50 years ago

Navajo vote makes big difference in state, county elections

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

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One of the most decorated Navajo Code Talkers died 50 years ago - a man who his superiors said risked his life numerous times to provide the Allies important information needed to defeat the Japanese during World War II.

Martin Felix Napa died at the young age of 55 of a heart attack while marching in the VFW Loyalty Day Parade that was held in Gallup on May 1.

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Born and raised in Smith Lake, Napa was one of the first students to be admitted to the Crownpoint Boarding School when it opened in 1912. He later went on to high school at the Sherman Institute in Riverside, Ca. and college in Oklahoma.

During his college career, he became well known for his ability as a singer and for his renditions of songs like "Old Man River" and "Mother MaCree."

Napa was credited with going behind Japanese lines to broadcast information back to his company in Navajo about the movement of Japanese forces. He was involved in a number of key battles in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, the Marshall island, Tinnian and the Marianas.

In a front-page article, the Navajo Times reported that at one time, "Napa was spotted by the Japanese and they turned their machine gun fire on him. He was badly wounded but managed to drag himself back to the American lines."

After this, Napa was sent to a number of hospitals to recuperate and after several months of treatment, he was given a physical disability discharge. After the war, he continued working for the federal government and at the time of his death, he was an employee at the Fort Wingate Ordinance.

This week in 1964 also marked a major first - the first time that the Navajo vote was credited with affecting a race for the New Mexico legislature.

Burt Wittrup, a state political reporter for the Associated Press, wrote a story on May 6 about a rising power in voting - the Navajo.

"And that vote may determine in November whether the New Mexico House of Representatives will have its first Indian legislator," he wrote.

Navajo leaders like Paul Jones and Raymond Nakai had been urging Navajos to go and vote in off-reservation elections. With more than 100,000 members with better than 90 percent living on the reservation or in nearby border towns, Nakai continued to say that if Navajos voted in a block for candidates that were sympathetic to Navajo interests, they could begin to weld power in Arizona and New Mexico politics.

In a primary that was held on May 5, two Navajos - Monroe M. Jymm, 31, of Twin Lakes, and James Atcitty of Shiprock, came in first, leading Wittrup to say that one or both had a real chance of being elected in the November general election.

Both Jymm and Atcitty have Republican challengers but they are running in districts that have more Democrats than Republicans.

"My biggest drive," said Jymm, "was to get the Navajos out of their shell and to teach them how the government operates from the presidency on down."

Navajos were also given a lot of credit in the victory of George Amaya over Guido Zecca for a state senator position. Amaya was the incumbent and he said he was amazed at the number of votes he received in primarily Navajo precincts in McKinley County.

"My majority would have been a lot larger if we had voting machines out in the county," he said adding that voters in the county had to use paper ballots.

"Our overflow was so great in the Navajo voting districts that I was deeply hurt to see better than 200 people in one precinct not getting to vote and others who stood in line for eight hours also not getting to vote," Amaya said.

He said that one of the things he is going to do is make sure the Navajo voting districts have voting machines.

"I can assure you that this won't happen again," he said.

County election officials said about 2,800 new voters had been registered to vote in the county and "about 90 percent of the new voters are Navajos." County officials said Amaya won by a 507-vote margin, 2756 to 2,249, and that the election was really close until the ballot boxes came in from the Navajo precincts.

Even Zecca remarked about the Navajo vote.

"It was the Navajo vote that cost me the election," he said.

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