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50 years ago: Repossessions on rez become an issue

As he headed into his sixth year as chairman, Raymond Nakai was worried about money. In particular, how members of the Navajo Tribal Council were spending it.

In fiscal 1968, the tribe’s operating budget was about $14 million but some of that was coming from the tribe’s reserves and Nakai wanted the Council to live on the money the tribe makes and not dip into reserves. He said in an interview with the Associated Press that he planned to recommend that the 1968-69 budget be about $11 million, a cut of about 25 percent.

The big question in everyone’s mind, however, was whether this was coming from Nakai himself or was he being pressured by BIA officials to be their point man on this issue? The 1960s were a time when the BIA started losing its power over the tribal government.

At the time, most Council resolutions still needed approval by the BIA – especially any that dealt with money or land issues. The BIA, for example, had to give final approval to any annual budget approved by the Council.

Although BIA officials had not rejected any budget, there were reports they came close the previous year when the Council voted to increase its budget over expected income by more than $2 million to build chapter houses and other projects that could have been delayed until more funds were available.

According to reports being circulated at the time, the tribe had somewhere between $40 million and $54 million being held in reserve by the BIA. This included $10 million that had been set aside for scholarships and the tribe only had access to the interest from these funds and could not touch the principal.

The 1967-68 budget started out at $14 million, according to figures supplied by the tribe. But add-ons during the year increased it to more than $16 million. The Council was also under pressure from the chapters to approve more than $1 million in requests to help Navajo families whose livestock herds were devastated by the recent snowstorms.

Some Council delegates said the budget could exceed $17.5 million by the end of the fiscal year. And while the Council had come under heavy criticism for approving these add-ons, members of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee had been quietly reviewing the budgets of tribal offices and one member said he thought that “some departments can do some budget trimming.”

But the big news this week came from a Council resolution that made it illegal for companies off the reservation to come onto reservation land to repossess cars or trailers without first going through the tribal courts.

This was becoming a major problem, according to tribal officials, who said that within the last few years companies in border communities had been fighting to give reservation Navajos credit to buy big-ticket items. Because the buyer lived on the reservation, the companies required a hefty payment up front – usually in the area of 20 percent – but when one payment was missed, crews were sent out to repossess the car, trailer or item. Before the family could get the item back, they would have to provide another hefty payment on the account.

According to tribal officials, companies targeted things like tribal fairs, chapter meetings and sporting events – anything that attracts a lot of people. So the companies got together, made out a list of those who were behind and sent out combined crews to these events to pick up vehicles of people who were behind in payments. Some families found themselves stranded 100 miles or more from their homes when their car was repossessed. And a number had complained that their cars were repossessed even when their accounts were paid up to date, or if they offered to come in the next day to make arrangements.

Howard Gorman, the councilman from Ganado, said this was the biggest complaint he got when he attended chapter meetings. The Council resolution for the first time set up procedures that companies had to go through to be allowed to repossess an item. It primarily required the company to file suit in tribal district court. Business owners in the border communities responded immediately to the new laws threatening to stop giving reservation families credit.

“Going through the tribal court system is going to cost us hundreds of dollars every time we need to do a repossession,” said Claire Gurley, owner of Gurley Ford in Gallup. He also pointed out that this would take months and all the while the family would have use of the vehicle. And once the company did get a decision in their favor, the amount owed by the family would be too much for them to repay and the value of the car would be so diminished that the company would ultimately lose a lot of money on the sale.

Within weeks, however, the companies had developed new plans on how to deal with the situation. Knowing that Navajo families had no choice but to do most of their shopping in the border community, not to mention the fact that this was where bars were located, the car companies would hire people to go around on the weekend to the parking lots of shopping centers and bars to find the cars that needed to be repossessed.

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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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