50 Years Ago: Nakai challenges Russians

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai made the New York Times and probably hundreds of newspapers nationwide this week by taking on the Russian government.

In a speech in Kayenta and first reported locally and then nationwide, Nakai decided to issue a challenge to the Russian government to allow him to tour the country unrestricted with the ability to talk to whoever he wanted and to take photos of any areas of Russia and Russian life he wanted.
So what brought this on?

A few weeks before, one of Russia’s biggest newspapers, Izvesda, had published an article and photos from a Russian journalist who toured the Navajo Reservation a few months before and reported how the Navajos were living in poverty and comparing it unfavorably to how the average Russian family in the rural areas live under communism.

The Russian journalist, Stanisiav Kondrashaav, was also appalled at the level of illiteracy he saw in the more remote areas of the reservation where many elders were a great deal more fluent in Navajo than they were in English.

He also commented in his article about how so many Navajos, children and adults, were so uninformed about what was going on in their country that a majority of them could not answer a simple question as to who the president of the United States was. He said a lot of people said they did not know while others said John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon.

“He found nothing good about us,” Nakai said, adding that when the journalist first approached the Navajo government for permission to tour the reservation, tribal officials said that in America, people have the right to go wherever they want and interview whomever they want.

Tribal officials did explain some cultural aspects to him Ð such as not taking photos of sacred sites and asking getting approval from anyone they wanted to take a photo of before taking a picture.

It is evident from reading his article, said Nakai, that Kondrashaav had a “closed mind” and only wanted to show the federal government in a bad light.

He stood up for the quality of education that Navajo students were receiving, pointing out that the Navajo students attending BIA and public schools were performing at or better than their counterparts off the reservation.

This brings to mind a situation that occurred some 30 years later when Steve Young, Super Bowl quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, visited the Hopi Reservation and went to one of the schools on the reservation.

He was accompanied by Peter King, a writer for Sports Illustrated, who did a story of Young’s visit and reported how sad Young was when he left, wondering what kind of life the students he saw would have given the quality of education they received.

As can be imagined, Hopi tribal officials had a fit after that came out and sharply criticized Young for making that kind of statement after only spending an hour at the school.

A few months later, Young came to the Navajo Reservation and held a press conference at the Window Rock Motor Inn where he was asked about that remark and he admitted that it was a “stupid” remark that only showed he hadn’t taken the time to fully look at the quality of education at the school and he was only relying on a couple of chance remarks by Hopi students he talked to before he made the comment.

And by the way, the Russia government never responded to Nakai’s challenge and he never did get approval to tour the country and take photos.

Internally, the Navajo Times continues to operate normally despite the fact that the Navajo Tribal Council fired its editor, Chet MacRorie, the previous week.

The firing took place as the Council was looking at its next fiscal budget, which would take effect on July 1, so MacRorie’s firing would not officially take place until then.

MacRorie decided to stay on as editor for the time being, in part to give him time to find a job once he stepped down from the $15,000 a year position.

Later, in the 70s, he looked back on this time and said another reason he stayed on was he wanted to have the ability to have some say in who replaced him. There was a chance, he said, he would have an opportunity to name or groom the new editor (that didn’t happen).

He said there was a great fear within the staff that the paper, which had a board to oversee it, would be taken back under the tribe and that it would be placed in the chairman’s office, which would totally destroy its credibility among its readers.

He said he had heard there was some talk within Nakai’s inner circle to bring it under the chairman’s office and to name the tribe’s public information officer as the paper’s editor but if this was true, wiser heads in the chairman’s office probably realized that such a move would have a major backlash among the paper’s readers and would have serious consequences for Nakai.

Instead, MacRorie later learned that between the time he was fired and he actually stepped down, Nakai’s staff was looking for someone who could replace him who had solid newspaper credentials but who would recognize the fact that the paper was there to inform the Navajo people what their government was doing for them and not continually printing negative articles.

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Categories: 50 Years Ago

About Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.