50 Years Ago: Council spends days talking about alcohol

LOS ANGELES

Everyone knew that when the question of legalization of liquor came before the Navajo Nation Council it would be hotly debated but no one expected the debate to be as lengthy as it was.

The Council began the debate on Wednesday morning and it was still going on late Friday afternoon when it adjourned for the weekend with the idea that Council delegates would go back to their chapters over the weekend to find out how their constituents felt about the issue.

Part of the problem in reaching a decision had to do with the way the Council conducted its deliberations 50 years ago. Today, delegates are limited to five minutes and it is timed. When the five-minute limit is reached, a timing mechanism automatically turns off the delegate’s microphone. But up until the 1980s, each Council delegate was allowed to speak as long as they wanted. This resulted in speeches that would last half an hour or more.

And since most delegates gave their comments in Navajo, an official interpreter translated the entire speech into English so there would be an official record of what was said and who said it. This was further complicated by the fact that Council delegates were given many chances to respond to what other delegates said in reference to their statements.

So what was up for debate was proposed by the Council’s three-member police committee to legalize the sale of liquor on the reservation with the tribe setting up liquor stores at seven locations. And yet less than an hour was taken during those three days talking about the proposal itself. Even Howard Gorman, head of the police committee, spent less than 10 minutes of the hour or more he spoke on the benefits of approving his proposal.

Instead Council delegates spent all of that time talking about reasons why they should not make a decision on this issue or why the decision should be made by Navajo voters and not by the Council. No one, including Gorman, spoke out strongly in favor of legalizing liquor. Gorman’s big push was for a referendum on the issue.

Instead, many delegates spoke of loved ones who died because of alcohol abuse or in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. Finally, on Friday afternoon, the Council delegates approved a motion by Clifford Beck of Piñon to table the debate until Monday. And then on Monday after almost no debate, the Council voted unanimously to table the matter until after the 1970 election. Many letters to the Times criticized Council delegates for refusing to come to a decision but most realized it put the delegates in an impossible situation because no matter how they voted, they would lose a lot of support in the next election.

In that issue of the Times, Dick Hardwick, the paper’s editor, wrote a strong editorial opposing legalization. “With all respect to Howard Gorman, we believe it would have been a major mistake for the Council to legalize liquor,” Hardwick said. “We cannot get rid of the thought that legalization would mean the creation of seven more Navajo Inns in strategic locations on the reservation.” It may be a different case if the tribal stores were adequately policed but that doesn’t seem to be likely, he said.

In other news, the Times praised Ben Hanley in a front-page article for saving a man who was drowning in the Potomac River. Hanley, 28, who would become a major political figure during the MacDonald administration, was only an intern in 1969, having a picnic with his wife and family, when a small boat containing five men overturned some 100 feet from where they were sitting. Three of the men in the boat had life jackets and made it to shore but it was obvious to everyone that the other two did not know how to swim and were in danger of drowning.

The Times article said Hanley immediately began running along the shore until he got even with one of the men struggling in the water. He then took off his eyeglasses and jumped fully clothed into the water and helped the man get to shore. Another man on the shore rescued the second man. Hanley later said he was just an average swimmer and said he was in no danger himself of drowning at any point during the rescue. He said the man he rescued later thanked him.


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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.