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More than 3,000 homes in the Navajo Nation receive official addresses

Adaline Sneak used her new address to register her Life Alert system. Now, emergency responders will have an easier time finding her
Emily Arntsen
Adaline Sneak used her new address to register her Life Alert system. Now, emergency responders will have an easier time finding her

Driving around the back roads of Montezuma Creek, Dalene Redhorse, with the Rural Utah Project, is on her way to visit a friend to help her with the new address system.

"The roads are pretty rough. A lot of washboards and a lot of curves, turns," says Redhorse.

This is a very rural part of the Navajo Nation where people don't have typical addresses. The houses don't have numbers, and many of the roads don't have names.

However, for the first time ever, Redhorse can use Google Maps to locate any of the homes in this area. Earlier this fall, Redhorse finished a huge project that gave new addresses to over 3,000 homes in the Navajo Nation. These new addresses are called plus codes, simple coordinates based on longitude and latitude.

Redhorse works for a nonprofit called The Rural Utah Project, or RUP, and part of its mission is getting people to vote. In 2018, they realized hundreds of Utah residents on the Navajo Nation were registered to vote in the wrong district.

"I noticed I had the wrong district that I was voting for. And I'm like, 'This guy is not even in my district.' There was a huge mix-up at the San Juan County clerk's office, and there was a lot of confusion about where people lived," said Redhorse.

"I was pinned to be north of Bluff, but I live south of Bluff. North of Bluff put me in a whole different precinct because of what we were using for addresses."

Addresses in rural places aren't like other addresses with a street name and a house number. Instead, they usually just give a direction and a distance from the nearest town.

"What I was using was 15 miles southwest of Bluff, County Road 436. I live in a community, but it's just my siblings. So our neighbor lives a mile away, and then from there, there's another neighbor that lives a mile away. So we're pretty spread out. So our houses weren't numbered, we didn't have a straight address," she said.

In 2015, Google started making plus codes for areas that don't have typical addresses. They mapped a grid across the whole earth. Each tiny square has its own coordinates. Every house on earth has had a plus code for nearly a decade. In 2019, the Rural Utah Project partnered with Google to teach people in the Navajo Nation how to use the system. They went door to door and handed out signs with everyone's plus codes, and they registered people to vote with their new addresses.

"We went house to house back in 2018 to do voter registration. We always encountered people saying, 'Why? Why am I gonna register? I don't count. Nobody counts us," said Redhorse.

"A lot of people were pinned in the wrong district, so we don't know what was happening to our ballots. No matter how many people have voted, knowing that it should have gone in one direction, it always ended up in a different direction. And not having to speak English well, a lot of the elders were very skeptical about voting or putting their information out there. But there's always been that sense like, 'okay, they're just using our census for funding, but we're not getting help.'"

Voter registration is just one of many ways these new plus codes can be used. Now, people can get packages delivered to their houses. They can get at-home medical treatment, and ambulances and fire trucks can find people faster.

"We started to notice UPS on the dirt road. We started noticing FedEx on the road. I worked in dialysis. And that was the biggest complaint from our patients was, 'I am tired of coming here every other day. This is all I do.' But they couldn't go on peritoneal dialysis because they didn't have a physical address," said Redhorse.

"I had a guy who used the plus code as a physical address, and he was able to get peritoneal dialysis... I'm like, 'wow,' I mean, it had its benefits," she said.

"And that was another thing. Years before that, I would sit there because I lived on the highest butte. I would sit there and just look down, and somebody's house would be on fire. But the fire truck would try to get to that house. They would use directions like five miles here and then three more miles this way, but if you get to that fifth mile, you have three or four different directions roads going off in different directions. So that's where the response time was very consuming. It was trying to figure out which road leads straight to that house."

Herman Chee, the fire chief in Monument Valley, says there were many times in the past when the fire department couldn't find a house or took too long to respond due to the lack of physical addresses.

"We got paged out to a structure fire, and (it) is just right across the river here. I was communicating with the dispatch, and they just told me the location on this road that goes to that road. At that time, it was dark, and it was really snowing. I couldn't really see. I just, you know, took a guess," he said.

"(I) took that route, took that wrong route."

Chee says many people are now using the plus codes when calling the fire department.

"Last week, there was this 55-year-old male that was experiencing a seizure. And the location was way off-grid. All they had to do was use a cell phone to communicate with me. They gave us the location," said Chee. "Yeah, that's why I tell people, you know, remember your plus codes. Use it. And it's so much easier for the dispatch."

Back in Montezuma Creek, Redhorse has reached her destination — the home of Adaline Sneak and her mom, Arlene Begay.

Sneak has some health issues, and the day that Redhorse's co-worker from RUP came to deliver her plus code sign, she had a seizure.

"She called 911 and she stayed and gave the plus code to the dispatcher, and then she stayed until they showed up. So that's how they easily got here too that day," said Redhorse.

Begay says there were many times in the past when first responders had a hard time finding the house.

"It's kind of hard, especially if there's a new EMS," she said.

After that incident, Begay registered her daughter with Life Alert, and dispatchers will now have a more accurate address.

"You're safer," said Begay.

This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT.

Copyright 2024 KZMU.

Emily Arntsen
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