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50 Years Ago: DNA takes aim at Chinle schools

50 Years Ago: DNA takes aim at Chinle schools

Officials for DNA-People’s Legal Services squared off this week with Jody Matthews, superintendent of the Chinle Public School District, over the issue of whether the district is providing free lunches to students from low-income families. That’s one of the allegations that DNA attorneys have made public in recent weeks as they have supported efforts by parents to get Matthews removed as school superintendent.

As for Matthews, he said he believes “DNA is trying to tear apart our school system and everything that is in it.” At a meeting held on July 13 of parents and community members, Florence Paisano, a DNA counselor in Chinle, said the school district was refusing to provide free lunches to students whose parents were on welfare, although the lunches are paid for by a federal program for these students. Matthews denied this, saying any child from a low-income family was entitled to free lunches and all of them received it every school day.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all of the students who should be paying for their lunches are doing so. “Those that can afford to pay have to pay,” he said and that is where the controversy stems from.

According to Matthews, a group of parents who work for the BIA are demanding that their students also be given free lunches and they have refused to give their children money to pay for the lunches. In many of these households, Matthews said, both parents are working for the BIA and are making good salaries so there is no reason why they can’t afford to pay for their children’s lunches. “We told these students that they may be retained (and not promoted to the next grade) because they are not full-time students” Matthews said, adding that this is no different than a college that refuses to release a student’s grades if he or she owes money to the college.

He said that a rule of thumb is that if a family makes at least $100 a month in wages, they can afford to pay for the lunch of one of their children. He added that this may have to be changed when the federal government considers a family to be low income if it makes less than $3,000 a year in total income.

The school district provides lunches on a 10-day basis and if the parents have the money to pay, they are supposed to pay at the end of those two weeks. If they don’t pay, the child is not allowed to eat.

“We do not allow students to just sit and watch other children eat,” he said. That was one of the allegations that DNA officials made in recent weeks. In fact, said Matthews, this is really not a major problem and has affected only two or three children this past year.

Another allegation made by DNA was that the district was serving food that was five to seven days old. This happened only once, said Matthews, explaining that some potato salad that was five days old was prepared and was meant to feed the cooks but somehow it got on the serving line. “One child complained of getting a belly-ache,” he said, adding that 900 students ate the potato salad that day and the child who got the belly-ache probably had it before he came to school.

In other news, Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai said this week that as far as the Navajos are concerned, the Indian people are not vanishing. He said the latest figures he has seen shows that there are at least 118,000 Navajos alive at this time. He also said that the population of the Navajos is growing five times faster than the population of the United States as a whole.

He added that the tribe’s population has grown a lot since 1868 when the population was believed to have been 12,000. And the 118,000 figure may have been low by several thousand. Nakai based his figure on information given to him by the BIA enrollment office, which at that time had the most reliable enrollment records. But even BIA officials said their figures may be misleading.

First off, a lot of Navajo families, especially those in the rural areas, did not enroll their children into the tribe until they enrolled them in school so there were thousands of young children on the reservation in 1968 who had not been enrolled.

Secondly, someone who was enrolled was not listed as dead unless the BIA was specially given that information by a family member and in cases where the Navajo lived far from the reservation, it could be years after that person’s death before he or she was taken off the enrollment list.

But even the 12,000 figure is suspect. That was the figure based on tribal members that the BIA knew about in 1868, mostly because they were held in captivity at Fort Sumner until they were released. Those who weren’t counted included the thousands, mostly in remote areas in the western portion of the reservation, who had managed not to be captured by Kit Carson and who were not carted off to Fort Sumner.

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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.