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50 Years Ago | Hopis tear down meeting hall in disputed area, talk centers on motivations

The decision by Hopi and federal authorities to tear down a Navajo meeting hall on exclusive Hopi territory on June 1, 1972, made headlines throughout New Mexico and Arizona with the Associated Press saying that this was another jolt to attempts by the Navajo leadership to maintain peace on the lands disputed between the two tribes.

“We posted this building six or seven weeks ago with a notice that if this was not taken down in two weeks, we would take it down ourselves,” said Hopi Tribal Chairman Clarence Hamilton.

The site was located near Low Mountain, on the eastern portion of the disputed area, on land that had been determined by the courts to be in Hopi exclusive use, despite the fact that the only use of the land for generations had been by Navajo families.

The building was constructed, said Hamilton, by the Navajos despite warnings by the Hopis that it would be torn down because it was being. built on Hopi land. Hamilton said he could not believe that anyone would violate court orders which prohibit any construction without the permission of the Hopi Tribe.

He said this was the same as the Hopis building a meeting place in Window Rock next to the Navajo Tribal Council chambers.

“We just don’t know what was going through the heads of Navajo leaders when they constructed this building and thought that we were going to allow it to happen,” Hamilton said.

This action came as a surprise to me and other reporters covering the Navajo Tribe. Usually, the Hopis would have made it a big thing once they gave the warning to Navajo leaders but this time the Hopi leadership decided to keep the action secret from the press as well as the Navajos living in Low Mountain and nearby chapters.

My theory was that Hopi leadership was worried that if the warning had been made public it would have led to Navajo leadership going to federal court and getting a restraining order to prevent the tearing down of the building which would have delayed the issue for months or years.

The big question I had then is why didn’t the Navajos do this? After all, neither tribe had by now shown an unwillingness to take any matter before the federal district court.

After interviewing officials in the Navajo tribal chairman’s office, it seemed to be a situation where Navajo leadership believed the Hopis were just postering and had no plans to actually go through with it.

The destruction of the building itself had no real significance since the Navajos in that area had other places to meet, including local chapter houses. But it took on a greater significance when some Navajo families thought that if the Hopis could tear down this building, what was to prevent them from tearing down Navajo homes?

Of course, the Hopis had no such authority to do that. Their only authority came from an order by the courts restricting new buildings or adding on to existing homes as long as the land dispute was pending.

This created a lot of problems for Navajo families living in the disputed area because it prevented them from increasing the size of their homes when their families increased.

The Arizona Republic focused on this aspect of the land dispute in a story it published some 15 years later telling emotional stories of Navajo families being forced to live in one-room hogans even though they now had six or seven children.

The courts did allow for new construction or expansion of existing residences if they received permission from the Hopi Tribe but in actuality that seldom occurred due to plans by Hopi leaders to make life for Navajo families living in the disputed area as miserable as possible to encourage them to move.

Jewelry boom hits peak

The boom in the Indian jewelry industry hit its peak in mid-1972 and was over within a year, which caused severe economic problems for most Navajo silversmiths by mid to late 1973.

The boom began in 1967 after a number of celebrities started making Navajo jewelry a part of their wardrobe. Two celebrities who spurred this trend were Jim Morrison, the leader of the band the Doors, and Cher. Within a year, a large number of celebrities were following suit which caused a great demand for Navajo jewelry.

Long-time wholesalers like the Tanners and the Turpens were seeing record sales. The boom also made Gilbert Ortega, who owned a small Indian arts store in Gallup, a major force in the business as he used the increased interest to open more stores in Arizona and New Mexico.

Navajo silversmiths had no problem selling what they made at rates never seen before because of the demand. The Gallup Independent in July of 1972 reported that the number of stores selling Navajo jewelry had tripled in the past two years.

The New York Times reported that summer that the U. S. Department of Economic Security reported there were more millionaires per capita in Gallup than in any other city in the United States. Of course, this did not include only arts and crafts dealers. Several package liquor and bar owners probably made that list as well.

Times were good for silversmiths and traders and everyone was wondering how long it would last.

To meet the demand, Indian traders were reporting a huge influx in fake Indian jewelry being imported from overseas with unscrupulous dealers selling it as authentic and making even more profits.

These importers were doing everything they could to make buyers think they were buying authentic Indian jewelry. One village on the Philippines changed its name to Zuni so it could label its products as “made in Zuni.”

By mid-1973, celebrities had gone off in other directions and sales of Indian jewelry started declining. Almost all of the new stores that opened up during the boom closed their doors by the end of 1973.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan wrote about Navajo Nation government and its people since 1971. He joined Navajo Times in 1976, and retired from full-time reporting in 2018 to move to Torrance, Calif., to be near his kids. He continued to write for the Times until his passing in August 2022.


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