50 years ago: Traders prohibited from hiring non-Indians

The Advisory Committee for the Navajo Tribal Council passed a resolution this week that has gotten Indian traders on the reservation in an uproar and has surprised a lot of BIA officials.

The committee approved a new tribal law that prohibits Indian traders from hiring non-Indians to work for them without first getting the permission of the tribe. While leases approved in the recent past require traders to give preference to Navajos in hiring, this is the first time the tribe has imposed a direct ban on any business for hiring a non-Navajo.

This comes at a time, according to the Navajo Times, when one out of every five employees in the tribe is a non-Navajo and non-Navajos still outnumber Navajos in top level positions within the tribe and in most of the schools on the reservation. “The tribal trader supervisor shall immediately close all trading posts which, in the future, employ non-Navajos in any capacity without the approval of the Advisory Committee,” the resolution states.

This also includes relatives of the non-Navajo trader, although tribal officials said those kinds of requests will be approved as long as the trader doesn’t use this as a way to reduce the number of Navajo employees he has.

The most immediate question that was asked during the debate was the legality of such a law. Edmund Kahn, associate attorney for the tribe, said it was legal, adding that he personally researched the matter. He denied allegations that the resolution was the result of recent charges made against the traders by Ted Mitchell, director of DNA, the legal aid service on the reservation. Mitchell made the statement during an interview with a film crew for CBS News.

The statement, used in the documentary that aired last month on “The Forgotten Americans,” said that the traders “exploited” the Navajos in various ways. Kahn said this provision had been under study for more than six months, long before the documentary aired. “We have been working a minimum of six months to sort out all of the problems we have on business leases,” he said.

The new law grandfathers in any non-Navajo who works for the trader, although members of the committee said it may be in the best interest of the trader to increase his Navajo employment before he has to begin renewing his trading permit withdraw tribe.

The Indian Trader’s Association, which represents most of the trading posts on the reservation, released a statement condemning the new law while pointing out that a survey of their members found few non-Navajos being employed at trading posts because of the lack of housing.

It’s cheaper for the trader to hire someone in the community who has housing already than to hire a non-Navajo who then has to find lodging within the community.

The Times reported that the new requirement may result in some traders deciding to give up their businesses when their leases expire. There have already been reports that some traders are not planning to renew their leases because of strong impressions that the tribal government would like to see the non-Indian trading post owners sell their operations to Navajos.

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai denied reports that the tribal government was out to get non-Indian traders. “Most of the traders have been operating on the reservation for 20 years or more and have become an integral part of the community they serve,” he said, adding that many are looked at as family by Navajos in the community.

“Many speak our language and have married into the tribe. They have Navajo children and we want to keep our Navajo families together,” Nakai said.

But he pointed out that the tribe has been insistent in recent years when new businesses came onto the reservation that they give preference to Navajos in hiring and if they can’t find a Navajo who meets the qualifications for that job, only then can they hire a non-Navajo. But even in those cases, he said, their lease requires them to start training a Navajo to be placed in that position as soon as he or she is qualified to do so.

The new law will take effect on June 1 but the committee strongly advised traders not to use this grace period to increase their non-Navajo employment. Another thing that was brought up during the debate in the committee was that many of the trading posts on the reservation only had one or two Navajo employees and that in many cases, the post was run solely by the trader and his wife and children.


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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.