50 years ago: Navajos push for land acquisition

Overview

The Navajo Nation is pushing forward on its biggest land acquisition in more than 50 years as the tribal government is trying to convince the federal government to transfer more than 300,000 acres of federal land in northwest New Mexico to the Navajos.

And it appears that the New Mexico Legislature is prepared to also support the proposal.

In the coming days, three New Mexico legislative committees, including the important Ways and Means Committee, would support the proposal after State Rep. Jake Chee, a Navajo member of the legislature, told them that the action “won’t affect the white man, only the Indian.”

The land in question is in McKinley, San Juan, Valencia, and Rio Arriba counties.

The tribal position is that the land is needed to develop an integrated development program in Northwestern New Mexico and this can’t be done if the Navajos own a portion here and a portion over there.

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai told New Mexico officials that as the Navajos grow – and they are growing a lot faster than a lot of people expect – more land is needed.

By the end of the century, Nakai said it wouldn’t surprise him if the population of the Navajo grew to 400,000 (editor’s note: the last statement from the tribe estimates the tribe’s population in 2012 to be in the neighborhood of 330,000 with about half living on the reservation).

Chee said the land in question is totally occupied by Navajo families – some 4,000 families with a population of about 24,000. The land is being used primarily for grazing.

He said the tribe has spent about $2 million in the past two years acquiring land, mostly in New Mexico, as a way to consolidate tribal holdings in the Checkerboard area.

“This has put a severe financial strain on the tribe,” Chee said, adding that the tribe would be able to cut back on its acquisitions if the federal government allowed the federal land to be mingled with the tribal land.

Since they have no exclusive grazing rights to the federal land, this creates a steadily worsening economic situation, especially when you consider that as the younger Navajos become adults, they will want grazing areas of their own, Chee said.

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This peculiar arrangement, he said, keeps the Navajo people in a chronically depressed condition economically, which, in turn, creates a drag on the economy of the entire area.

As the Vietnam War begins to heat up, tribal officials are beginning to notice that recruitment efforts are increasing on the Navajo Reservation to get Navajos to volunteer to join up.

The Army and Navajo recently set up recruiting offices in Flagstaff and Farmington and the Marine Corp. has expanded its recruiting efforts in Gallup and Farmington by bringing in recruiters who plan to spend a lot of their time this spring going to high schools to encourage graduating seniors to consider a military career.

Of course, all of the recruiting efforts are being directed at Navajo male graduates but recruiters, in speeches at Fort Wingate, did encourage female seniors to consider becoming Army nurses.

One of the Army recruiters in Gallup told the Gallup Kiwanis Club that he is getting three or four recruits from the Gallup area weekly which is about what we get for a big city like Atlanta or New Orleans.

Most of these, he said, are coming from reservation schools.

The Marines are even talking about setting up a recruiting office on the reservation, either in Chinle or Shiprock, where they can work directly with high school seniors on weekend projects that would promote military life.

The problem, however, is finding an office and eventually, that idea is dropped but throughout the Vietnam era, recruiters would be active on the reservation, encouraging schools to establish their own ROTC programs and allowing them to speak on career days or just to a class now and then.

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