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50 Years Ago: Due to livestock issues, Diné don’t trust U.S.

Over the years, the Navajo Times pointed out in numerous stories that a lot of tribal members didn’t trust the federal government. This was most prevalent among elderly Navajos who owned sheep and cattle.

It wasn’t a secret in 1970 that many Navajo families were violating tribal and federal laws by exceeding the number of livestock they had permits for and, as a result, the reservation was terribly overgrazed and the problem was getting worse every year.

For political reasons, tribal officials found themselves unable to address the problem, primarily because most of the members of the Navajo Tribal Council raised livestock and were in violation of the grazing laws themselves.

They would even admit it off the record, arguing that no family could make a living if they followed tribal permit levels. Another defense they used was the “everyone does it” argument.

The BIA had the power to enforce the laws but they learned their lesson some 35 years before when they enacted a stock reduction program that saw the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Navajo cattle and sheep in an effort to bring the livestock limit within the land capacity.

A 1937 survey of the livestock population found the number to be within the carrying capacity. But by the time of the next survey a decade later, the situation had gone back to the way it was in 1937. By the 70s, BIA officials said the reservation was overgrazed by a third and getting worse.

Ironically, the distrust of the federal government was costing tribal members millions of dollars in lost benefits. The worse problem was with the nation’s Social Security program.

Throughout his years in office, Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai had been putting out press releases urging tribal members to sign up for Social Security so they would be eligible to receive payments when they reached retirement age.

At the time, a lot of tribal members were making money and not reporting it. This included everyone from ranchers who didn’t report cash payments when they sold cattle or sheep. It also included thousands of tribal members who were earning money from making and selling crafts.

There was a fear by many tribal members that if they received a Social Security number, the federal government would be able to track how much money they made from selling their crafts. Many older Navajos also believed this was just another attempt by the BIA to expose tribal members who had more livestock than the other grazing permits allowed.

In the fall of 1970, the U.S. Indian Health Service got into the act. Dr. George Bock, area director for the Navajo branch, said staff at all the clinics and hospitals would be working with Social Security officials to talk to tribal members, especially the elderly, who did not have a number and convince them to enroll.

“Every person who spent their lives as sheepherders and stay-at-home moms would be eligible for at least $55 a month when they reach retirement age,” he said.

He added that tribal members were turning their backs on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars a year in benefits by not signing up. He also stressed that no one who wanted to sign up would be asked how many livestock they owned.

He also admitted that the IHS would benefit as well since it could charge the Social Security program for some of the costs of providing care to those in the program who were over 65 years of age. This would give the IHS another source of revenue.

There was also a strange story about a group of Navajos that most members did not know existed. But it turns out that as many as 300 Navajos travel to western Colorado every year to help out beet farmers.

The problem was revealed in a meeting held by about 400 sugar beet farmers to discuss securing help during the harvest season. The meeting was expected to center around the problem of Mexican migrant workers but much of it dealt with the problems Navajo workers faced.

The farmers said that “unneeded” and sometimes “idiotic” housing regulations coupled with “a few do-gooders” are the main cause of Navajo migrant unemployment. This problem is so bad that it could have a devastating effect on the nation’s sugar beet industry.

The farmers said that federal government regulations are requiring the beet farmers to do one of three things – use non-Navajo workers, convert to machinery so no migrant workers are needed or give up farming all together.

According to the Western Beet Growers Association, the sugar beet farmers had been using Navajo migrant workers for decades with no issues or blemish but new housing standards imposed by the U.S. Labor Department said almost all housing provided by the farmers did not meet the new standards.

The association said very few of the farmers were able to come up with the funds to improve the housing and still make a profit. Interestingly, the new standards only applied to American citizens and not “wetbacks,” said the article, so Mexican migrant workers are not affected.

But farmers said they have had no luck in securing non-Navajo workers, which is why they depend so much on the Navajo workers.

One farmer said that he has hired this one Navajo family for years, letting them stay in a house on the property that was not that much worse than the house he lived in. He said the family had no complaints about the housing but this year he had to tell them he could not hire them.

The solution to the problem is simple, said Werner Cumever, director of the association. Give the farmers and the Navajo workers a chance to sit down and come up with regulations that both sides can live with.

“If we can get rid of the outside sources, this can be done fairly easily,” he said.

If this change isn’t done, he said, the future of sugar beet farming in western Colorado looks dim.


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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