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50 Years Ago: Council debates filling police boss position

The Navajo Tribal Council, 50 years ago this week, spent most of a day trying to decide what to do about a problem that came up at the Navajo Police Department.

V. Allen Adams, who had taken over as the tribe’s police superintendent some 18 months earlier, resigned to take a position in Washington, D.C.
Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai selected Frank Chambers, who was assistant police superintendent, to take Adams’ place but some members of the Council balked at the selection, saying they felt it was time for a Navajo to assume that position.

The tribe had never had a Navajo police superintendent. It had never even had a Navajo in the assistant position because of the belief that no Navajo had enough experience or training to lead the department.

Even Howard Gorman, the Council delegate from Ganado and the man who routinely pushed for Navajos to be appointed into leadership positions, said that time still had not come.

“We are headed in that direction,” he said.

Gorman was head of the Council’s committee that oversaw the police department.

“We considered this matter carefully,” he said and that is why the committee decided that Chambers would be the best person to get that position.
“Maybe within a year or two, we will have a Navajo chief but let’s not be in a hurry about it,” he said.

While the committee did not release the names of other candidates, Gorman said they had talked to a young Navajo within the department who showed leadership ability and asked him if he thought he was ready for the position. His reply was that he was not quite ready.

As for Chambers, he was praised by many on the committee for his ability to resolve problems within the department, even those created by traditional Navajos who wanted to continue following some of the old ways while still serving as police officers.

One of the issues that the department faced over the years was whether to allow police officers to observe Navajo taboos regarding death.
Traditional Navajos were taught never to come in contact with a dead body. In the early part of that century, it was not unusual for a Navajo family to take a dying member outside the house so that his death would not create a need to have a ceremony done to make the house usable again.

Traders who worked on the reservation in the late 19th century and early 20th century said one of their duties to the community was to take care of community members who died. It was not uncommon to find a dead body wrapped in cloth on the road to the trading post, put there by relatives who wanted a non-Indian to take charge of the burial process.

By 1969, adherence to these taboos regarding death had decreased to such an extent that members of the force who otherwise considered themselves to be traditional had no problem going to scenes of fatal car accidents or murders — with one exception.

The department had a policy of not requiring a police officer whose wife was pregnant to go anywhere near a dead body because, according to tradition, the baby in the womb would be adversely affected if either of its parents came in contact with a dead body and didn’t have the proper ceremony done to reverse that affect.

The department did not have a problem with female officers who became pregnant because there were no females serving as police officers. As for female clerks who became pregnant, the department had procedures in place to make sure they did not have to deal with reports or photos dealing with dead bodies.

Getting back to the debate in the Council, after almost seven hours of discussion, neither side had enough support to get their position approved, so the matter was tabled. Chambers would continue to serve as interim police superintendent.

Speaking of Indian traders, the paper’s managing editor wrote in his weekly column that the first trader on the Navajo Reservation was a Mormon by the name of Lee who lived on the reservation for many years and had a lot of offspring, many of whom would also become traders, which why in the late 1800s there were so many traders on the reservation named Lee.

According to Dick Hardwick, the first Lee had a checkered history.

Lee fled to the Navajo Reservation from Utah where he was wanted by law enforcement for his alleged participation in the massacre of an entire wagon train at Mountain Meadows, Utah. Eventually, the law would catch up to him and he would be carted back to Utah where he would be tried and hanged.

“Mr. Lee’s descendants are probably not proud to recall this episode,” Hardwick wrote. “But the overall influence of the Mormon on Navajo country has been overwhelmingly on the side of the positive.”

A good example of this, he said, was the Mormon foster parent program. In fact, no program on the reservation has “been as successful.”

Fifty years later, that is not the sentiment a lot of Navajos have about the program as several Navajo men and women successfully sued the church claiming they were sexually abused by their foster parents or the children of their foster parents.

To make matters worse, when they told officials of the church what was going on, no one believed them and in many cases, they were sent back to the foster parents who abused them, they stated in their lawsuits.

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.