On the phone, on the Rez

 

NEW MEXICO

On weekends, thousands of Navajos leave their homes on the reservation and go shopping. Many of them end up at Wal-Mart in Gallup. They buy detergent and paper towels, and increasingly, cellular phones.

Wireless phones are selling like hotcakes among residents of the Navajo Nation, which sprawls over parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Alltel, which owns a booth in Wal-Mart and has seen a surge in sales in the area, says some 60 percent of their sales in Gallup, N.M., are to Native Americans. Sam Hamden, the owner of Active Cellular and Electronics on Gallup's main strip, says the store sells up to 150 phones per week, with most of them going to Navajos from the reservation.

The Navajo Nation's sandy flats, sandstone buttes and upland forests cover an area the size of Ireland, though it's home to only 200,000 people. According to the Navajo Times, only about 20 percent of the families here have phone service, while Navajo Communications Co. has placed over 12 cell-phone towers on mountain tops across the reservation. That's in part because cell phones are becoming affordable. At the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock early in September, one booth advertised prepaid cell phone service for $30 a month.

Who buys a remote phone? Wal-Mart's Gino Garcia says, "Waiters, waitresses, ranchers, fast-food workers, people who don't have jobs, tribal workers. A lot of people need them in rural areas because it's the only means of communication. Some people have a cell phone who don't have lights or electricity."

Copyright 2000 HCN and Lisa Jones