50 Years Ago

'Wind that talks' arrives on rez

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

June 12, 2014

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The 17 candidates running for president are expected to spend a good portion of their campaign revenue on ads on radio stations like KGAK, KNDN and KTNN, all of which broadcast most of their programming in the Navajo language.

And KTNN is attracting a lot of attention by broadcasting the candidate forums that are being held with the presidential candidates. In this election, as in the past, radio remains king.

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Navajo language radio continues to be the primary way of getting one's message to older Navajos, especially in the more remote areas of the reservation, just as it was in 1939 -- 75 years ago -- when tribal and federal government officials introduced the Navajo people to the "wind that talks."

News accounts during 1939 said the new technology was changing life on the reservation as Navajo families would travel 50 miles or more by horseback and wagon on Saturdays to trading posts and chapter houses to hear specially produced radio programs which broadcast the news in the Navajo language.

Since less than one percent of reservation residents had electricity, it wasn't financially feasible to set up radio towers on the reservation. The Associated Press reported that beginning in the spring of 1939, a short-wave radio system was set up and the federal government provided 200 receivers to trading posts and chapters throughout the reservation.

A few of the receivers were also given to tribal leaders like the chairman, Jacob Morgan, but for the most part Navajos listened to the special programming which was being produced in Window Rock.

One of the highlights of each show was presentations by Morgan and other tribal leaders about issues facing the reservation that week, issues that normally didn't make the area papers.

The programs also featured leaders from one of the six districts on the reservation talking about problems in their areas and what they were planning to do to solve them.

"In this way, the far-flung corners of the reservation are brought closer together through a better understanding of each other's problems," said Henry Gatewood, who was in charge of putting the programs together.

Newspaper accounts of those days made sure that their readers understood that Gatewood had the ability to produce these programs. He was referred to in one story as an "educated Navajo."

Most of the receivers were turned over to trading posts but 35 of them were turned over to chapter houses or the offices of supervisors in the Indian programs. A couple, said one article, are "strangely enough" located "in the hogans of tribal leaders."

It didn't take too long for the programs to catch on with most of the Navajo population on the reservation. Some trading post owners were reporting that their traffic on Saturdays doubled or tripled.

The shows were so popular that hospitals on the reservation begged the federal government for their own receivers because of reports that patients were getting up from their beds on Saturday morning and walking or riding to the nearest chapter or trading post that had a receiver.

One of the biggest fans of the radio program, according to the news stories, was John Collier, commissioner of Indian Affairs for the federal government.

He said that the program provided him and other federal officials with the opportunity, for the first time, to talk to a large segment of the Navajo population without their words having to go through tribal officials.

He said that up until 1939, the only radios that were used on the Navajo Reservation were used to provide fire station messages.

The first person to make use of the new technology was Morgan who gave a speech on May 13 asking for harmony and an end to the constant fighting between tribal members and federal government officials.

He pleaded for an "elimination of bitter feelings between the Navajo people and those employed by the government."

This was ironic in the view of many who listened to the program because the biggest thorn in the side of the government was Morgan who blasted government officials throughout his campaign to win the chairmanship.

But Morgan was not saying it was time for the Navajo people to cast away these bad feelings. He said the Navajo people should work with those in the government to correct many of the problems that the Navajo people were currently facing.

"They are here as teachers," Morgan said, "but they have to be patient with our people."

But Morgan's feelings about this subject would soon change.

In the third broadcast of the new programming, Morgan lashed out at federal officials saying that they were refusing to give the tribe and its members a full accounting of how much money the oil companies were paying for taking oil from tribal lands.

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