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BIA’s new policy: Indian preference for job vacancies

One of the biggest changes that occurred in Indian Country, one that would have a profound effect on both the Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, took place in August 1971.

This was the policy that Louis Bruce, BIA commissioner, began of giving Indian preference in hiring for any vacancy within the BIA, beginning immediately.

In making this announcement, he took notice of the fact that more Native Americans were going to college and many of those who already graduated were getting the experience they needed to be hired in the high poisons within the BIA.

At that point in time, he said, about half of the BIA’s 8,000 employees were non-Indian. A Iook at the number of employees who held supervisory positions showed that non-Indians made up 90% of the agency’s employees. Most Native Americans worked in low-ranking positions within the agency.

Non-Indians working for the agency expressed dismay at the new policy, saying it would destroy the agency’s effectiveness and would lower its standards. The next year saw a deluge of non-Indian employees resigning or going to other federal programs that did not have an Indian preference policy.

There was a sort of grandfather clause that no non-Indian would be fired so that a Native American could take his job but it made it difficult for non-Indian employees to transfer to another position in the agency or rise up in the ranks.

This also did not mean that the agency would no longer hure non-Indians. For the next decade, a lot of technical positions were filled by non-Indians. This was especially true when it came to hiring lawyers.

There were so few Native American attorneys, especially those with experience in land and energy law, that the BIA still had to fill positions with non-Indians.

What made that task even harder was that they had to compete with tribes who were also seeking to fill positions with members of their tribes.

Either way, the system worked much the same way it does today. When the deadline for filing applications comes around, the personnel department would put the applicants in two piles – non-Indian and Indian.

They would then evaluate the Indian applicants to see if they met the requirements set for that position. When this was done and if any of the Indian candidates met the requirements, they would ignore the non-Indian applicants and just choose from the Indian stack.

The branch of the agency that saw the biggest influx of Indian employees was education. Up until then, most Indian students who attended BIA boarding schools would find non-Indian teachers and Indian aides. Within just a few years of this policy, almost all of the new hires were be Indian.

While Navajo leaders supported the new policy, they tried to change it so that members of their own tribe had preference over non-members. But the Justice Department issued an opinion saying that this could cause non-members to file discrimination lawsuits, which they had a good chance of winning.

The Navajo Tribal Council would eventually approve its own version of this policy but it was basically put in effect internally to some extent by Peter MacDonald within a few months after he took office.

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, I was asked by non-Indians seeking a position in tribal government on tips they could use to get hired. My only advice was to marry a Navajo since non-Indian spouses were considered Indian as long as they were the main source of revenue for that family.

I know you are probably wondering if anyone took my advice. My answer is that I am familiar with only one case where this happened. The non-Indian was already in a relationship with a Navajo woman when he asked that question.

Navajo leaders meet with Hopi leaders

After talking about it for more than a month, Navajo leaders met with leaders of the Hopi Tribe in an effort to resolve problem that had been brewing for more than 15 years.

The Navajo Times made a big deal out of the meeting, calling it historic and eventually writing five stories about it. The Times said it was the first time the leaders had come together to talk.

The big issue between the two tribes, of course, was the century-old land dispute that threatened to relocate several hundred Navajo families.

According to the Times, there was little progress made on this issue but it paved the way for more meetings in the future that also ended with no progress or agreement.

MacDonald and the Hopi Tribe’s chairman, Clarence Hamilton, seemed to have forged a bond because after the meeting, according to the Times, the two were seen laughing and smiling.

In talking to the press afterward, aides to MacDonald pointed out that Hamilton was married to a Navajo so he already had a relationship. In fact, about 7% of the adult members of the Hopi Tribe had a Navajo spouse.

One of the things MacDonald had hoped to resolve during the meeting was to lift restrictions put in place by the BIA prohibiting any development by families living in the disputed area. The only exception to this was if both tribes agreed, including to increasing the size of homes for Navajo families.

During the past several years, the Hopis had turned down all requests and it was soon obvious they would not back down because the tribe’s attorney told them that taking this position would eventually get the Navajos to accept relocation.

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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