50 Years Ago: Nakai’s staff takes over Navajo Times

Longtime readers of the Navajo Times knew immediately when they picked up the July 13 issue of the weekly newspaper that something was really different.

On the front page was a photo of Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai blown up so that it looked as if it filled up half of the page. There had never been a portrait of anyone this size in the paper before and definitely not of a tribal chairman, even was he was elected.

Another major difference was there was only one story on the front page and it was all about what a great job Nakai and his division directors were doing for the tribe.

Looking inside, instead of an editorial on page 4, there was a message from the chairman. Throughout the paper, there were a number of positive articles about the work Nakai was doing on behalf of the Navajo people.

The front-page report alone would take up four full pages.

So what was going on?

The answer is simple – this was the issue that editors of the Navajo Times feared would happen and fought against: It was the first issue of the paper that was totally controlled by officials in the chairman’s office.

The paper’s former editor, Chet MacRorie, had left the paper – for the second time – two weeks before and his staff had prepared the first issue in July. MacRorie had lost the confidence of the Navajo Tribal Council and his position was defunded for the new year so there was no editor.

The problem was that there were no reporters either so the staff – advertising people, secretaries and so on – were called to put the paper together and while the paper was short on news and heavy on press releases and anything the staff could find, it was at least independent.

Not so for the second issue.

Fifty years later, it’s hard to say who was in charge of that issue. MacRorie, when he came back as editor in 1971, said it was never revealed who ran the paper from the chairman’s office after he left but he assumed it was one of Nakai’s aides.

The paper at that time cost 10 cents an issue and still enjoyed a good reputation with its readers. However, that July 13 issue must have been a shocker.

As for the search for a new editor, Nakai said he was looking but it was pointed out to him that the editor position has been defunded so there was no money to hire an editor. But he said he had that worked out.

By the way, he praised that issue of the paper, saying it was the first time that the Times had given its readers a true look at the services the tribe provided for its members.

The July 20th issue also didn’t list an editor but did have a large front page article on page 1 naming Leo Denetsone, a former aide of Nakai, to the position of director of economic development.

Whether it was this week or shortly thereafter, the Navajo Times was placed in the economic development division with a directive from Nakai that it start breaking even because the tribe was tired of giving it subsidies each year.

Denetsone was told by Nakai to start running the Times as a business and to start showing a profit. He also pushed privately for the paper to be more pro-government and to stop printing stories that would embarrass the tribe.

Up to that time, the paper could claim to be independent and to be printing the news of the day without fear – well, without much fear – of whom it offended.

But the July 13 issue ended all of that and for the rest of Nakai’s term, readers of the paper could see his hand on it, keeping it from printing controversial articles and being a big promoter of Nakai.

These years marked the only time in the paper’s history where it was under the control of tribal leadership and although future leaders of the tribe – most particularly Peter MacDonald – got into fights with editors over the content of stories, the most they could do was get rid of the editor and appoint someone else they felt would be pro-administration.

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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.