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A lot has changed over past 50 years

If you are over the age of 60 and lived in a rural Navajo community, you probably recognize the fact that a lot has changed over the past half century.

While there is still a segment of Navajo society who still have to haul water and have to do without electricity, that number is nowhere near the number in 1969 who were still living the traditional lifestyle of their parents and grandparents.

Trading posts were still serving an important function in reservation life, although the number has been decreasing steadily during the 1960s as leases expired and the tribe made a push for Anglo traders to turn over their businesses to Navajos.

Convenience stores were cropping up in the major communities, giving residents there an alternative to the trading posts.

A lot of elders still went to the trading posts even though the prices were usually higher because the posts still were allowing long-time customers to buy on credit while convenience stores required cash at the time of purchase.

Unemployment was still above 70 percent as most Navajo families lived on income from rising livestock or making jewelry or rugs. The number of regular jobs, especially in places like Piñon, Big Mountain and Low Mountain, was in the single or low double figures and consisted of working in the local trading post or with the local school system.

Only a small percentage of the teaching jobs on the reservation were held by Navajos who were mostly hired as support staff and teacher aides. The coal companies on the reservation did employ a lot of Navajos as miners but the supervisors and managers were still mostly non-Indians.
That was also true of the two biggest employers on the reservation – the federal and tribal governments were non-Natives held most of the top positions and Navajos were hired for the lower staff positions.

There were jobs available in the border communities but in 1969, most businesses still relied on Hispanics and non-Natives for most of their service workers. Navajos in 1970, for example, made up only 12 percent of the population in Gallup as compared to more than 40 percent today.

The 72 members of the Navajo Tribal Council were primarily ranchers with only a couple of members having any college education. Many on the Council were not fluent in English, which is why almost all of the discussion during the Council sessions was in Navajo.

Since Navajo is not a written language, the records were kept in English and the Council would have Carl Beyale on hand to interpret what was said in Navajo into English and vice versa so there would be a permanent record.

Today, time limits have been put in place to limit how long delegates would be allowed to speak but in 1960 there were no such limits and members could talk for an hour or more on a subject, after which Beyale would provide a summery in English that would take less then half that time.

Chapter meetings in those days were well attended, mostly by elders in the community. They would go on for hours and were conducted almost entirely in Navajo. One thing, however, has not changed – most meetings started a couple of hours late.

Most reservation residents relied on chapter meetings to get news about what was happening in the tribal government. The Council delegate would be responsible for giving a rundown on what the Council was considering and what the chairman was up to.

The border town newspapers provided some news but none had a full-time reporter covering tribal government news so they would only cover major events.

A couple of radio stations, most notably KGAK in Gallup, would provide some news about the tribal government but since none had reporters, it primarily consisted of translating press releases into Navajo.

The Navajo Times, which was celebrating its first decade in operation, still had no full-time reporters and most of the news writing was done by its managing editor, Dick Hardwick, who was looking forward to returning to his job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The paper did not have the resources to cover Council meetings so most of what happened in the Council was ignored. Only two or three tabloid pages were devoted to actual reservation news so readers would usually get only two or three stories a week.

The biggest story of 1969 was ignored by all of the news media – the ongoing battle between the Hopis and the Navajos over ownership of 1.8 million acres of land in the western portion of the Navajo Reservation.

The Hopis had been suing for more than a decade then when they acquired these lands, they planned to force all Navajos to move and although Navajo leaders were saying no one would be relocated, the Hopis seemed to be on the winning end of most of the court decisions so far.

The reality of the situation was that regardless of the fact that the land was given to the Hopis by the federal government in 1888, with the exemption of the small Hopi community of Moenkopi, almost all of the other families living on the disputed land were Navajo.

The situation was made even more confusing that year by U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was a strong supporter of the Hopi position. In a statement he gave to the Associated Press on the land dispute, he said he did not think any Navajos would have to be relocated.

In other interviews, however, he continued to say he thought it would be up to the Hopis as to how the land would be used once it was turned over to them.

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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