The Navajo Nation’s first economist takes a fresh view on development

Alisha Murphy discusses her vision of a robust tribal economy and the importance of community input.

 

Alisha Murphy, who is Diné, has always had a story to tell. It just happens to come in the form of economic data and its details. In November 2021, Murphy assumed her post as the Navajo Nation’s first-ever full-time economist. Her appointment comes at a time of great transition, both for the Navajo Nation and for Indian Country as a whole. Murphy has spent her first half-year in the Navajo Nation’s Division of Economic Development focused on how best to assist the tribe as it transitions away from a coal-centered economy. She is also currently pursuing a doctorate in economic development at New Mexico State University.  

HCN recently caught up with Murphy as she was settling into her new role.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Andi Murphy

What led you to study economics?

I started as an undergrad in the social work field. I received my bachelor’s in social work and then my master’s in social work at Washington University in St. Louis. It was my last semester where I took social-economic development. And the professor was just so passionate about using data to tell the story of the inner city — and that turned the light bulb on in my brain. My first question was: How can I use data to tell the story of the Navajo of my community? And is that possible? Has it been done before?

What other questions do you have that you’re still working on answering?

Right now, the most prominent question is: Will a data (collection agency) for the Navajo Nation help with the efficiency of economic development? A lot of times, we have to resource our information from third parties like the U.S. Census, BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), VA (Veterans Affairs). However, I do question how accurate those data sources are when we’re talking about the very rural communities on Navajo or any other tribal nation. So, the data center — can we do that? And will it help the communities that we're serving? That's the biggest question I have right now.

Why is data sovereignty important for tribes? 

It would help in a number of ways. And it’s important to think about because Navajo Nation and other tribal or Indigenous communities are not fitting the mold for which a lot of non-Native communities are measured by. They operate in a different legal status, different health care, a different definition of business success. It’s just completely different measuring sticks. This notion of “How do we quantify and measure our performances that match with the values of what Navajo communities really take to heart?” is not about getting rich and making the revenue report. Providing the basic goods and services that our communities need is the best definition of success. I think data sovereignty is going to have to be in the conversation.

“How do we quantify and measure our performances that match with the values of what Navajo communities really
take to heart?”

Could you take a moment to address the economic situation in the Navajo Nation as the nation moves away from a coal-centered economy?

When NGS (the Navajo Generating Station) shut down, there are some assets that the Navajo Nation has acquired coming from that facility. And how do we turn that location, (those) materials, into an opportunity for growth? I am impressed by the communities surrounding that area — that they’re looking for creative ways to approach that. That’s how it should be. It should start with what the community needs and wants, and how to make sure that the communities benefit from the work that's happening there. It should always start at the community, and I think that's what they've been doing.

What responsibility do you think you have, not only to your tribe but to the community?

I feel my responsibilities are to tell the story of our community and all the ways we celebrate the successes that our tribe has as a whole in terms of increased numbers in tribal enrollment and increased success of educational attainment. I grew up here in Crownpoint, New Mexico, and I remember my grandparents talking about chapter meetings. To take what my grandparents started, their interests and their passion for serving their community — I’m happy to do that, too.

Miacel Spotted Elk is an editorial intern at High Country News reporting on the Indigenous Affairs desk. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

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