50 Years Ago: Is the rez a slum? And a famous chanter

Is the Navajo Reservation a slum?

Definitely not, said Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai, but that’s not preventing the Navajo Tribe from applying for federal funds earmarked to clean up slums and areas of blight in the country’s top cities.

The idea for the tribe to seek funding from this program came from Congressman Sam Steiger, R-Ariz., who told tribal officials that the program was looking for areas outside the cities that could qualify for funding. He felt that the Navajo Tribe would have no problem qualifying because so many of the major communities on the reservation have substandard housing and are in need of improvement.

The problem, of course, was the word slums, which created a discussion within tribal government circles as to whether it would create an image in the minds of people off the reservation of Navajo communities being slums. This at a time when Nakai and others are trying to encourage tourists to visit the reservation and learn about Navajo culture.

Who would want to visit a slum? Seems to be the worry of some in the tribal government.

But if the tribe can get some extra funds to actually improve the way some Navajo communities look, it might be worth it, according to Nakai.

The funds would come out of what is called the Workable Program, which uses federal dollars to encourage businesses and community leaders to work together to make their communities look better by getting rid of dilapidated shacks and areas of blight.

The idea is that the federal government will match whatever the community – in this case the tribe – puts into these efforts. The good part of the program, said Nakai, at least as far as the Navajo Tribe is concerned, is that the program would allow the tribe to use the services it provides instead of cash as part of the matching funds.

So the tribe could use tribal employees or people that are hired on a temporary basis to spruce up communities and whatever costs the tribe pays for these services, the federal government would match.

That, said Steiger, will go a long way to making the bigger communities on the reservation look a lot better.

Did the tribe get any funds from the program? Apparently not since searching for the word “workable” through the next two years of the Navajo Times archives turned up no further mention of the program.

In other news, the issue in May 1967 of the Navajo Times printed a long piece on the life of Frank Mitchell, a well-known chanter from the Chinle area who died the month before.

This may be the first time that the paper covered the death of a Navajo medicineman and this came about because people who knew Mitchell had an article written up and submitted it to the paper.

The article pointed out that Mitchell was a former chapter official and a former member of the Navajo Tribal Council.

Mitchell was born in 1881 and, like most Navajo youth in the years before the turn of the century, spent his early years at home, tending the family’s sheep and doing chores around his home.

The BIA had already begun setting up boarding schools and was urging Navajo families to send their children to them to be educated. Mitchell later said this was a major source if discussion within his family and a decision was made to send him to the old school in Fort Defiance.

Because of this, said Mitchell, he would be known by the elders in his community by his new Navajo name – Olta Tsoh, or Big Schoolboy.

Because of his education and the fact he could speak English, when he finally returned to Chinle he had no problem getting a job at he Franciscan Mission. In 1904, he married Rose, the daughter of a well-known Blessingway singer.

From the biography submitted to the Times, this apparently was an important time in his life because he owned one of the few wagons in the region and became known in the area as the principal freighter for the long haul to Gallup where he would pick up supplies for area trading posts.

Because he did a lot of work for non-Indian businesses, he adopted the name Frank Mitchell, choosing it because he had a relative who was known as Charlie Mitchell.

Possibly because of his new wife, he also became interested in learning the Blessingway Ceremony and began to from his father-in-law, a process that took a few years because he had so many other things going on in his life.

As he began studying the ancient ways of his people, he would say that the teaching on the Way of Good Hope would allow him a deeper understanding of how people should live in harmony.

By 1915 or so, he found himself being sought out not only as a singer but also as a wise and understanding arbitrator, so it could be said he was one of the early peacemakers. So it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone that when the Navajo Tribal Council was formed in 1923, he was chosen to represent Chinle.

When he stepped down from the Council in the early 1930s, the BIA commissioner and the tribe’s chairman, Chee Dodge, decided he should be a judge, a position he would hold for many years.

When he got to the age of retirement, he once again accepted the challenge to make a difference for future generations and he worked for more than a decade in the 1950s and 1960s helping Father Herard Haile in his monumental study of the Navajo Blessingway ceremony. Because of this, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., has a full record on tape of this most important of all Navajo ceremonies.

When asked why he spent what turned out to be thousands of hours on this project, Mitchell said, “When there is no more Blessingway, there will be no more Navajo people.”

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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.