In Indian Country, potholes can be a bump in the road to an education

Navajo Nation school bus
Schools in tribal areas face a number of challenges, but one of the most unexpected - and, to advocates, most annoying - is the sorry state of the roads, which can make it hard to get students to school. (Photo courtesy San Juan County, Utah, Roads Department)

By Keerthi Vedantam

WASHINGTON – Classrooms at Keams Canyon Elementary School are noticeably emptier during the winter and monsoon months.

That’s when Principal Gary Polacca says heavy rains turn the dirt roads stretching across the Hopi reservation into “muddy sinkholes,” making it hard for school buses to reach students’ homes for risk of getting stuck in the mud.

Students, who have a harder time getting to school on their own, are stuck at home for the day – or the week, depending on when the weather clears up.

“They just can’t get to school,” said Polacca. The school dedicates some of its budget to buses, he said, but it can’t fill potholes or pave roads. “We’ve done what we can.”

Of the many problems facing tribal schools, Polacca said, impassable roads are “not the most prevalent problem, but it is the most annoying one.”

And it’s not a problem unique to the Hopi.

A Navajo student walks away from a school bus stuck on an unpaved road. School officials say when buses aren’t stuck, they’re often damaged by rutted roads. (Photo courtesy San Juan County, Utah, Roads Department)

Three-fourths of roads owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are unpaved, leaving schools on reservations to spend money on frequent maintenance for the buses that have to travel those roads.

The graduation rate for American Indians/Alaskan Natives in public schools in 2016 was 72% – lower than any other race or ethnicity, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. That rate drops to 49% for students in Bureau of Indian Education schools.

There are myriad reasons why Native children don’t graduate from school, said Acting Superintendent of Navajo Schools Anselm Davis, including “the trauma that students come to school with, and then the changing social life of the younger generation.”

“There are adverse conditions in family life, in community life,” Davis said. “There’s a whole dimension of issues out there that impact students on a day-to-day basis.”

When sick days, religious holidays or other reasons children might have to stay home are added to the absences caused by bad roads, he said, it puts students in situations where they “aren’t getting the kind of attention on their lessons and the learning process, and as a result of that they tend to fall back little, bit by little bit.”


Davis said schools on reservations do their best to mitigate any problems children might have that would impact their education. Navajo schools have implemented different programs over the years to improve attendance and graduation rates. Some work therapy or trauma services into school programs, while others have provided free food to struggling students.

But transportation is a challenge out of schools’ reach.

Many of the roads in tribal areas, like the Navajo Nation, are unpaved and become impassable during bad weather. (Photo courtesy Navajo County Public Works Department)

Like many rural areas, homes on the Navajo and Hopi reservations can be scattered and there is often not a network of paved roads that connect homes to schools or businesses.

With the majority of BIA-owned roads in the U.S. unpaved, schools on reservations are forced to shell out money for frequent maintenance on school buses that had to travel those roads.

In April, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis told a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearingabout the decrepit state of the 306 BIA-owned roads on his reservation. Some were unpaved, others were cracked and bumpy. Others still were missing critical safety features like stop signs.

“This is a critical concern for education in Indian Country,” Lewis said, not to mention “the safety aspect too, if those roads aren’t adequately maintained.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, introduced a bill in January to increase funding for upkeep of roads on reservations, including updating safety features and paving roads. Similar proposals by Barasso have died in the last two sessions of Congress, but Lewis said the bill could be a “game-changer” for schools.

In a recent statement, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, said the state of roads on reservations presents “a public safety and public health issue.”

“On the Navajo Nation, where thousands of miles of roads are unpaved, poor road conditions result in impassable bus routes that make Navajo students more likely to miss school than their non-Native peers,” Udall’s statement said. “To truly uphold the United States’ trust responsibilities to these students, the Navajo Nation, and all of Indian Country, we simply must do better.”
Related story: Gila River leader says feds’ inattention to roads drives other problems

Advocates say there is plenty of room for improvement.

Constant travel on gravel roads leads to excessive wear and tear on school buses – side mirrors shake off, batteries fall out and even the emergency hatches on bus roofs can come loose.

“The wear and tear on those buses if they go on dirt roads or gravel roads is astounding,” Lewis said at the hearing. “And schools have to pay for that, not the BIA.”

Polacca estimates he has to pay for a major bus repair at least once a month, which takes the bus out of rotation and forces drivers to cram more children into fewer buses.

“A lot of the roads become like a washboard. It takes a lot of toll on our school buses,” Polacca said. “And of course we have students living all over. So there are times where we do have to go out and pick up students who live on those roads.”

Polacca’s school has talked about planning bus routes along the state highway that runs through the reservation to cut down on maintenance costs. But he knows some students can’t make it to the main road, and he does not want to make it even harder to get to school.

As it stands, teachers at the school try to work with students to send assignments home so they can continue their education without being in school. But the students are still counted as absent.

“It’s frustrating,” Polacca said. “These are young children. They want to learn.”


