While much of rural America suffers from loss of business and industry, the Navajo Indian Reservation has never had much. Traveling across the huge reservation, one is impressed as much by the emptiness as by the surrounding desert beauty. For about half of the 160,000 Navajos living here, the openness of the landscape translates into unemployment and lack of opportunity.
On Saturday, however, the Navajo nation launched a new initiative to fill some of that emptiness. At an ``economic summit'' here, Navajo chairman Peter MacDonald led participants in exploring ways to make the reservation more attractive to industry. Sens. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona co-hosted the summit.
The Navajo Economic Summit brought together some 40 corporate executives and top state and federal leaders to analyze how to put the tribe's large, underemployed labor force to work.
Supporters of the summit ranged from operators of small reservation mobile-home parks to President Reagan, who sent a videotaped message congratulating Navajo leaders for sponsoring the event. Mr. Reagan said it took courage for the tribe ``to set a policy that, for the first time, says a partnership with the private sector is the future.''
While Washington's trust relationship with the Navajo Tribe is almost 120 years old, the President said, ``instead of fostering independence, the government ended up doing just the opposite.''
Mr. MacDonald, who returned to office in January after a four-year absence, has made economic development and the creation of jobs his administration's top priority in order to fight his reservation's 30-to-50 percent unemployment rate.
For months, MacDonald has crisscrossed the United States meeting the chiefs of America's largest companies, encouraging them to ``bring your bottom line to Navajo'' before locating a new factory overseas. He said he wants to ``beat the pants off'' the tribe's competition in Taiwan and elsewhere.