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50 Years Ago: Man loses uphill battle for tribal recognition

For 14 years, Jose Pablo Trujillo had been trying to convince the Navajo government that he was a member of the Navajo Tribe — with no luck. He was among more than 120 men and women who, 50 years ago, had applications filed with the tribe to get recognized as members.

But Trujillo, 59, of Santa Fe, had been trying far longer than anyone else and although his application had been rejected more than once, he vowed he would not give up.

Today his claims would be judged, in part, through DNA, but back in 1970, the main thing the tribe had was the information kept in vital records. Trujillo claimed that his father, Juan Antonio Trujillo, was a full-blooded Navajo who was born in Torreón in the 1850s.

His father, while still a child, was taken by Spanish raiders and sold into slavery. He was later adopted by a Spanish-American family and raised in the United States where he married a woman of Spanish descent. Trujillo said his father told him of being captured and said his original name was Sandoval. There are only a very few scattered records in the tribal archives giving names of tribal members in the 1800s.

The federal Census count at that time was very haphazard and the Catholic Church didn’t start collecting its membership data on Navajo until just after 1900. Trujillo appealed every negative decision from the tribe’s membership committee and the Navajo Nation Council’s Advisory Committee. They agreed to turn over the matter to a three-member court decision to listen to all of the evidence and make a decision.

That panel met in late May 1970 and after hearing two days of testimony, voted unanimously to reject Trujillo’s application.

Their ruling came to no conclusion as to Trujillo’s claims that his father was taken in a Spanish raid, even though historic records and family history passed down from one generation to another have numerous accounts of Navajo children being captured and sold into slavery. History also records instances of Spanish children being captured during raids by Navajos into Mexico from 1830 through the 1850s.

Trujillo’s father had been told of his ancestry by members of the Spanish family who had raised him and he said he knew from an early age that he was part Navajo. So he decided in 1956 that he wanted to make it official and become a member of the tribe.

Instead of looking at that aspect of Trujillo’s story, the panel took note of the fact that Trujillo could not speak or understand Navajo, as required by Navajo law at the time. Nor did he have membership in a Navajo clan, which is required under traditional law.

The final nail in the coffin was the fact that by his own admission he had not spent any time living on the Navajo Reservation. Trujillo’s case represents the difficulty of getting accepted as a tribal member if you can’t show direct ties to a specific Navajo family who is willing to speak out on your behalf. This was especially true after 1965 because of the hippy movement, which glorified the role of the Indian in history.

As a result, many blue-eyed hippies started claiming to have some Indian blood — usually Cherokee — or a departed ancestor giving them spiritual guidance.

There was a period of about four months when a young white couple camped out in the reservation in 1976 and helped make ends meet by doing some investigative reporting for the Navajo Times. One of the articles they wrote got a lot of attention.

They spent two weeks interviewing tribal members on what they ate and found many turning away from traditional foods and going to foods with far higher sugar content. They also interviewed local health officials who warned that this practice could one day create severe diabetes problems within the tribe, which some four decades later turned out to be what has happened.

I can’t remember their names but I recall that the reason they decided to make the reservation their temporary home was that the female was pregnant and she wanted to give birth on the reservation since she felt strongly that her child already possessed the spirit of Sitting Bull.

Miguel Torres, a researcher at the Los Alamos Research Lab and one of New Mexico’s most prominent genealogists, said DNA testing of Hispanics within the state found many cases where the person possessed as much as 40 percent Native American blood.

This would indicate that there may be a lot of people out there who could qualify to be a member of the Navajo Tribe or another tribe since tribal laws require only a 25 percent blood quantum in order to apply for tribal membership.

There were a number of cases in the 1980s where individuals sought membership into the tribe saying they were removed from their Navajo homes and placed with white families by hospital or government officials who illegally convinced their parents it would be better for the child to be raised off the reservation.

There was even one case that received a lot of media attention of a Navajo woman who was raised by a Jewish family after they claimed she was given to them by a Navajo woman as they were traveling through Gallup. With the aid of the news media, she was able to track down some of her Navajo relatives who said they had been searching for her for decades.



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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