50 years ago: Alcoholism, Littell, and 10,000 Navajos


A report came out this week 50 years ago that may have surprised a lot of people.

The report, the first of its kind, was done by the Indian Health Service and tribal health officials and it laid bare just how bad alcoholism was on the Navajo Reservation.

According to the report, 23,000 Navajos – that’s almost one out of every four adult members of the tribe – were listed as “problem drinkers.” But that was just a small fragment of the problem that the Navajos faced in trying to cope with this epidemic.

Guy Gorman Sr., who was chairman of a special committee on the tribal council dealing with alcoholism, said he wanted 1967 to be the year that the council recognized the seriousness of the problem and did something about it or “we will be facing this problem 30, 40, and 50 years from now.”

So exactly what was the tribe doing at that time to address the problem?

According to Gorman, not much.

Instead, if you asked the average Navajo leader, they would probably say it wasn’t a Navajo problem but a border town one because it was the liquor dealers in places like Gallup, Farmington, Holbrook and Winslow who were making a fortune off of Navajos.

Since they were making a profit off the sale of liquor, they should be responsible for paying for the solution, but Gorman said he was getting “sick and tired” of hearing this refrain because it was only making the problem worse.

What he wanted was the tribe to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next four years to fight the disease by setting up detox centers throughout the reservation devoted to eradicating the problem.

“We did it with TB (tuberculosis), and we can do it with alcoholism,” he said.

Any time a problem of this magnitude was brought up, the first step to combating it was to hold a summit, so Gorman said the tribe would hold the first summit ever in Indian Country in early February and it would come up with solutions on how to end this problem among the Navajo people once and for all.

Speaking of things Navajo people were getting sick and tired of, take the case of Norman Littell.

From 1963 to 1967, Littell, an Anglo attorney who was paid $35,000 to be the Navajo Tribe’s legal counsel, made news, mostly in a negative way as he fought the tribe’s chairman, Raymond Nakai, and supported the Old Guard on the Navajo Tribal Council.

Hardly a week went by that Littell was not making news and if you were a regular reader of the Navajo Times, you would soon figure out he was someone important on the Navajo Reservation because the weekly newspaper wrote more stories about him than anyone else.

As 1967 started, however, Littell was on his way out along with many of the Old Guard who were not re-elected and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Steward Udall, the Secretary of the Interior, had the right to fire him if he so desired. Which Udall did.

But even after being fired, Littell kept fighting back, issuing press releases about how he was being mistreated and how Nakai and the new council were destroying the tribe.

Then as January drew to a close, the Navajo tribal officials did something they had never done before and have never done since.

They put out a press release saying the council as well as the Navajo people were getting “tired of having Littell being the center of controversy.”

After all, the press release said, all of this bickering wasn’t going anywhere and tribal officials, from Nakai on down, said they were tired of responding to Littell’s latest accusations.

Nakai supporters on the council, who were now in a majority, said it was obvious the Navajo people had had enough of Littell. Otherwise, why would they re-elect Nakai as chairman.

Nakai supporters on the council strongly urged Littell to find someone else he could bother because his days of having any power within the Navajo Tribe were over.

The odd thing was that this seemed to work because a look through the Navajo Times for the rest of the year saw no mention of Littell.

The Littell era was officially over.

One final item was in the news this week – Nakai’s inauguration.

It was scheduled for Feb. 21 and according to Nakai, it was going to set records.

He expected between 10,000 and 15,000 people to come see him take the oath of office at the Navajo Civic Center.

The plans were to hold it at the Navajo Civic Center on the Navajo Fairgrounds and the Navajo Times posed a simple question: How were they going to accommodate 10,000 people, much less 15,000 in the center?

But Nakai officials said they had it all worked out. Wait and see, they said.

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Categories: 50 Years Ago