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50 Years Ago | Tribe stumped on lack of success by Navajo Optics

Beginning in July 1972, the Advisory Committee began holding discussions about what to do with Navajo Optics.

Navajo Optics was a company created by the tribal government in 1967 to take advantage of a policy then in effect within the Indian Health Service that paid for eyeglasses for Navajo school-age children. The federal agency was paying for several hundred thousand of glasses a year.

This was brought up before the Navajo Tribal Council the year before by the Navajo Area director when he gave his annual report in January 1971. He strongly suggested it would be on the tribe’s best interest to create an enterprise that could use those funds.

Raymond Nakai, the tribe’s chairman at the time, jumped at the opportunity and directed his staff to draw up a business plan for the project and give him an idea about how much it would cost to set up.

This came at a perfect time since Nakai was trying to create a Navajo business class. At the time, only a handful of the businesses on the reservation were owned and operated by Navajos and most of these included a husband who was non-Navajo.

By 1967, everything was in place and with the help of an IHS grant the final steps were taken to fund a main operation in Fort Defiance with branches in Tuba City, Kayenta, Chinle, Shiprock and Crownpoint.

Navajo Optics opened with a lot of fanfare with Nakai saying it was only the start of a tribal program that would develop small convenience stores and gas stations throughout the reservation.

But it only took a couple of years for tribal leaders to realize they had made a major mistake.

It turned out – surprise, surprise – that the tribal government did not have the ability to operate a business and make a profit. Even with a guarantee by IHS officials that Navajo families and offices in all the major Navajo communities had a need, the business kept operating in the red. And the cost to keep the business afloat was costing the tribe more money each year with no end in sight.

So, what went wrong?

First, the business kept tribal hours – 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. – and it also closed on Saturdays.

The program’s directors said tribal policy did not allow them to work outside of the regular tribal hours even though most student glasses were bought on week nights and Saturday.

Another factor was the number of employees, which included an optometrist, at least two salespeople at each branch and a secretary and assistant director.

This resulted in some people saying the business was started not to make a profit but to create jobs.

The business had finally received permission from the Advisory Committee to stay open at night and on Saturday but by then it was too late.

Companies in Gallup and Farmington had gotten the lion’s share of the customers by offering families gifts and benefits.

In its first meeting on the issue, the committee voted unanimously to sell it to a Navajo if they could find one willing to take it. But the committee had a question. Could they just turn over the business to a Navajo or did they have to give other Navajos a chance?

So in comes George Vlassis, the Council’s general counsel, who was asked to give a legal opinion on that issue. After two weeks, Vlassis submitted a legal opinion that basically said “it depends.”

The Navajo Bill of Rights requires that all Navajos be treated equally, but that is only as a class.

If the committee would draw up some requirements for the selection and if their buyer met all of those requirements, the committee could choose the person they wanted to give the business to and then send it to the members of the Council who would make the final decision.

That is where the matter stood 50 years ago. But there was a unique solution to choosing a buyer and it drew some attention at the time.

The proposal called for the creation of a business day for all Navajos who owned a business or had hopes of owning a business sometime in the future. After spending a day hearing business leaders give speeches on various issues regarding business operations on the rez, a special ceremony would be held to determine who should be allowed to negotiate with the tribe over ownership of the optical business.

Then the tribe could hold a business day each year, inviting present and future business owners for a chance to meet with business experts and ask them any question.

This never went anywhere but a couple of decades later, the tribe began holding business seminars to help Navajo business owners find solutions to their problems.


About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan wrote about Navajo Nation government and its people since 1971. He joined Navajo Times in 1976, and retired from full-time reporting in 2018 to move to Torrance, Calif., to be near his kids. He continued to write for the Times until his passing in August 2022.

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