50 Years Ago: Council told to live within its means

Today’s Congress and the Navajo Tribal Council of the 1960s have one thing in common. Both spend more money than they take in.

In an editorial at the end of February 1968, the Navajo Times brought up concerns that the tribe was spending too much money each year. The tribe had $75 million in reserves in 1955.

By June of 1968, that had decreased to $47 million. The editorial said the problem wasn’t just that the Council spent more money each year than it took in, but a look at the tribe’s finances showed that its revenues were going down annually. The tribe’s controller pointed out that 70 percent of the tribe’s revenue in 1968 came from oil and gas sales while 20 percent came from investments.

Donald Brunson, the tribe’s controller, pointed out that as the reserves decreased, so did the amount the tribe received in interest. Also, most of the oil and gas money came from payments by companies when they first get the lease and these contracts were coming to an end as most of the good fields had already been leased out.

The Times strongly suggested that it may be time for the Council to start living within its means. Tribal officials who read that editorial probably wondered what was going on. Although the criticism was mild by any standard, this marked the first time that the Times had made any kind of suggestion to the Council as to what it should do and there were some delegates who were not happy about it. Eventually, members of the Council realized what was going on. The criticism wasn’t coming from the newspaper – it was coming from the BIA.

BIA officials had been concerned about the tribe’s spending habits for the past several years and had talked privately to the tribe’s chairman, Raymond Nakai, about doing something to bring the Council in line. But Nakai said, in these kinds of matters, the Council did what it wanted and there were enough who felt this way that any veto by him would just be overturned.

Apparently, someone in the BIA suggested to the paper’s editor, Dick Hardwick, that he let his readers know what the Council was doing. Since Hardwick was still technically a BIA employee on loan to the tribe, the suggestion carried some weight. And it’s possible that some people were listening since the budget that was approved later that year was balanced.

It also appears that Hardwick wasn’t there when that week’s paper was put together because there was an embarrassing mistake on the front page. Navajo Community College officials had invited U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy to an event at the college and he wrote back that he would try to make it so the college sent out a press release. When the article appeared in the paper, however, the college was referred to as Navaho Community College, which was an obvious mistake that Hardwick should have caught.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, newspapers referred to the tribe as either Navajo or Navaho. It appeared that there was no official spelling and some people used “ho” and others used “jo.” The Council itself took up the matter in the early 1950s and voted in favor of the “jo” ending which settled the matter once and for all.

Frankie Howard, who represented Tolani Lake in the Council, got a lot of federal officials upset that week when he blasted the Indian Health Service for using untrained interns at the clinics on the reservation instead of qualified doctors. He said that this was the reason so many Navajos were dying the past couple of years at clinics. He said he had asked officials for DNA-People’s Legal Services to file a lawsuit against the IHS to get them to hire qualified doctors.

Dr. George Bock, the director of the Navajo Area IHS, lost no time in issuing a statement in response to Howard’s charges, calling him “misinformed.” IHS policy requires, he said, for any IHS program to be shut down if there are not enough qualified personnel on hand to meet the needs of the program. This made sense since operating any kind of program without qualified help would put the federal government in a situation that could lead to the IHS receiving a lot of lawsuits. The IHS policy then called for the program to be shut down rather than trying to operate it with untrained personnel.


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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.