50 Years Ago: Alcohol legalization, or not, continues to be controversial

Every few years there seemed to be a movement, either within the Navajo Tribal Council or from some Navajo group, to promote the cause of allowing liquor sales on the reservation.

In early 1967, the Navajo Times began printing letters to the editor from readers who wanted tribal leaders to either address the issue or leave the situation as it was.

One letter, printed 50 years ago this week, attracted a lot of attention in the following weeks. No name was provided. The paper identified the writer only as “a reader of the Navajo Times.”

“The cost of resisting change and restricting the Navajos in the area of access to alcohol on the reservation is setting the tribe back many millions of dollars,” the letter stated.

“My opinion is to fight fire with fire. Bars and package liquor stores should be opened up on the reservation. I am against alcoholism, but I don’t like to see some people drive or ride a hundred miles or more just to get a drink.

“Many of them are good, hardworking people holding good jobs. I’d rather see a person who has a little too much to drink be taken home by a friend than to see him laying in some back alley too far from home.”

The problem, as pointed out in one Navajo Times editorial that year, is that any tribal leader who supported alcohol sales on the reservation would be dead in the water when he came up for re-election (saying he in this case is not sexist since the editorial claimed that no woman leader would even consider ending the ban on alcohol).

As for having a referendum on the issue, that wouldn’t work either, said several letter writers, since the anti-liquor coalition on the reservation was far greater than those who wanted to see the reservation open up to liquor sales.

So basically, the situation 50 years ago on the Navajo reservation isn’t much different than it is now except for the fact that a lot more tribal members were being killed on the highway by drunk drivers because all the roads were two lanes.

In other news, tribal officials reported that during February and March, staff members of the tribe’s Community Development Program have been doing something the tribe has never done before – conducting surveys on tribal members to gather information on their lifestyle and living conditions.

Before this, tribal officials only had figures on how many families had running water and electricity and how many lived in the average home, thanks to federal census takers.

But no one knew how many Navajos out there had carpentry skills they weren’t using or how many Navajos wanted to become welders or plumbers but just never had the opportunity.

The survey undertaken by the tribe is expected to answer those questions and more as the surveys that have been taken are analyzed and studied.

The program chose 9,000 Navajo men (sorry ladies, maybe next time) and community development staff members have been assigned to one of the tribe’s 97 chapters to meet these individuals to ask them a series of questions regarding employment and work skills with the idea that tribal leaders will be able to use this to justify getting increased federal funds for training and education.

“For many years, the need for sound labor information has been apparent to all who have worked to make jobs available to the Navajo people,” said Robert Cullum, chairman of the Navajo Manpower Survey Task Force.

At the time, tribal leaders were saying less than 15 percent of the Navajo population worked in 9 to 5 positions – the rest made a living as ranchers, artisans, or farmers. It wouldn’t be until 1978 that Tom Broise, head of the tribe’s labor relations office, would announce that half of adult Navajos who were employable had jobs with salaries.

While the employment surveys were completed, task force members said it would be three or four months before any data derived from the surveys would be released.

Tribal officials announced in the spring of 1967 that there were more than 100 Navajos serving overseas, many of them assigned to Vietnam.

The exact number is not known because there is no mechanism available to the tribe to determine how many Navajos over the past two years have joined the armed forces and to know exactly where they have been assigned.

But the U.S. Army News Department, an organization that sends out thousands of articles annually to newspapers around the country giving updates on where people in their area have been assigned or promoted, have sent out more than 100 such stories to newspapers in towns bordering the reservation listing Navajos who are serving overseas.

The information office explained that they sent out these notices based on information provided by armed service personnel who were asked the names of their local newspapers. Many Navajos who lived in places like Phoenix and Los Angeles would normally name papers that serviced the reservation because they would want their relatives on the reservation to know how they were doing rather than have it publicized in a paper where they lived.

According to the Navajo Times, there were only three tribal members by this time who had lost their lives fighting in Asia but even that was probably low, said Chet Macrorie, the editor of the Navajo Times, since there could have been tribal members from far-off places like Chicago who died and who never bothered to list the names of papers on the Navajo Reservation to be notified when they made news.

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Categories: 50 Years Ago