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50 Years Ago: Action against protestors reaches center stage

While Gallup residents are making last minute preparations for the 1970 Ceremonial, the 1969 Ceremonial will take center stage in Santa Fe.

This is when the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission will be holding a public hearing to determine if Ceremonial officials violated the civil rights of three young Navajos when they prevented them from distributing leaflets critical of the event.

The previous year had been a tense one between the Ceremonial and a group of young Navajos calling themselves Indians Against Exploitation. The group held a series of protests charging the event with taking advantage of dance groups that came from out of state.

Their main complaint centered on the condition of housing that was provided for dancing groups on the Ceremonial grounds. Having no running water, the accommodations were described as being nothing more than a large box in which as many as five adults and children were expected to live for several days while performing in the event.

The past year also saw the protests turn toward businesses in Gallup in which the entire town came under attack for only caring about the money the Navajo people spent at their businesses and not for the people themselves.

Ike Merry, the head of the Ceremonial, argued that the action prohibiting the passing out of the leaflets was not a civil rights violation.

“We prohibit the passing out of any leaflet or item on Ceremonial grounds because it causes a disruption,” he said.

“If they wanted to pass out leaflets, they could do it at the entrance to the park,” he said, as long traffic is not disrupted.

In election news, chairman candidate Peter MacDonald was at Red Rock Chapter this past weekend blasting incumbent Chairman Raymond Nakai for not keeping his promises to the chapter.

Red Rock was one of the biggest supporters of Nakai in the 1966 election primarily because of his promises to gravel the main roads in the community. Residents had been complaining for years of the problem of using the dirt roads during inclement weather.

Readers of the Times picked up on MacDonald’s remarks. The tribe had the funds and the upgrade had been in the planning stage for years but the project just wasn’t approved.

One writer pointed out that road construction monies were the subject of many battles internally within the tribe. Every Council delegate promises his constituents that their road projects would be a priority and looking at which roads were upgraded could give you an idea who held the most power in the tribal government.

And, in this case, a lot of Council members welded more power than Nakai.

Also in the news was a study released by the Southwestern Indian Development that confirmed what every resident on the reservation already knew – prices charged by Indian traders were nothing short of robbery.

The study showed that traders often charged 200% over retail, usually provided limited selections and used a credit system that made it impossible for most Navajo families to go elsewhere to shop.

As a result, being an Indian trader in 1970 provided the trader family with a good living.

Because of poor roads and the lack of competition in most of the rural portions of the reservation, the trader could charge basically whatever he wanted and there was no one who could step in and force him to charge reasonable prices.

There had been attempts to get the BIA to do something but federal officials said that while the BIA had the authority to do annual surveys of trading post prices, the agency had no authority to punish traders who were allegedly ripping off their customers.

Officials for SID said the only solution to correct the situation was for residents to join forces and create food co-ops. This will allow community residents to set food prices and not traders.

Several Navajo communities would do that in the next couple of years, causing concern among the traders.

A few years later, the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on the reservation about trader abuse and one of the subjects that came under discussion was the markup of food prices.

Traders claimed the higher prices were due to extra transportation costs. Several traders testified that they were not making a lot of money. A couple even claimed they made no money off of food sales.

In those cases, their profits came from selling Navajo jewelry and rugs, they said.



About The 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.

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