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50 Years Ago: Shiprock pushes for own school district due to complaints

Fifty years ago this month, health officials were warning reservation residents that the Four Corners area was seeing a sharp increase in the number of bubonic plague cases. The number of cases was small but what alarmed health officials is that the number of cases in 1970 so far was more than double the number of cases reported in 1969.

There were five cases reported in 1969 compared to 13 so far in 1970. The Four Corners area over the past two decades had seen numbers that indicated that an outbreak was underway, said Dr. Jack Poland, who worked for the Ecological Investigation Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado.

There had been no data released about how many of those who contracted the disease died but even those who survived usually had lingering health problems for weeks, if not years. Poland said it is possible that the number of cases had peaked and would go down in 1971.

“I thought that was the case when we saw five cases in 1969 and I was wrong,” he said. The disease is carried by rodents and the Navajo Reservation had been seeing a sharp increase in the rodent population.

Back 50 years ago, the Navajo Times as well as the newspapers in Gallup and Farmington carried a lot more stories about sheep and wool. The two off-reservation papers would inform their readers about current wool prices since so many Navajos made a living raising sheep.

The Navajo Times, while not going into these kinds of stories in quite the detail, did print stories about those who were praised in one way or another for their expertise in this area. So when a 17-year-old Navajo girl was selected to represent the state of New Mexico in the upcoming “Make It Yourself with Wool” contest, it made front-page news.

The person who was selected to represent the state was Claudia Jean Raymond of Fruitland, New Mexico. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lawton Raymond. She was a junior at Navajo Methodist Mission. She was believed, according to news stories, to be the first Navajo to win the state competition. She was scheduled to go to Las Vegas, Nevada, in mid-January and compete in the national championship.

The winner would receive an all-expense-paid trip to Europe and would have the opportunity to meet with sheepherders in England, Ireland and Scotland. The people sponsoring the competition were also offering college scholarships and other prizes. The young seamstress said this was the first contest she had ever entered and added she was “very thrilled” to have an opportunity to win a trip to Europe.

She said that while she had taken home economics classes at her school, her ability as a seamstress came from herself since she was self-taught.

The competition centered on clothing contestants made using wool. Raymond entered a pantsuit she had made in the state competition, adding that she liked the fact it looked dressy but was really comfortable to wear. The tunic top was burnished gold and she had to create her own lining.

The matching pants were in wine, royal blue mixed with a burnished gold plaid. Although it wasn’t required, she also made her own blouse in beige crepe. The antique buttons she used on the tunic had an interesting history, she said. She said she made the buttonholes before she had the buttons and her family had to look statewide for the perfect buttons, which they found in Albuquerque.

Shiprock students and their parents had begun collecting signatures and gathering support for yet another attempt to get the schools in Shiprock placed in their own district instead of being in the Central Consolidated School District. There were complaints for years about the county school board, which had three members representing Farmington and Aztec with the reservation areas in the county having two members. This makeup, according to parents in Shiprock, resulted in the needs of the Navajo students living in the county being ignored.

A lot of the complaints centered around allegations that school bond money and state grants to renovate schools in the district seem to go to the urban schools and not the ones in the county. Another complaint centered on the high absentee rates of Navajo students and although Navajo parents had been pushing the school board to do something, nothing ever seemed to happen.

Both the Navajo and non-Native members of the school board had addressed this problem several times in the 1960s. “It seems to come up at least twice a year,” said Virgil Kirk, who represented the Shiprock area.

The argument seemed to center around the custom of Navajo families to wait until early or mid-October before they had their older children start attending school for the year. The delay was caused by Navajo farmers keeping their older children at home to help with the harvest.

There had also been complaints that some Navajo parents had been known to keep their older children at home when they were not able to get a babysitter for their very young children and they had to go to work.

School officials had also pointed out that creating a new school district was hard since the state was trying to get school districts to consolidate because it saves money. Another problem reservation parents face was that state law required a new school district to have at least 540 students and Shiprock didn’t meet that requirement.

To counter this, the supporters of separating the schools say they can meet that requirement by having Kirtland Central join Shiprock in going on its own.


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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