  1. Mike P This Tribe in this artical is BIA approved
    And very few arent BIA approved,
    This Group gets Millions upon millions of our Tax dollars money
    Just Google it
    And youll see that this fed money is spent on other then what it was for Or not spent at all
    This is not the first time they start to cry for more money
    Its pretty clear who gets it and who dosent with in the Tribe
    That school bus in this picture
    Was bought by fed money
    But the Tribal cant find anyone to work on it why because no one wants to work or go to school to learn how to.
    they get a ck food stamps etc
    They can send them to schools paid for But many are just plain lazy
    TIC is a big firm that will send for free Navajos to welding and pipefitting school because they make excellent welders earning to start 19 hour with no tools and if they get their own rig (Save money) they can earn 36- 70 bucks a hour non union
    I know many that have taken advantage of whats offered and they do well, Very Well,
    But many arent interested most
    are not
    Plus they get grants from feds
    They get other benifits We whiteys dont get, Glasses dental etc
    They get funds for new school buses they get funds for new houseing
    They get funds for tons of stuff
    The money dissappers or is spend unwisely Enough is Enough
    They can build these others houseing closer to better roads
    But they dont because they are not liked or are not in their family tribe
    I worked for a guy that Rehabed the Gov Houseing they got for free Nice homes 3 bed 2 bath etc within 5 yrs we had to come in and fix broken windows
    Stolen heaters broken doors
    Holes in walls I did the shit work 9 bucks a hour I cleaned heater vents I found used Needles
    Lots of them, pot, drugs, toys trash dead animals dirty baby diapers and trash in every vent in every room In every house
    Broken toilets not because they were bad, or cheap but the tops thrown outside. ovens so bad I couldnt clean them holes in cabinettes
    Etc only 5 yrs old not mobile homes either These were stick built homes I went to a dump on the res Brand new pots pans useable toys brand new glass front doors thrown away because someone ordered wrong size
    So please no bleeding hearts
    A friends cousin shot his other cousin 3 times (drunk ) no reason he only got 3 months it happened on the res and he was a cousin of a high up Tribal member They dont take care of their own children *Child rapes and abuse is among the highest HERE in Az on Navajo res
    Drug use is out of control
    But they want to manage it them selves More money wont fix all this *Compassion* for All their brothers and sisters And HARD WORK and working with every single member,Rules, LAWS, Selfishness They could become a great force, Independent, Self substained if they worked with each other, Tighten up their laws
    Stop playing favorites
    Some are Good decent People hard workers and honest.
    But stop the begging
    This will not change Until they do,
    And why, after all these yrs what has been given to them its worse Not better ? Except For the Tribal Fat Cats ??

    • I called and talked to the Tribal Government last week then the BIA on the issues of the roads on the Navajo reservation there in Utah. My calls to the State Departments have not been returned so far. The school buses are owned by the State as are the schools they go to. The request to repair, and pave the roads are still in Congress. The State did approve it. After and if Both Houses of Congress approves it will then go to the BIA then the BLM. As for the funds they get it was for the loss of land they gave up in an agreement. Not one treaty has been upheld or has not been broken in the history of them. They like many here in AZ still have no water rights. This Tribe does give funds they get to each person, but the rest is used for the whole Tribe. Right now they are building a medical center, and a elder care center on the Reservation. Which was approved by first the State then Congress plus the BIA before starting. If they didn’t have Federal Recognition it would not have happened.
      As far as the rest I have seen far worse in your Cities that has ten times the crime rate, drug use and so on. Take a trip to San Fran. today for a small example. I was there last month, and it’s a hundred times worse than any reservation in this Country. BTW just so you know I was born on a reservation here in AZ, and do so today after I retired. Each of our children worked for and got a good education. The lowest was a Masters, and our Grand Daughter will be starting at MIT when she gets out of the Navy later this year.

  2. Some of these pictures could be from pima co but they have some blacktop on them! As to hopw the reservations are run, it seems they have the will to do anything but follow rules and regulations. If they wanted to fix the roads they could but that would mean doing it without the fed $$ of any kind in some instances. This is just really another hit piece to get sympathy and $$ from folks. I haved lived on reservations and yes they do fail to take care of their own and the education of the kids sucks hind tit from the word go.

  3. Less than half of all the Tribes have Federal Recognition. From the BIA there are 566 Tribes that have it along with 54 that have only State. 2378 have none with 798 that have applied for Federal right now which includes the 54 that has only State.
    Only a Tribe with Federal Recognition can have anything on their reservation to generate funds, and it has to be approved by the State who takes a large percentage of the profits. Then both Houses of Congress, and the BIA plus BLM. If any of them say no you start again. For those that don’t have Federal you can’t improve or build anything with out approval of both Houses of Congress, and the BIA/BLM. That means you can’t fix the roads on your own. In most cases once it’s approved by Congress the BIA or BLM issues a contract to an outside place to do it.

  4. Sure help them Then let the Feds and other DEA go on the Res to Stop Your High Drug Trade and other Illegal goings on
    This is just another tactic to over run us with more guns drugs terrorists trade on the res.

  5. Well then get together with a plan and budget *Within* your own groups and fix it
    Wanting cell service for free
    Wanting paved roads for free
    Only now the roads are bad
    Only now they want more fed money for these roads This has been going on for along time why now?
    Trible members groups have a lot of ‘fat cats’ they dont share the pie with members under their wing its been going on for yrs
    How many Indian run business that are gone because of Greed and stealing with in I can name many
    We set them up with the tools show them how to use them Then they tell us to butt out
    Then boom its run in the ground
    Sure help them but make sure they dont play favorites or let them to the purse Every child should go to school
    But this is not new
    Give us the money Then they tell us to butt out
    Only some roads will be fixed and etc They come back with their hands out for more money with more excuses
    They cant control the hugh Drug trade on the Res. They dontvwant to Kick back Drug Money goes to
    The Fat Cats Up in the Tribe
    Why cant those on good roads help each other and house those that live on bad roads during rainy seasons etc
    Bring back the family bonds they speak so highly of

  6. All of these Tribes have plenty of money to expand their gaming operations but not their infrastructure. hmmm. Sounds like the Tribes are run by Liberal Democrats.

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