50 years ago: Navajos flood corporate trade school

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai was a big believer in education, but he realized that for many Navajos the answer did not reside in a college education but in an education that would provide them with a decent living in the service industry. When he went to reservation high schools to speak – which was very seldom – he stressed the need for high school graduates to seek the type of livelihood that was best for them.

In one of his speeches covered by the Navajo Times, he said he knew he wanted to be a radio broadcaster at an early age and that was the job he sought. “I didn’t want to be a politician,” he said. “It came about when I saw the tribe headed in the wrong direction and I realized I started complaining.”

So it came as no surprise this month some 50 years ago that he made an agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to send individual Navajos as well as Navajo families off the reservation to learn trades that would get then good-paying jobs in cities like Albuquerque and Phoenix. With funds provided by the BIA, the Navajos would be going to Roswell, N.M., where Thiokol Chemical Corp. had established a vocational training program just for Native Americans from all over the country.

A total of 151 applications had been received from Navajos who wanted to go there but only 15 had been chosen to go in the original training period and another 31 in the second group.

The training was to last from three months to a year in what company officials said were employable and more “subtle” skills, whatever that means, for Natives who wanted to cope with life in big cities and on their own reservations. Nakai said he was “thrilled” to see Navajos taking up the opportunity to apply for this program, adding that it would change the lives of many them.

In other news, the Times reported that Abe Tucker had learned to be careful what he writes. Tucker was an education specialist for the BIA and the previous June he was asked to be a speaker at an education conference that was held at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. According to Dick Hardwick, the managing editor of the Times, his speech at the conference was very entertaining so after he speech he put a puzzle up on the bulletin board to the entrance of the room where the conference was being held. He wrote at the bottom of the puzzle that if anyone had any trouble solving it, they could call him at any time and he listed his office and home phone numbers. Seven months later, Tucker told Hardwick he was woken up at 4 a.m. by Ray McGilbury, who was calling long-distance from Thoreau, asking for the solution to the puzzle. Hardwick’s response was unprintable.

In a bit of cultural news, this month marks the golden anniversary of the creation of one of the most eatable dishes ever to come out if the Navajo Reservation – the Navajo taco. The first Navajo taco was created by a hungry Greek restaurant manager in Window Rock. He was the manager of a small tribally owned restaurant located where the training center now exists. According to Martin Link, the former director of the Navajo Tribal Museum, the restaurateur was at his home one night when he became hungry so he took a piece of fry bread and started putting all kinds of ingredients on it – “beans, tomatoes, ground beef, etc.” – heated it up and then ate it. He liked it so much, he put it on the menu at the restaurant the next day and it became the restaurant’s most popular dish.

Of course, since then restaurants all over the area have adopted it, made a change here and there, and Navajo tacos are still as popular as they were 50 years ago when they were first created. Lloyd House, the first Native ever elected to the Arizona Legislature, had announced he was running for the U.S. Congress. Half Navajo and half Oneida, House, who was 36 at the time, was born on the reservation and grew up in Winslow. He was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 1966 representing Apache, Navajo and Greenlee counties. He was a veteran of the Armed Services, having served during the Korean War. He was also an ex-boxing champion.

He was running in the Democratic primary for the seat held by Republican Sam Steiger. A strong supporter of Indian rights, House had a number of challenges he had to overcome to win the seat, including the fact that Steiger was very popular and represented a district that was more than 60 percent Republican. He couldn’t depend on the Navajo vote because, at that time, very few Navajos voted in off-reservation elections. But House was hoping that his entering the race would change that and not only Navajos but other tribal members in his district would register to vote.

Although he made it a practice to spend a lot of time on the Navajo Reservation campaigning and the Navajo Times published several articles promoting his candidacy, the big increase in Navajo voter registration didn’t happen and House wasn’t elected. He would say later that he was still glad that he had run because he hoped that it would make it easier the next time when a Native ran for the position.


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Categories: 50 Years Ago