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50 Years Ago: MacDonald plans to include urban Diné in government affairs

As 1971 ended, Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald was making plans to carry through with one of the promises he made in his campaign — to include urban Navajos in the government process.

This had come up for the first time during Raymond Nakai’s second term as Navajos in Phoenix and Los Angeles started complaining that they didn’t have access to the services that Navajos living on the reservation or in the border communities had.

And as the tribe started getting tens of millions of more dollars to distribute in the way of services, urban Navajos started complaining about being left out.

Technically, under the way the tribal government was set up, every Navajo had equal access to the services through their chapters. Navajos living in urban areas still had ties with their chapters so they could tap into services like housing assistance and tribal scholarships through their chapter.

But it didn’t always work that way because chapters on the reservation were totally controlled by reservation Navajos and in many cases, one or two families that were able to exert a lot of influence into how benefits within that chapter were distributed.

Even in 1971, it was obvious that most chapter officials favored reservation Navajos over urban Navajos when it came to doling out chapter funds. And this would only get worse in future years to the point that by the 1980s urban Navajos were claiming that they were second-class citizens.

And to be honest, they were correct. The Navajo Times brought this up occasionally when articles were done outlining who received tribal benefits.

For example, each chapter was given funds to help members with housing repairs or renovations and, almost without exception, the chapters would provide these funds to reservation homes.

The Times also did a couple of stories about the tribal hiring process. I remember one story the Times wrote about an urban Navajo wanting to move back to the reservation but he couldn’t find a government job because of a bias in favor of reservation Navajos.

One of the main reasons for this disparity was because very few urban Navajos participated in their chapters. They didn’t vote in chapter elections and they didn’t try to get acquainted with those in the chapters who controlled how chapter funds were allocated.

They fared better in applying for services that were given out by tribal programs but even then applying for these funds required some understanding of how the tribal government worked which left out many urban Navajos.

In his campaign, MacDonald said he would hold meetings with urban Navajos in the bigger cities like Phoenix, Albuquerque and Los Angeles. He announced this week that he planned to hold the first meetings with Southern California Navajos after the first of the year.

This resulted in hopes by Navajos living in Los Angeles and San Diego that MacDonald would announce changes in the allocation of benefits to finally guarantee that urban Navajos would have equal footing in securing government services.

Ceremonial case may go to high court

Michael Benson, Eddie Brown, June Tracy, and Linda Hubbell may be headed to the U. S. Supreme Court. Or at least their case is.

These are the four who have been the center of a legal battle that began in 1969 when they were ejected from the grounds of the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial for passing out brochures sharply criticizing the way the event was set up and claiming it treated its Indian performers unfairly.

This was basically a lawsuit that would not go away and one that was costing the Ceremonial Association tens of thousands of dollars annually to defend themselves. It is also a lawsuit in which the Ceremonial basically came out on top in both the district and appeals courts.

DNA-People’s Legal Services attorneys who were representing the four Navajo youths said they had submitted the case to the Supreme Court because the decision of the district and appeals court were in direct conflict with earlier decisions by the Supreme Court, which had ruled in favor of these kinds of actions as a form of free speech.

As you can guess, the news of this action resulted in a quick response from Ike Merry, the director of the association.

“There is no need for this action,” he said. “It will only cost both sides thousands of dollars more in legal fees and no matter who wins, it won’t change anything.

“This is just another example of DNA attorneys bringing up suits that are outdated and can be resolved in mediation rather than going to court,” he said. “However, they don’t get the publicity they are seeking if it is handled in mediation.”

He is somewhat accurate because the association met with the Navajo group before the 1970 event and reached an agreement that allowed them to pass out their brochures as the crowd entered the park.

But DNA attorneys argued that they should be allowed to pass out the brochures anywhere they wanted, something the association said would disrupt the events.

But for DNA, the feeling that the refusal to allow the passing out of brochures inside the park was a violation of the group’s free speech and this was worth the cost and the effort to get a Supreme Court ruling.

There was another reason given for trying to get a definite ruling on the matter since part of the lawsuit was centered on unfair treatment of Indian people by the city of Gallup, which also had a role in holding the event.


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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