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50 Years Ago: MacDonald struggles to respond to ban of non-Indians at Hopi ceremonies

Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald is having serious problems trying to find a Navajo response to a problem that is dividing the members of the Hopi Tribe – whether to allow non-Indians to attend the Hopi traditional ceremonies this summer.

Hopi traditionalists have closed many of the ceremonies this summer despite statements made by BIA officials and the tribe’s chairman, Clarence Hamilton, that the ceremonies would be open to non-Indians as they usually are.

This is a dispute that has been going on for years as the dances have begun attracting large crowds of non-Indians who have planned their summer vacations around spending a few days going to these ceremonies and taking a lot of pictures to show their friends and save for future viewing.

The majority of those who attend the ceremonies, and especially the Hopi Snake Dance in mid-August, are members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes. But the percentage of non-Indians, which was less than 5% in 1960, is now surpassing 25% and growing each year.

But it is not only the number of non-Indians but their lack of respect for those hosting the ceremonies that have traditionalists upset. For example, it’s no longer unusual to see a non-Indian in shorts with two or three cameras around his neck running around during a ceremony to get the best shot possible, even if he disrupts the people in charge of putting the ceremony on.

“Many of them are rude and when they are asked to stop, they argue that they have a right to take photos in a public place,” said Starlie Lomamaytea, a Hopi traditionalist, adding that at many of the ceremonies held the past couple of years, rude non-Indians had to be escorted away from the ceremonies for showing disrespect.

He said when traditionalists decided to close down one of the ceremonial dances in the spring to non-Indians, the non-Indian BIA superintendent had to be escorted off the plaza when he showed up to watch.

The traditionalists have pushed for closing not only the dances but the entire reservation to non-Indians but this is difficult to do because the official Hopi government has been promoting ceremonials as a way to attract more tourists to the reservation to boost to the reservation economy. And especially to Hopi craftspeople who use this time to sell their products directly to buyers instead of going through trading posts or arts and crafts dealers.

MacDonald has reason to support the traditionalists since they have been major supporters of the Navajos in their fight with the Hopi government over the century-long land dispute with over ownership of 1.8 million acres in the western portion area of the Navajo Reservation.

But he also supports the efforts of the Hopi government to promote tourism since this brings in thousands of tourists who also spend time and money visiting parts of the Navajo Reservation after they watch the Hopi dances.

At one time, the Navajo Times printed a weekly column on the dances for Navajos and tourists but because of the uncertainty as to whether the dances will be open or not to non-Indians, the feature was discontinued.

In an effort to get some control over the situation, BIA officials have called for a meeting of Hopi government leaders with traditionalists after this year’s Snake Dance to see if some kind of solution can be found to appease both groups.

An underrated tribal official

One of the underrated officials in the McDonald administration was Sam Day II, who served as director of business management for most of the 1970s.

He played a major role in the history of the Navajo Times in the mid-70s as he was given the task of overseeing the paper and trying to make it profitable and dealing with MacDonald when the chairman was angered by stories printed in the paper.

In 1971, he was only concerned that the Times was OK as most of the other tribal enterprises were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and had to be subsidized by the tribal government.

Two or three times a year, Day drew up financial projections for the tribal enterprises, which included the tribal restaurant, an optics company and the Window Rock Motor Inn.

All told, the tribe probably had 10 or 11 enterprises and none, with the possible exception of the lumber operation, were operating in the black.

As far as I could tell, these financial projections were never made public. When Day shared them with members of the Navajo Tribal Council, they were always discussed behind closed doors.

Day’s special talent, if you could call it a talent, was his absolute belief that all tribal enterprises would one day start turning a profit.

He decided in the summer of 1971 to have a study done of how the enterprises were looked upon by those who actually were part of the customer base. To find out how people viewed the enterprises, he included inserts in the paper during summer months that were basically complaint forms.

Hundreds of people filled out the forms and by July Day was aware that the main problem facing all of the enterprises was the attitude of people who worked for them.

People complained that enterprises took every opportunity to close and staff were often rude. The enterprises and their employees viewed themselves as government employees with little need to cater to customers.

Day held meetings with all of the the enterprise staff and stressed that their attitude needed to change and do whatever was needed to make their customers happy even if it meant staying after five.

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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