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50 years ago: Page power plant proposal gets OK

This was, at first, expected to be a lot more controversial but the approval of a power plant in Page sailed through the Navajo Tribal Council with only nine councilmen voting no.

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai supported the proposal, saying it would “energize” the western portion of the reservation by creating jobs not only at the plant but also at Kayenta and Black Mesa, where the plant will get its coal.

The proposal had come under fire from some segments of the Navajo population because of the amount of water the power plant would be using. Under the agreement reached with the Navajo Tribe, the plant would get its water from the amount allocated to the tribe from the Upper Colorado River Compact.

According to the Navajo Times, the plant would use all of the water allocated to the tribe from that compact and some groups on the reservation said that was too hefty a price to pay for just getting jobs for a few hundred Navajos. But Nakai said it was more than just a few jobs. The plant and the mines would generate millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe.

He made a big deal about the fact that the tribe would be paid 20 cents a ton for the coal that would be used by the plant. This is the same deal that the next chairman, Peter MacDonald, would sharply criticize and say was the worst deal that the tribe had ever entered into. “For every ton of coal that comes out of those mines, all we get is the cost of one can of Coke,” MacDonald would say.

He blamed the Interior Department for allowing the deal to go through and eventually, after several years of complaining and filing lawsuits, the deal was revised to allow the tribe to get a lot more for its coal. But back in 1968, the Council was looking at all the jobs that would be created.

Plant officials said as many as 150 Navajos would be employed during the construction of the plant and getting it online. They estimated that this would generate about $5 million in salaries. Another $1 million in salaries for Navajos would be generated from the work preparing the mines.

The agreement was for 50 years, or the length of time it took to deplete the coal in the two mines.

The Salt River Project, which was spearheading the project, said they were also interested in working with the officials at Navajo Community College to set up courses in mechanical training. The main construction was expected to take a couple of years but the second generating unit was not expected to be on line until 1973 or 1974.

In other news, Nakai made an announcement that did not take anyone by surprise – he was running again for chairman. This would give him a third term in office but he felt that his first term should not be counted since his opposition on the Council made it impossible for him to do anything.

At this point in 1968, his attempt to get that third term looked good. Even though MacDonald was showing signs he would be running as well, in 1968 there were questions as to whether he would be able to generate enough votes to overcome the traditional support Nakai had. After all, MacDonald had not run for office before and his only experience was as director of the tribe’s Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity. While this gained him a lot of press coverage, there were questions as to whether he could get enough attention by the Navajo voters to unseat Nakai.

Nakai considered his second term in office as a complete success and went into the campaign mode in 1969 as the heavy favorite. He said he had received encouragement from a lot of his supporters to seek a third term and he felt it was important not to let them down. “We have had progress throughout the reservation, something that people can be proud of,” Nakai said, adding that he had a lot of plans for the tribe in the future. But, by early 1969, there were signs that being elected to a third term would be harder than he expected. His main problem continued to be his hatred of the press.

He didn’t trust the Navajo Times, which he said campaigned against him both in 1961 and 1965 by giving a lot more attention to his opponents. He expected 1969 to be different since the Times’ new managing editor, Dick Hardwick, had already promised that the paper would not take sides in the upcoming election and would treat all candidates the same. But Hardwick had never covered a tribal election before and was unaware that Nakai would completely ignore the press while his opposition would seek out the press so by the middle of the campaign season, Nakai would be attacking the Times and saying it was out to destroy him.

At his announcement, however, Nakai was upbeat and, according to the Times story, was willing to forgive the Times for its coverage of his last two campaigns.

He strongly felt that he had the traditional vote sewn up because of his advocacy on behalf of the Native American Church and its use of peyote. When Nakai came on, peyote was outlawed by both the Council and the federal government but, thanks to Nakai’s efforts, the use of peyote within the NAC was accepted and NAC members could be assured that they would not be arrested if found with peyote as long as they carried their NAC membership card with them.

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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.