Thursday, March 30, 2023

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50 years ago: Nakai brimming with new ideas

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai appeared before the Navajo Tribal Council this week brimming with new ideas that he said would make a major change in the lives of Navajos living on the reservation in future years.

Many of these ideas, including the development of a constitution, were part of his successful campaign for reelection, but many were brought up for the first time with the hopes that a Council where his supporters outnumbered those who opposed him would be willing to consider the changes he wanted to put in place.

But, according to media accounts of that speech, Council members in attendance listened “without showing any emotion.”

One of the problems may have been that while Nakai had serious problems with the way the tribal government worked – he said it was so disorganized that even he didn’t know what authority he had – most of the tribe’s members seemed to still be opposed to the idea of a constitution because of fears it would give the federal government greater authority to force them to reduce the number of sheep they had.

But Nakai claimed the current government structure really didn’t give the Navajo people the same types of freedom enjoyed by other Americans and approval of a constitution would change that.

Nakai also proposed the creation of a housing enterprise to oversee the construction of private homes on the reservation so that their development would be put in line with plans by the tribe to bring manufacturing firms onto the reservation to create jobs.

But all in all this was viewed as a much better performance by the chairman as compared to past speeches before the Council where opposition members would heckle him throughout his entire speech.

Two days after giving this speech, the entire membership of the Navajo Tribe learned firsthand just how much power Nakai had now that he controlled the Council.

He introduced a resolution on calling for the firing of his political opponent in the last election, Sam Billison, who was still working for the tribe as director of public services. He also called for the firing of Maurice McCabe, head of the tribe’s administration division who Nakai said spent the previous four years trying to undercut every change he wanted to make.

Billison and McCabe didn’t have a chance. The Council voted 33 to 17 to give Nakai what he wanted.

Billison was making $15,000 a year as a division director and McCabe, who had the top administration position within the tribe, was making $18,000.

After the vote, Billison, who was in the Council chambers, said he had no idea that this was coming up and therefore had made no plans for a future where he did not work for the tribe.

“I thought the elections were over and the program was to get the factions back together,” he said. “I feel this action will continue the split and even make it worse than it was.”

Billison wasn’t helped by the fact that he enjoyed talking to reporters for the Navajo Times and had not been reluctant to speak out against Nakai whenever he had the opportunity. And since Nakai never talked to the Times, saying he was always misquoted, Billison’s remarks often were given a lot of play in the paper.

Billison sharply criticized those Council members who voted against him, saying most of them were so new they had no idea if he was doing a good or bad job and putting in someone who supports the current administration could cause serious problems with the running of the tribal programs in his division.

As for McCabe, he said he saw the writing on the wall as soon as Nakai was reelected and gained control of the council.

“This fight isn’t over yet,” he said after the vote.

He said he has worked for the tribe for 16 years and plans to stay in Window Rock and pay more attention to his business ventures.

But, for the most part, their removal from their tribal positions ended their influence and while both would continue to make anti-Nakai statements over the next few years, their political influence was basically over.

The firing of Billison and McCabe, two of Nakai’s biggest opponents, didn’t go unnoticed within the halls of the Navajo Times.

Chet MacRorie, the editor of the paper, said years later that their firing was also a message that his days at the Navajo Times were numbered since Nakai had made it very clear during the campaign that he didn’t like the newspaper and felt that the people who worked there were trying to get him out of office.

MacRorie, however, said that wasn’t true.

“We were trying to put out a paper that was fair to all sides but the fact was that Nakai refused to cooperate in any way with any of us here and as a result, he received very little coverage during the election,” MacRorie said.

He also pointed out that while Billison and others criticized him, all the paper did was report what they said and never once did the paper itself take any position either for or against him in the election.

He added that as a tribal newspaper, it was almost impossible for the paper to do its job given the fact that the chairman of the tribe is the paper’s publisher and there are no laws that guarantee freedom of speech.

But MacRorie said he wouldn’t quit. If Nakai wanted him gone, he said, then he would have to be fired.

He didn’t have long to wait.

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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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