50 Years Ago: Paper sides with man who stole whiskey

The Navajo Times has taken up the cause of a Navajo man from Leupp, Arizona, who spent 12 days in a Flagstaff jail for trying to steal a pint of whisky from a convenience store.

The Times never published the name of the man, citing the fact that everyone in his community knew he was “mentally incompetent,” a term also used by Daryl Silverman, a law clerk in the Tuba City DNA office who agreed to represent him.

The Navajo Times apparently learned of the case from him since they decided it was worth the front page because, as Silverman said, it shows that racial discrimination is alive and well in Flagstaff. “You can bet that if this was an Anglo, he would not have spent 12 days in jail,” he said.

He was puzzled why the management of the Babbitt’s Thriftway Store even bothered to press charges. Normally, in cases like this, the store issues a notice of trespass, saying he could no longer enter the store. Then if he violates the trespass order, he could be brought up on charges.

“And the thing that bothers me is that Babbitt’s won’t cooperate,” he said, adding that the manager of the store was made aware of the accused’s mental condition. “I wanted him to withdraw his complaint,” said Silverman who said he explained to the manager how unjust the situation was given the fact that the accused had mental problems and no education. He also doesn’t stray far from his community so he didn’t have to worry about him trying to do it again.

The manager refused, said Silverman to even consider the idea. The Times reached out to Babbitt’s management but they had no comment. Police officials in Flagstaff said they get three or four complaints a day from management at supermarkets, convenience stores and package liquor stores of street people either sneaking into their stores or rushing in to grab beer and whiskey. After 12 days in jail, the man went before a Flagstaff city judge and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to time served.

In other news, Sam Billison, now running for the third time for tribal chairman, spoke this week at Fort Defiance to a packed crowd of supporters. Speaking for more than an hour, he outlined the major issues he would be campaigning on. Fifty years later, some of these are issues still exist today on the Navajo Reservation. A noted Navajo educator, most of the issues he raised had to do with educational. “I am the only candidate speaking about education,” he said, which is true.

The main focus of all of the other candidates, including Raymond Nakai, the current chairman, and Peter MacDonald, is economic development and the creation of jobs. Given the fact that the unemployment rate on the reservation is more than 60% makes it an issue of major concern, said Billison. But if you have a reservation where the average person reads at a fifth-grade level, creating jobs that pay a decent wage becomes almost impossible.

One of the major obstacles to providing a decent education, he said, was the BIA’s policy over the past 90 years to provide only one teacher for every 30 students. With many students in the elementary grades proficient only in Navajo and the teachers being Anglo and usually only a year or two out of college, it’s no wonder why students are barely able to read when they reach high school.

He said if he was elected, he would require elementary schools to provide a teacher for no more than 20 students and require schools to provide a Navajo-speaking aide in each classroom. On the high school level, he said he would push the BIA to establish at least one school devoted to vocations to teach subjects like welding, carpentry and plumbing.

“There are plenty of jobs available for Navajos with these kind of skills but the BIA seems to be only interested in graduating students capable of waiting tables or working as store clerks,” he said.

More than 200 people showed up to hear the speech, which was a good crowd for Billison, but didn’t compare with the 400 or more that showed up at rallies for Nakai and MacDonald.

Speaking of MacDonald, he brought up a subject that still comes up today – why doesn’t the tribal government honor former tribal chairmen or tribal leaders by naming something after them? It’s a practice that is common in other sections of the country where schools are named after former presidents. There are even schools named after movie and television stars who attended the schools when they were young.

Not so in Navajo culture. MacDonald was asked about this when he proposed a memorial for former Chairman Sam Ahkeah for his work on behalf of the tribe on the Indian claims issue. He said he would like to see former tribal leaders of the 20th century honored for the work they did for the Navajo people. He pointed out that this was done for tribal leaders of the 19th century, such as Manuelito and Narbona. Others have proposed the same thing, pointing out that naming something for a former chairman keeps their name alive. Otherwise you may have a situation where most Navajos would never recognize the names of some tribal chairmen.

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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