50 Years Ago: MacDonald praises Farmington for ‘friendly’ relationship
Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald was in Farmington this week a half a century ago praising the city for having a “friendly” relationship with the Navajo people.
MacDonald was speaking before 110 people at a banquet sponsored by the local chamber of commerce to give Farmington business owners a chance to meet with the tribe’s new leader.
According to media reports at that time, MacDonald praised city leaders throughout his speech for their efforts to make Navajos feel welcome when they visited the city but he inferred that work needs to be done to combat racism shown by some business owners in their dealings with Navajo customers.
“We need you … you need us,” said MacDonald.
The speech overall was optimistic that the city could overcome racism and create an atmosphere of mutual respect between Navajos who go there to shop and the people who operate businesses in the city.
The truth of the matter was nowhere near as rosy as MacDonald painted it and he probably decided not to tell those in attendance how the Navajo government and people really felt about the city.
Navajo activist groups at the time were claiming that business owners in Farmington were among the most racist in the area, which can be seen by the fact that many Navajos living in the Shiprock area complained about the way they were treated when they came to town to do their weekly shopping.
There were the usual complaints of restaurants and other businesses not allowing them to use the restroom if they didn’t buy anything and feeling that store workers made an effort to keep an eye on them to make sure they didn’t shoplift merchandise.
But there was also a feeling that the merchants would just as soon not even have Navajos shop at their store.
This could easily be seen by comparing the businesses in Farmington with those in Gallup. A customer count of supermarkets and restaurants in Gallup, for instance, would show a great majority of the customers to be Native American. That was not the case in Farmington.
The only exception was probably the car dealers who even advertised in the Navajo Times seeking business.
There was a downside to this as attorneys for DNA-People’s Legal Services were filing lawsuits in state court claiming the car dealers in Farmington were taking advantage of Navajo customers by charging them for services they hadn’t agreed to.
But MacDonald was probably right to ignore racism since he had been spending a lot of time during his first two months in office getting support from officials in Farmington and the state for the proposed construction of the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, which had been, by that time, under discussion for almost a decade.
While it wasn’t exactly a top-secret meeting, the Navajo Times reported that MacDonald spent three days in Phoenix talking with Graham Holmes, Navajo area director for the BIA.
There was no mention of the meeting before it occurred and apparently nothing about it once the two returned to Window Rock.
Sources in the chairman’s office reported to the Times that this could turn out to be a very important meeting, which could have a substantial effect on the tribe’s budget.
MacDonald was in the midst of preparing a tribal budget for the next fiscal year. He wanted to take the tribe in new directions but he soon learned that the expected revenues would only fund ongoing problems and there would be little or nothing left over to fund programs MacDonald wanted to implement.
So, if this was the case, MacDonald decided the only solution was to get the BIA to take a bigger role in funding the tribal government. After all, the BIA did take a bigger role in providing funds to smaller tribes.
What MacDonald wanted was for the BIA to pay a greater share of the cost of running the tribal police department, the fire department and courts. Despite tribal efforts in the past to get the BIA to provide more funding, so far the BIA had rejected all of these efforts.
The reason was money. If the BIA were to pay more of these costs, it would have to take the funds from the agency’s grants to smaller tribes and doing so would create a lot of dissension in Indian Country. Especially among tribes who felt the federal government was giving preference to the much bigger Navajo Tribe than it should.
The request for more funding apparently was heard by officials within the Nixon administration because, in the next few years, a lot more money was provided to the tribe for a number of projects, such as the construction of the two administration buildings next to the tribal police department.
President Richard Nixon may have been a Republican but he turned out to be very good for the Indian people as he sought ways to reduce the poverty on Indian reservations and to give them more power to run their governments.
It was Nixon, for instance, who started the program that allowed tribes to take over the running of BIA programs, under the Indian Self Sufficiency and Educational Assistance Act, something that not only gave the tribe more say in how these programs were run but also sharply increased the number of tribal employees over the next five years.