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50 Years Ago: Tribes demand placement of BIA under White House

The headline that ran across the front page of the Sept. 15 issue probably led most readers of the paper wondering what was going on in Window Rock: “MacDonald proposes truth network.”

Was MacDonald proposing to have the tribe start a radio station that tells its listeners only the truth? Or was he going to appoint a group of tribal leaders who would tell only the truth? It turned out to be something entirely different.

The words were taken from an angry speech made the week before by MacDonald at a meeting of the National Tribal Chairman’s Association. The speech was so important that the managing editor of the Times reprinted it in full over three pages.

In what would turn out to be an opening salvo in his fight against the Secretary of the Interior, MacDonald proposed/demanded that the Bureau of Indian Affairs be removed from under the Interior Department and placed directly under the White House.

When Louis Bruce was appointed BIA commissioner, tribal leaders thought that having a Native as head of the agency would create a super BIA.

Instead, the Interior Department was taken over by other departments such as the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Mines and the Bureau of Fisheries and Livestock, all of which have an interest opposed to everything the BIA supports.

This is why Native people can no longer stand to be a part of the Interior Department and is asking the White House to take control.

MacDonald said this could be done without congressional legislation by having the White House and Interior agree to let it happen.

The speech struck a chord within Indian Country and within weeks leaders of most of the larger tribes spoke out supporting the proposal.

Of course, no transfer ever took place but Native leaders would score a victory when a special adviser for Indian affairs was created on the president’s White House staff.

Navajo hallmark

That issue of the paper contained another story on the front page that, if enacted, would have had a major effect on the Navajo arts and craft industry.

It centered on a proposal to create a Navajo hallmark that would let customers know that what they were buying was certified as being made by a Navajo.

This was a pet project of Sam Day III who had been trying to make this happen for more than a decade because of the growing problem of art stores palming off products made overseas as authentic Navajo made.

So-called Navajo jewelry and rugs being imported from Taiwan and the Philippines were getting so good that few people could tell from looking at them what was authentic and what was not.

And since fake crafts cost only a fraction of what an authentic piece would cost, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how greed cropped up in the industry and why Day felt it would eventually lead to the destruction of authentic Navajo crafts.

Day said he finally had a proposal drawn up that he wanted to get the Navajo Tribal Council to pass. It called for creation of a special office that would oversee the manufacture of Navajo crafts and those who met the tribal standards would be allowed to use the hallmark.

This is basically what tribes in Alaskan did some 15 years later to protect their craftspeople from being ripped off by dealers selling fake Alaskan crafts. That has proven to be very successful.

Day’s proposal really had no chance of getting approved by the tribal Council where a discussion centered on a number of problems that needed to be solved before such a proposal became law. It never even received enough support to go for a vote in the Council.

The major problem was enforcement. What was to keep a Navajo from putting the hallmark on his products without going through the certification process? Would he be fined or face jail time and how would that play out among the craftspeople who united in being against anything which jeopardized their freedom to work without government interference?

And even worse, what would the tribe do to a dealer or store that violated the law? The tribe has no jurisdiction over store owners off the reservation and the last thing the tribe wanted was to see was the tribal legal staff filing dozens of lawsuits trying to get people to follow the law.

Debate over name

Chet MacRorie, the Times managing editor, informed readers of another publication being sold on the newsstands. It was called Dineh Leaders of Tomorrow and issue No. 3 was being sold in Window Rock.

High school students who wrote about Navajo history and culture put it out. In that issue, the main story was where the word Navajo came from and what did it mean.

The author explained that the Spanish referred to the Diné as Apaches de Navajo, which meant “raiders of the field.”

Later it was shortened to Navajo.

When the news staff at the publication was polled, they all objected to be referred as harvesters.

“We are not harvesters of anything,” one staff member said. “We are all human beings.”

Some 20 years later, the whole issue of what Navajo meant would become an issue throughout the reservation since a group of tribal leaders made a push to start calling the people Diné because their interpretation of Navajo meant someone who kills.

This whole issue went on for several months and the decision was finally made to keep the Navajo reference since using the word Diné would be construed by some off-reservation people as to dine, as in eat.

There were also those who objected because they felt the word Diné meant Navajo men and this left no place for Navajo women.

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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