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50 Years Ago: Another company promises jobs but eventually leaves

I can’t tell you how many times I wrote for the Navajo Times of a tribal leader saying they had a company willing to set up operations on the Navajo Reservation and was going to employ hundreds of Navajos. Then, at some point in the future, I would have to write story that the company, for one reason or another, decided to go somewhere else.

I was still working for a newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky, when Art Arviso, the new director of administration, released details of an agreement being negotiated between the tribe and the Jeep Corp. to build the vehicles on the reservation.

The plan was, Arviso told members of the Navajo Tribal Council, for the tribe to build a 320-acre industrial park across from Interstate 40 near the Fort Wingate exit. A 100,000-square-foot plant would be built using funds from the company and the tribe.

The Council was told the tribe had received a $2 million economic development grant from the federal government and the tribe was going to use it to bring water and electricity to the area. At least 580 people, mostly Navajos, would be employed at the plant. Company officials said Jeep Corp. had won a $100 million bid to produce vehicles for the military and wanted to start construction at the site within 60 days because they wanted the first Jeep’s to come off the line by the fall of 1972.

The tribe began to have problems with the deal by the end of the month. The first came from the federal government, which indicated that the tribe was not going to be allowed to use the money on any plans that would cause others to become unemployed. It turned out that Jeep was planning to lay off some of its employees at a plant it was operating in California and transferring those who remained to operate the new Navajo plant. But that was not the real reason the deal fell through.

You really can’t put the blame on Chairman Peter MacDonald. He had been In office for only a month and was still learning how the tribal government operated and didn’t realize how much red tape was involved in getting land set aside for industrial purposes. Jeep needed to get the plant up and running by early 1972 so construction had to get underway no later than April.

According to news articles at the time, when company officials learned that it would take at a minimum 18 months to get all of the clearances and permits necessary to begin construction of the plant, Jeep decided to look elsewhere. As for MacDonald, this was the start of his efforts to reduce the red tape involved in getting approval for these types of projects.

While he had some success in reducing some of the barriers, MacDonald was not able to get rid of all of them and, when he left office in 1989, it still took a long time to go through the process.

The Council took action this week formally opposing legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Sam Steiger, R-Ariz., to end the longstanding Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute. Steiger’s bill would divide the land between the two tribes and give the Hopis jurisdiction over land in the Tonalea, Coal Mine Mesa, Jeddito, Hard Rock and Teesto chapters.

The Hopis alone would have jurisdiction over these lands and any Navajos living the lands would have to be relocated. Navajo officials, of course, opposed any plan that included the relocation of hundreds of Navajo families. This didn’t seem to deter Steiger who tried for several years to get Congress to approve it.

By 1972, MacDonald realized that if the Navajos had any chance of getting a favorable outcome, they would have to get Congress on their side. He also realized he had to change the tone of stories in the national media about the land dispute. By 1971, a number of large circulation newspapers began writing about the dispute portraying the Navajo Tribe as the villain. One article even pointed out that Navajos were bigger and richer than the poor Hopis, making the Navajos look like the bully.

For the next four or five years, MacDonald would attack this image in several ways in the hopes of getting a majority of the members of Congress on the side of the Navajos, which was difficult because most of the members of the House and the Senate could care less about the dispute. They looked at this as a local matter and expected the legislators from Arizona to come up a solution.

He met with leaders of the national labor unions, which had a strong influence with Democrats in Congress. He wanted the unions to support a proposal that would require no relocation of Navajos, maybe allowing the Navajos to pay the Hopis an annual fee for use of half the land. In exchange, MacDonald agreed to use his influence to get tribal members to vote for Democrats in state and national elections. This was a major concession since MacDonald had been a lifelong Republican and I imagine that is still the case.

How well this worked was seen in 1974 when Barry Goldwater ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate. He won the election but griped about losing to his Democratic opponent on the Navajo Reservation. This had never happened before. He accused Navajo officials of giving coupons to tribal members that could be redeemed for beer at off-reservation liquor stores to get them to vote against him.

MacDonald also approved a project to prepare short videos explaining the Navajo side of the dispute, which would be watched by members of Congress. He realized that the last thing members of Congress wanted to do was watch a video on something that didn’t affect their state, so a decision was made to have famous movie and television stars make the pitch.

Now no A-list actor could be persuaded to participate but the tribe managed to get some from the C list, including Jock Mahoney, star of the Yancy Derringer television series, where he roamed the East on riverboats with a Indian sidekick who looked to be a Mohawk and was required to remain by his side because Derringer had saved his life.

I remember watching another video, this one featuring Broderick Crawford, another former television star who was a highway patrolman. Susan St. James, another television star, visited the reservation at that time and may have made a video as well. I have no idea how many members of Congress agreed to watch one of the videos but neither the unions nor the videos seemed to have had much influence over the thinking of members of Congress.


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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