50 Years Ago: Survey shows rez labor pool at 20,300

In 1967, the Navajo Nation had a Navajo Manpower Committee, which must have been created by the tribe’s chairman, Raymond Nakai, the year before because this is the first time it is mentioned in the Navajo Times.

On Sept. 15 of that year, the committee released the results of its study of manpower on the Navajo Reservation and basically it concluded that if you had a job, you were one of the fortunate ones.

The survey found a labor pool of 20,300 people on the reservation, mainly men between the ages of 21 and 49, who were looking for a job on the reservation.

The total number of employable Navajos, according to the survey, was around 32,000 so that means some 12,000 had managed to find jobs on the reservation.

So roughly one in three Navajos had a job, which meant that two out of every three employable Navajos were jobless, giving the reservation an unemployment rate of somewhere around 66 percent.

The only problem with that figure is that under federal guidelines people who look for jobs and aren’t able to find one eventually get frustrated and stop looking for a job.

Under federal law that person is not counted as unemployed if he has stopped looking and instead takes menial jobs as a gardener or part-time laborer.

It also should be noted that back then, as well as today, many of those who do have jobs work as independent contractors in what was viewed as traditional employment such as herding sheep, silversmithing and rug weaving.

Of the 12,000 who consider themselves to have a job, 3,700 said they had traditional jobs and not one that has them working 9 to 5. In fact, also included in those who had jobs were owners of ranches or farms on the reservation so the number of 9-to-5 job owners was probably less than 5,000.

More than 11,000 of those who did not have jobs expressed a willingness to leave their homes and move off the reservation if a job was available so it’s obvious that if there were jobs on the reservation, people would flock to be hired.

Another interesting fact is that most of the people who are seeking jobs were trying to get hired as unskilled workers, indicating that efforts by the tribe to train Navajos in jobs such as welders was working since most Navajos with some type of skill were among those who were employed.

Another reason for the high number of people looking for unskilled jobs was the fact that on their surveys two-thirds of those who listed themselves as looking had less than six years of schooling so they realized they didn’t have the skills to look for a better paying job.

Another factor to consider is that in 1967, the tribe had less than 2,000 employees. It wasn’t until the early 1970s, when Peter MacDonald became chairman, that BIA programs were subcontracted and expanded the tribal government to a point that when MacDonald left office for the first time in 1983 the number of tribal employees was approaching 5,000.

While it appears that the number of Navajos working for the Navajo Tribe under Nakai remained rather stable, that wasn’t true of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity which, under MacDonald, was continuing to increase its number of employees while expanding its programs and influence among the Navajo people.

In this week’s Navajo Times, the federal agency announced it was expanding its headquarters by getting new office trailers to meet the needs of its expanding number of employees.

The program started in 1965 in two small offices on the BIA administration wing across from the Navajo Tribal Council Chamber and was now clearing ground to bring in two huge trailers for new offices.

In other news, the tribal fair that year was deemed a success although the Navajo Times noted something that caught a lot of people’s attention – the steady decline of Indian dancers.

Back in the early 1960s, tribal fairs had open competitions in events like yéii’ bicheii dancing, corn grinding and feather dancing teams, just to name a few of the types of dancing that had disappeared quietly from the fair program.

Instead it seemed that they had been replaced with competitions in things like men’s fancy war dance, men’s straight war dance, women’s war dance and best war dance team.

The Times noted that it could be that these types of dances attract more spectators or maybe its because groups have gradually transferred themselves into Plains dancers.

At least one person wrote to the Times and said the Navajo fair was becoming more of a Plains Indian fair because of the growing influence of Plains Indian type dances on the fair schedule.

Speaking of tradition, the Navajo Times started promoting a new book that had just been published by Wesleyan University Press called “Kinaalda,” which was the first complete account of the Navajo girls’ puberty ritual.
It was written by Charlotte Johnson Frisbie and was part of her doctoral dissertation on the Blessingway Ceremony of the Navajos.

The article on the book noted that Frisbie had spent summers researching the dissertation by traveling to almost every chapter and interviewing medicine men and Navajo families who held the ceremony.

Part of the book contained – also a first – Navajo texts of 75 songs plus translations used in ceremonies.

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Categories: 50 Years Ago

About 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.