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50 Years Ago: Sanostee accuses school of discriminatory hiring

This may have been a first. If not, it was at least the first time that an action of this type had been reported in the Navajo Times.

A complaint has been filed by 23 people, all employees of the Sanostee Boarding School or residents of Sanostee community, charging the school with racial discrimination in hiring. It’s important to note the fact that this occurred more than a decade before the Navajo Tribal Council passed a law requiring employers on the reservation to give preference in hiring to members of the tribe.

It also occurred at a time when most of the teachers and administration staff at all schools, both public and BIA, were white with only the lower positions, such as teacher aides and cooks, being Navajo.

“Racism pervades the practices within the school’s guidance department,” the complaint filed with the federal civil rights department stated. The 44-page report said that federal equal opportunity laws were being violated on a daily basis by administrators, who failed to provide training programs that would provide Navajo employees the opportunity to rise through the ranks.

The school was also criticized for not redesigning job qualifications so that Navajos could qualify for these supervisory jobs. The complaint also alleged that the school’s community board was ignored when members made suggestions that would pave the way for tribal members to be promoted to these positions.

What is also interesting about this is that DNA-Peoples’ Legal Services is not mentioned once in the story. This would seemingly be just the type of lawsuit that DNA attorneys would handle. But it appears that the community hired an outside attorney to handle the case.

The community would eventually get most of the changes they wanted, but the important part of all of this is that it spurred other communities to start looking at how schools treated Navajo employees.

Over the next few years, changes were made at some other schools that paved the way for more Navajos to be appointed to supervisory positions.

In other news, the Navajo Times announced that the ranger station at Monument Valley would be getting a tribal flag for its flagpole. But that was not what the story in the Navajo Times was all about.

The story on the front page revealed in detail how the tribe planned to deliver the flag to the ranger station. Instead of mailing the flag or having it driven the 166 miles — a drive that would have taken about five hours — the tribe was planning to send it by horseback, which would take about a week.

This whole thing was apparently the brainchild of Martin Link, the director of the Navajo Tribal Museum. He thought it would be good publicity to have it delivered the old-fashioned way.

So the plan was that on June 6 a total of “24 hearty souls” would pick up the flag after it had flown a day over the tribal Council building and then start the journey, going through Canyon de Chelly and Rough Rock, sleeping on the ground and hoping it didn’t rain. Besides the horses and riders, three wagons would accompany the riders, carrying food, sleeping bags and all the other supplies the group would need.

The cost to the tribe would be minimal since the riders were all volunteers or tribal employees who could rake time off — it’s possible they had to use their personal leave — to go on the trip. Some of the food as well as the horses were donated to the effort, The trip was an enormous success.

Everyone had a good time and the tribe received coverage not only from area papers but from the Arizona Republic, which had a reporter and photographer go with the riders for a few hours one day.

This got so much publicity that one wonders if this played any part in a decision a couple of decades later for some members of the Council from the western section of the reservation to make an annual ride each year on horseback to attend the summer session.

And finally, with the tribal primary only two months away, Dick Hardwick, managing editor of the Times, said it appeared the race for tribal chairman was locked up with four men running for the position.

It appears from what the Times was being told that the tribe’s current chairman, Raymond Nakai, was a sure bet to make it past the primary and into the general election.

He had the most chapter endorsements (10) and still maintained his base of Native American Church members. Hardwick wasn’t totally sure but suspected that Nakai had more money in his campaign account than all of the other candidates put together.

It also appears, from statements made in the 1970s and 1980s, that not all of these campaign donations were legal. The tribe had a law that prohibits non-Indians from contributing to a tribal campaign because of fears that this would allow non-Navajo interests to basically buy a candidate and have too much influence over them if they won.

Officials of two non-Navajo companies that did business with the tribe — Frazier Carnivals and Henry Hillson Clothing — would later admit to the practice. Frazier, which ran the carnival at tribal fairs, apparently didn’t give a very large amount and may have donated the same amount to all of the candidates to make sure that no matter who won, their contract with the tribe was safe.

But Hillson said his contribution was hefty because he made a lot of money from the contract to provide clothing to the school clothing program. In a deposition in a lawsuit, he said that regardless of tribal law, companies doing business with the tribe realized this was expected.

Hillson made his contributions directly to the campaigns. Some other companies, as the rumor went, and non-Navajos who lived on the reservation and wanted to show their support, would give the money to a member of the tribe who would donate it under his name.

Another good source of revenue for Nakai, which was legal, was the annual plea to his appointees on staff to show their support by contributing some money. After all, it was in their financial interest to do everything they could to keep Nakai in office so they could keep working for the tribe.



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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