The nation's largest Indian tribe and a national housing developer have launched a joint venture heralded as the beginning of economic development on the sprawling Navajo Reservation.

The project between the Navajo Tribe and Cambridge Financial Group Inc., St. Petersburg, Fla., is expected to generate up to 400 jobs by the end of this year and as many as 2,000 jobs in five years. It also will help meet a crucial need for new housing on the reservation.Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald signed the agreement with John J. Peterson, Cambridge president, before the tribe's 88-member Tribal Council, which has made job creation through the private sector its top priority.

"This joint venture agreement with Cambridge now gives us the opportunity to see our hard work, our deliberations and our decisions translated into real action and real success," MacDonald said.

"This is the foundation for our entry into the housing and home products industry as competitive quality craftsman."

The joint venture project, to be known as the Navajo Building Co., will premanufacture, assemble, produce and develop houses.

"This is a Navajo company, and the houses will be designed by Navajos, built by Navajos for Navajos," Peterson said. "We plan to start hiring in the next 30 days."

The Navajo Building Co., owned 60 percent by the tribe, initially will be located in Navajo, N.M., and later will move to an industrial park in Fort Defiance, Ariz.

"We will premanufacture interior and exterior panels," Peterson said. "When we talk to someone interested in a house, they can in essence almost custom-build that home."