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50 Years Ago: Natahli plans job change, but rug pulled out from under him

When you plan to leave a high-ranking position on the reservation for a more important job, make sure that you have the new job first.

In early October, 50 years ago, Ned Natathli, who had been director of Navajo Community College, turned in his resignation so he could take the position of Navajo Area director for the BIA.

He was to become the first Navajo to hold that position, replacing Graham Holmes who was being transferred to Sioux country.

Although he had his detractors, Natathli was generally well-liked by both the students and staff and he was given a lot of the credit for the community college’s success since it was created four years ago.

But Natathli admitted it was a a hard job, given tribal politics and a college board that had a tendency to pay too much attention to rumors. So, after a couple of goodbye celebrations by student and staff, Natathli prepared to go to his new position.

At that point, the rug was pulled out from under him and he learned that another Navajo, Tony Lincoln, had been named to the position. Lincoln wasn’t as qualified as Natathli but he had something that Natathli didn’t have – the support of the tribe’s chairman, Peter MacDonald.

Lincoln was one of the MacDonald boys, willing to do anything to increase his popularity among Navajo voters. He was the perfect man for the job in MacDonald’s mind because it would give him a friend and supporter in the highest BIA position on the reservation.

Holmes and MacDonald had never really gotten along because Holmes was from the old school that believed one of the BIA’s main responsibilities was to make tribal leaders follow federal regulations.

Anyone who knew MacDonald knew he didn’t put up with authority figures who tried to make sure he complied with BIA regulations. MacDonald wanted someone he could control and evidently having Natathli as BIA head would not accomplish that. Lincoln would.

Reporters covering the reservation had heard Nathali would be the new area director so it came as a surprise to us that Lincoln was appointed. We wondered what Natathli would do now and the general consensus was that he would go into tribal politics, run for a Council seat and eventually run against MacDonald for tribal chairman.

But we were all wrong because the board for Navajo Community College reached out and begged him to come back as director. We heard rumors that the board was having problems finding a replacement and a number of board members were friends of the former director so they wanted him back.

But would Natathli go back and it appears that being director was better than not doing anything so he accepted.

As for Lincoln, he would serve as area director for the next few years and although he kowtowed to MacDonald at times, he was generally viewed as a fairly good area director.

Of course, when he was replaced, the people in the Interior Department showed how they felt about him by placing him in a position in Albuquerque where he spent the day moving papers from one side of his desk to another.

A high-level meeting

Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald announced he planned to meet with high-level federal government officials in a couple of weeks.

Among those expected to be in attendance was U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew and members of the Nixon cabinet. Several other top tribal leaders have also been invited.

The Times pointed out to its readers that this may be the most important meeting MacDonald goes to during this administration because President Richard Nixon had not tried to hide the fact that he was committed to improving the lives of reservation Natives.

This may have been because of his Quaker background, but White House officials had been saying for months that Nixon was fascinated with Native culture.

This could work out because MacDonald had been trying for months to get the White House to appoint a liaison who would work with tribes and use its leverage to control other programs within the Interior Department that he felt were opposed to tribal progress.

Glamour features Navajo girl

You don’t think of Glamour Magazine as being a publication that would be interested in a young Navajo girl living on the reservation, but apparently you would be wrong.

The October issue of the magazine featured a long article on LaVerne Joe, a college student who lived in Fort Defiance and trying to live in two cultures as a student and traditionist.

Chet MacRorie, the managing editor of the Times, said he thought the article was well-written.

He added that the Times had played a role in the article by helping the magazine pick the person it was about and providing the writer with background information on Navajo culture.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t that surprising that a magazine devoted to women’s fashion and makeup would think its readers would be interested in and story about Navajo culture. But the magazine had published a couple of stories before on the popularity of Navajo jewelry as fashion accessories.

The trend was started when a couple of famous actresses, including Elizabeth Taylor, began showing up at award shows wearing Navajo jewelry. This led to a major boom and Navajo silversmiths had a hard time keeping up with demand.

This led to a sharp increase in articles about Navajos appearing in all kinds of magazines. It also had a major effect on my life.

I remember being contacted by a lot of magazines for articles about the boom. I remember doing one for the National Enquirer on how the jewelry boom was creating new millionaires among Anglo arts and crafts dealers.

The article pointed out that there were more millionaires in Gallup per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Another article I wrote was for Coal Age magazine and how the boom was affecting Navajo coal miners who were seeing their wives bringing in more money than they were because of all the money they were making as silversmiths.


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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