Fifty years ago, one of the most powerful persons on the Navajo Reservation wasn’t a tribal chairman or even a man.
That person was Annie Wauneka, the council delegate from Klagetoh and Wide Ruins who was addressed in the Navajo Times in the 1960s as Dr. Annie Wauneka after she received an honorary doctorate degree in Humanities from the University of New Mexico.
The paper, at least during he 1960s, treated her with reverence, especially after she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson. That was the highest honor Congress could give to a person.
There were a number of reasons she was powerful during those years. She headed the council’s Health and Welfare Committee, which at that time was leading the way to help eradicate tuberculosis on the reservation. But her power extended far wider than just on health issues.
She was throughout her 27 years on the council one of the most vocal members, and possibly even the most vocal member. When she got up on the council floor and started lecturing the other council delegates on what they had to do, they could not help but listen and take note. She would talk for more than an hour sometimes, scolding those council delegates who disagreed about her position and pointing out how the tribal government was not working.
Over the years she would have a lot of enemies – then chairman Raymond Nakai was one; Peter MacDonald in the 1970s was another. She was a big fan of Peterson Zah, however.
She was not a big fan of the Navajo Times, not during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In her later years, from about 1988 to her death in 1997 at the age of 96, she mellowed a little and while she didn’t have a lot of good things to say about the paper, she wasn’t the fierce critic of the paper she was in her early years.
Chet MacRorie, the first managing editor of the paper, often talked about Wauneka when he came back on as editor in the 1970s, calling her the biggest obstacle to progress in the history of the tribe.
The odd thing is that although she would get upset at the paper for the articles it published, she enjoyed being interviewed and she was always willing to sit down with a reporter and tell him “the way it is.”
That included reporters for the Navajo Times, although interviewing her during the 1970s and 80s, which is when I got to know her, she often used the interview time for mounting a lecture on the problems of the tribal government and what needs to be done to improve the quality of life for the tens of thousands of Navajo families who continued to live without running water or electricity in their homes.
But people listened to her and things she said got results, some good and some bad.
Take the case of Herbert C. Longenbaugh.
The first time most Navajos on the reservation ever heard of Longenbaugh was in late August 1965 after Nakai announced that he was the man the tribe was hiring to run the tribe’s heavy equipment pool.
The tribe had been searching for a director of the program for almost a year. Several candidates had been suggested but there weren’t a lot of takers since the tribe was only offering to pay about $13,000 a year for the job at a time when the private sector was willing to pay three or four times for someone with that ability.
Today, 50 years later, the reasons why Nakai was so supportive of Longenbaugh has been lost to history but according to the press releases he issued during that time, Lonenbaugh was the perfect man of experience and talent who would save the tribe millions of dollars annually by revamping his department.
It appears, however that not everyone in the tribal government thought the same of him as Nakai. From the very beginning, Wauneka was opposed to the appointment, saying basically that this position needed to be filled by a Navajo although there were questions whether there were any Navajos with the experience and the knowledge to take that position on.
In the agreement that Longenbaugh signed with Nakai, he agreed that within six months, he would find a Navajo with the ability to one day take over these duties.
Longenbaugh, under his contract, agreed to choose a Navajo within six months and begin an extensive training program so that one day he would be able to turn over the running of the program to a Navajo.
This was a standard type of agreement the tribe had with many non-Indians who were hired by the tribe during those days. Some actually started training a replacement but most ignored that part of the contract even though they received an extra 10 percent to pay for the training.
Longenbaugh’s days on the reservation were short as Wauneka, who was then on the council’s advisory committee, made it her calling to get him fired before he had time to settle in his tribal housing.
It took her only four weeks to accomplish it.
In late September 1965, she would get up on the council floor and denounce Longenbaugh as incompetent and a crook.
She would hold up documents she said showed that he had cost investors tens of millions of dollars when Longenbauch and Coe, Inc. shut down in a dispute with the federal government.
His firm was cited by a U.S. senate subcommittee in 1961 for making under the table payments to a state-employed project engineer.
Longenbauch, of course, denied the charges but the subcommittee held hearings and not only Congress but a good number of Americans agreed that something had to be done but the subcommittee beat them to the punch.
After the subcommittee had its final hearings, Longenbauch found his firm prohibited from bidding on federal projects for a year. They were also prohibited from bidding on state projects as well, but this was only for three or four months.
(Editor’s note: This weekly piece highlights news that made headlines in the Navajo Times 50 years ago.)