50 Years Ago: Committee recommends allowing alcohol sales

The question of legalizing liquor on the Navajo Reservation had come up again and many people felt there was a good chance that the Navajo Tribal Council, which was scheduled to meet the following week, would finally bite the bullet and agree to allow liquor sales on the reservation.

The reason is simple. The proposal this time was coming from one of the most respected members of the council, Howard Gorman, and members of the tribe’s Police Committee.

The committee had been studying the subject for more than four years, had consulted with numerous experts in the field and had held nine public hearings in which more than 500 members of the tribe took part.

The committee issued a statement saying it was time for the tribe to stop refusing to address the issue and to take steps that would ultimately save lives and deal with alcohol in a reasoned and sane manner.

The committee had come up with a plan that would open up the reservation for the first time to liquor sales with the tribal government controlling those sales by setting up liquor stores at seven strategic locations.

The Times pointed out, however, that even if a majority of the members of the tribal council approved the plan, both Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai and his vice chairman, Nelson Damon, had gone on record opposing any liquor sales on the reservation.

Gorman said members of the committee had visited tribes where liquor sales are allowed and come to the conclusion that social problems on Indian reservations are not influenced by whether a reservation is dry or wet. Allowing liquor sales also did not affect the number of tribal members who had alcoholic problems because the dry reservations all had one thing in common: a major bootlegging industry.

The Navajo Reservation in 1969 was estimated to have more than 150 bootleggers operating at any one time. Only a few were arrested annually and those that were rarely saw jail time and only had to pay a fine of $100.

This was petty cash to a bootlegger who could charge $3 or more for a pint of wine that would only cost 69 cents in a border town.

And while bootleggers sold from their homes they also traveled to rodeos, ceremonies and anywhere a crowd could be found. Few had any problems with selling to minors or those who were already drunk.

Under Gorman’s plan, the tribal stores would be competitive with bordertown stores and drunks and minors would not be served. The committee also reported that reservation residents spent between $12 million and $15 million a year on liquor, with liquor dealers making millions of dollars in profits.

Not only would these profits go to the tribe but they could be used to fund rehab centers or educational campaigns on the evils of drinking.

But the main reason the committee came out in favor of an open reservation was the lives it would save.

The committee estimated that more than 50 people had died on roads to border communities because of drunk drivers. By having the sales closer to home, a lot of those deaths could be avoided.

But many who attended the public hearings presented compelling reasons why the reservation should remain dry.

Having tribally owned stores would indicate to some the tribe saw nothing wrong with getting drunk and even endorsed it. A wet reservation would also mean more domestic violence because the stores were closer.

But the main reason, which was left unspoken, was that people in the major Navajo communities, where the stores would be located, saw the problems the border cities had with street people and didn’t want to see it happen in their community.

In other news, the BIA approved a grant of $22,282 to the tribe’s education department to try to determine how many Navajos could read the Navajo language.

The feeling was that fewer than 100 Navajos could read their Native language.

Tribal officials pointed out that for generations Navajo was unwritten and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the Franciscan fathers came up with a Navajo alpabet and began publishing books in the Navajo language.

Between then and 1969, most of those who bothered  to learn how to write Navajo were non-Indians. Even the tribal government had all of its records done in English.

There were some schools on the reservation where students were taught how to write Navajo but mostly this occurred in the elementary grades and students would learn, for example, the Navajo words for the months or for the colors.

This was the first phase in plans by tribal educators to create a curriculum to teach students how to write Navajo.

Eventually even the Navajo Times joined the efforts by translating one or two stories a week into Navajo and turning over one page a week into a teaching tool for the written Navajo language — a practice the paper is currently trying to revive.


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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.