50 Years Ago: Chinle students stage first sit-down protest

Taking a page out of the Black Civil Rights Movement, students at Chinle High staged the first sit-down protest on the Navajo Reservation. The date was Dec. 19, 1968, and the issue that caused the entire student body to be involved was the school’s annual Christmas party. The party, which was to be held the next day, had been scheduled to run two hours but the school’s principal announced on Dec. 18 that he was cutting it back to 15 minutes. The principal, Orlando Merrill, didn’t give a reason for the reduction but this was nothing new.

The students in Chinle had been complaining for years about Merrill’s “long-standing, ultra-conservative policy of extremely rigid rules” that students felt sometimes didn’t make sense. Rex Harrison, who wrote the article for the Times, said no one on the school’s staff had an inkling of what was to come. A core group of about five students planned it the days before, even coming up with signs for students to hold up when the time came. The time came a few minutes before the bells sounded for students to leave the gym, which doubled as a dining hall.

Two of the students, Andrew Yazzie and Mildred Thompson, slipped behind the curtains on the stage and began speaking in Navajo to the students who were waiting for the bell to sound. They urged the students to stick up for their rights and remain in their seats when the bell sounded. At that point, students who were in on the plan had held up signs that said things like, “We will not let them push us around like sheep,” “We want our party,” “No Party, No School,” Student Power” and “We Shall Overcome.” No one knew what Merrill’s reaction was going to be. One theory was that he would suspend the leaders of the protest. Another was he would call off the party entirely.

According to Harrison, Merrill didn’t know what to do at first. He “hurriedly left the gym” and gathered together as many of the teachers as he could and they went to his office to decide how to handle the rebellion. A few of the brave teachers decided to stay in the gym to see what the students would do.

As Merrill was asking the teachers in his office for suggestions, several of the students, including Mark Swanson, Virginia Begay, Mark Collins, Mark Woods, Gerald Jeffery and Andrew Yazzie, spoke about other problems at the school they wanted corrected. These included doing away with detention and ending the ban on chewing gum. As the speeches continued, the students became bolder, letting their frustrations out. Members of the school’s cheerleading squad began doing cheers demanding a party. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

One of the teachers who stayed in the gym said he could feel the power shifting from Merrill to the students. Another teacher, one who had been in the office, entered the gym and suggested that members of the student council follow him back to the office and meet with Merrill.

The students agreed and went to the office where they said they found Merrill “visually upset.” He asked the leader of the council, Ronald Izzo, to meet privately with him and explain to him what the ruckus was all about. Izzo agreed and explained to him that the students wanted to have their party returned to the original two hours, “Is that all?” replied Merrill, who asked him why he didn’t follow proper procedures to bring this to his attention instead of getting all of the students riled up. Izzo said they tried that but didn’t get anywhere.

When they got back to his office, other students brought up the issues of detention and chewing gum. Another student asked that students be allowed to go off campus at noon to eat if they wanted to.

This had become a major issue since the prohibition regarding leaving the campus at lunchtime was believed to have caused one of their favorite hangouts, the Spudnut Shop, to close its doors. Another student brought up the fact that the school had suspended Robert Ferguson for chewing gum during school and none of them felt that was right. The entire group said they believed that if the student government was consulted before rules were put in place, student morale would greatly improve. Jeffery, who was the one who brought up the issue of being allowed to go off campus at noon, was wearing a black glove and he used this to emphasize that he wanted to see Black Power in the school.

None of the teachers in the room or school board members who had been hurriedly called in as well, said anything during the meeting. When the meeting ended, Merrill agreed to allow the party to go on for two hours. He also indicated that he would review the issue of detention and chewing gum. Students felt that there was a good chance that after Christmas break the detention hall would be abandoned and students would be allowed to chew gum.

When the student council members went back to the gym and told the other students what had occurred, they cheered, saying this was a major victory for student rights. So, on the next day, the students held their two-hour party and since students were let out at noon to begin their Christmas vacation, no one had to worry about doing any schoolwork.

As for Merrill, he remain as rigid as he was before but students said later that they felt the whole sit-down incident ended up with him having a greater respect for the students in general.

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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.