billion for the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program; $3 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation Tribal Transportation Program; $2.5 billion to address approved Indian water rights settlements; $2 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to expand broadband access on tribal lands and Hawaiian homelands.

‘It’s not for the weak’

But even before the pandemic, owning and operating a small business on the Navajo Nation has been a challenge. LaFrance-Chachere said her business in Window Rock will always mean a lot to her because she was able to develop the business plan, find a partnership with Navajo Shopping Centers Inc. and actually establish her store despite the obstacles and bureaucracy.

“With the history of Navajo businesses,” said LaFrance-Chachere, “they come, they go. We don’t really flourish like we should, like how our enterprises do. Operating on Navajo, it’s not for the weak.”

JT Willie, director of the Navajo Division of Economic Development, said although some small businesses shut down temporarily during the pandemic, they have reopened, though it will take awhile before all businesses are back on their feet due to changes in prices of goods and supplies. Still, he said, most of them have kept their momentum.

There are over 200 registered businesses with the Navajo Nation that are Navajo-owned, and 6,300 artisan and small businesses that identify as sole proprietors identified through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act’s Artisan and Business Grant.

Willie said his division assisted with the application process for grants, and businesses were assisted with the financial support of up to $60,000. The allotted funding was designated at $60 million, and DED will continue this program for further assistance to artisans and small businesses.

“We have been in consultation with many businesses on their status and modification of their business routines through the pandemic,” said Willie. “Some did close temporarily through the year and others have assumed business operations at limited capacities.”

In terms of trying to help small businesses, Willie said the division has been in open conversations with the small business community through dialogue and collaboration with Dineh Chamber of Commerce. Another issue, Willie said, is the retention of a workforce that has experienced lay-offs. Some workers have found jobs in nearby cities or other states. Businesses have communicated they have faced issues with job recruitment.

“We feel it may be that the federal assistance has been high, therefore many are not looking for work at this time because they have been dependent on federal assistance through the pandemic,” said Willie.

Business earns worldwide acclaim

When LaFrance-Chachere opened her stores in 2020, she had about 20 employees in both locations but had no choice but to let them go when the pandemic shut the businesses down.

“That’s the reason I built this: to create jobs,” said LaFrance-Chachere. “I did not think in a million years the world would shut down like it did. What hurt me the most is I created something and it was taken away from me.”

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