50 Years Ago: Fort Defiance once home to big missile plant


For many years, Fort Defiance was the home to the biggest manufacturing plant on the Navajo Reservation.

Run by General Dynamics and employing hundreds of Navajos, it supplied missile parts to the military and was featured in publications all over the world. Even National Geographic magazine did a major feature on the plant, praising the Navajo workers for their ability to do the technical work.

It was 50 years ago that Navajo tribal members first heard of plans by General Dynamics to build the plant on the reservation.

At the time, the plan by the company to come onto the reservation was viewed as a major victory for the tribe with the hopes that it would spur other major companies to set up plants here on the reservation as well.

This was decades before companies started sending their manufacturing jobs overseas because of cheap labor. Back in the mid-60s, the Navajo Tribe had a lot going for it to become a manufacturing mecca for America.

There were enough unemployed Navajos to man dozens of assembly plants (General Dynamics was planning to start with 200 employees). Many of the tribal members had skills in rug making and silversmithing that could be adapted to making electronic parts.

The tribe also had hundreds of thousands of dollars available in its own funds and in various federal grants to help subsidize the company’s training program, which could last up to six months.

This basically meant that the company would get a major reduction in salaries during its critical start-up period. (It would also lead to abuse by companies like Fairchild Semi-Conductor which had a plant in Shiprock and which was accused of laying employees off when they got to the end of their training period and had to be paid by the company).

Another benefit that General Dynamics received was an agreement by the tribe to pay the cost of constructing the plant, which was estimated to be about $400,000, and the cost of the equipment, which was estimated at $420,000.

General Dynamics then agreed to pay the tribe back for 75 percent of the cost to build the plant and for all of the equipment over a 15-year period. The size of the plant was expected to be about 26,000 square feet.

As you can imagine, tribal officials were ecstatic about the deal with everyone in sight taking part of the credit for getting the company onto the reservation. This didn’t leave a lot of credit for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which, if truth were to be told, did a lot to grease the wheels to make the deal possible.

And, from a historical standpoint, the opening of the General Dynamics plant would be viewed as one of Raymond Nakai’s top accomplishments during his eight years in office and he would point to it with pride when he ran unsuccessfully for re-election throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

Another big story that began in February 1967 and carried on for some time had to do with Jake Chee and the New Mexico State Legislature.

Chee was elected to the statehouse in November and during its meetings in 1967, he decided one day to come to a meeting dressed traditionally. But the body’s sergeant of arms, Willie Grijalva, apparently had problems with that because he turned him away, saying he was not dressed suitably to enter the distinguished halls of the legislature.

Chee was so upset he complained to Gov. David Cargo, pointing out that many of the legislators came to work wearing cowboy boots.

“If you allow legislators to wear cowboy boots,” he said, “you have to allow them to wear moccasins.”

Cargo stood up for Chee, pointing out that when Chee came to the Governor’s Mansion for events, he dressed traditionally. “I’m not offended,” he said.

When Chee was told to go home and change into something decent, he was wearing a colorful Navajo shirt, bolo tie and moccasins.

Officials in the legislature did everything they could to stay out of the controversy with the Speaker of the House saying he felt this was an issue between Chee and Grijalva.

But others pointed out that Grijalva was an employee of the House and Chee could be considered to be his boss.

As for other members of the legislature, most were on Chee’s side, saying there was nothing wrong with wearing traditional garb to meetings in the legislature.

But most seemed to take the position that the whole issue was beneath them and the legislators had more important subjects to discuss than a dress code.

 To read the full article, pick up your copy of the Navajo Times at your nearest newsstand Thursday mornings!

  Find newsstand locations at this link.

Or, subscribe via mail or online here.

Categories: 50 Years Ago