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50 Years Ago | Article reveals how bad unemployment is on rez

A lengthy article in this month’s New Mexico Business reveals, for the first time, just how bad the unemployment problem is on the Navajo Reservation and why it is going to be difficult to make any great changes.

The article said there were 32,592 Navajos on the reservation who could be considered part of the labor force. Out of that number, 20,250 were currently unemployed and most would likely be unemployed for some time because so few new jobs were being created, regardless of statements by the tribal government that the tribe was in talks with numerous companies interested in setting up operations on the reservation.

The survey showed that there were 209 businesses on and near the reservation that served the Navajo people and hired Navajos as clerks and other positions. Interestingly, only 130 of these businesses were located on the reservation.

The survey also revealed that 72% of the people listed as unemployed would not take a job off the reservation even if they had an opportunity to do so.

The survey indicated that 38% of the jobs on the reservation were held by non-Navajos and were not available to Navajos. That, however, would change in the next decade and by 1982 only a small percentage of the jobs on the reservation were held by non-Navajos.

Part of the problem in 1972 was that despite the large number of unemployed Navajos, many businesses still had problems finding Navajos qualified to be hired in certain positions.

One business that found itself in this position was the Navajo Times which during the 1970s found itself looking for reporters. With only a couple of exceptions, most of the reporters that were hired were non-Navajos.

That doesn’t mean that there were Navajos who didn’t have the ability to write for a newspaper. But the number was so low that any tribal member with a decent writing ability could easily get a higher paying position with the tribal government or with a private organization.

The survey found that the most common private business on and near the reservation was the trading post. There were 106 such posts on the reservation in 1972 as opposed to only 20 convenience stores. These numbers would reverse themselves over the next decade as trading posts closed and convenience stores, many associated with gas stations, increased.

The second most common business was the gas station. There were 42 gas stations on the reservation with 22 of them owned by Navajos.

The main problem in creating new small businesses on the reservation was not interest by both Navajos and non-Navajos, but the crippling number of permits and approvals before a business would be allowed to open. It would sometimes take a year or more to go through the process and cost a great deal of money.

A good example of this was the efforts by Lloyd House to open a bowling alley in the Window Rock area. He found some land north of the Window Rock Motor Inn which he thought would be perfect.

He had the money available to construct the building and started but as the months went by he had to spend more money to get approvals. He said he eventually found himself short of the funds he needed so he had to give up on the project.

Coal gasification proposal

This is the month when membership in the tribe learned that a proposal had been presented to the tribe about the possibility of a coal gasification plant being built on the Navajo Reservation.

Officials for the Texas Eastern Transmission Company said the company was doing a feasibility study to determine just how workable it was to build a plant on the reservation.

Eventually that study would indicate that the reservation was a perfect place to build a plant that would convert coal to methane. For the next two years, this would create a major battle between environmental organizations and those who wanted the plant built because of the economic benefits to the tribe.

The company was proposing to build the plant in four phases. The first phase would create more than 800 jobs at the plant and another 300 at the mines. The tribe would see at least another $1.5 million a year from extra coal royalties and millions more if tribal taxation would ever be implemented.

The decision was eventually made to put the plant at Coyote Canyon, which would make that community a major force on the reservation and would double its population.

The company wanted to open up in late 1973 or early 1974 but the proposal was still being debated in 1974 with the Council divided on the subject.

The tribe’s general counsel, George Vlassis, was a major supporter of the proposal, saying approval would provide more than a billion dollars to the tribe over the next 30 years.

And although company officials said the coal gasification process would not harm the environment, it was so new that no one knew for sure what affect it would have on the environment. The Council would eventually vote not to approve the proposal.

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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