50 Years Ago: Tribe takes 1st step toward ending county taxes

Today everyone seems to take for granted that the Navajo Nation has the right to tax businesses that operate on the reservation. But in 1969 that was a concept that had yet to be tested in the courts. Raymond Nakai, who was chairman of the tribe in 1969, believed it mainly because tribal attorneys told him it was so.

It would be a few years before the tribe actively pursued that notion but tribal attorneys took the first step toward that end 50 years ago this week. They did this by joining a lawsuit filed in state court by owners of the Monument Valley Inn in Kayenta against Navajo County and the Arizona Tax Commission.

The hotel had been in operation for almost two years by that time and had been squabbling with the county over the question of whether it was obligated to pay county property taxes.

The county said it did and assessed their taxes for 1968 at just under $4,900. This wasn’t the first time that the county had tried to assess property taxes on a non-Indian owned business on the reservation portion of the county but past cases were so few and for such low amounts that the companies just paid it rather than take the legal steps to fight it. Not so with the owners of the hotel since they expected that sooner or later the tribe would exert its taxing rights and they didn’t want to be double-taxed.

Tribal attorneys filed a motion in state court arguing that since the hotel was on tribal land, only the tribe had the right to impose taxes. The fact that it had not done so in the past made no difference. The county had no right to impose taxes on tribal lands. By imposing its own tax, tribal attorneys argued, the county was interfering in the ability of the tribe to govern itself.

Eventually the tribe would come out on the winning side of this issue but in 1969 it seemed like it could have gone either way. Dick Hardwick, editor of the Navajo Times, took time this week to address a reader who asked why the tribal newspaper didn’t publish obituaries, birth announcements and wedding notices.

The reader pointed that other tribal newspapers did this on a routine basis and it seemed that the Times spent too much space covering government news and not enough about what was going on within the chapters.

Hardwick responded that the reader was right but given the limitations on space and the fact that the paper could only afford to hire one reporter (and that was because Hardwick was still a BIA employee on loan to the tribe and his salary was paid by the federal government), the Times was limited as to how much news it could cover. He explained that it would be impossible to cover chapter news because there were too many chapters (74).

The paper did put in news about the chapters through press releases and Hardwick said he encouraged the chapter governments to have someone write up a press release or send a photo if something interesting happened in their area. If the paper gets news of interest from a chapter, editors are always interested in putting it in the newspaper, he said.

As for weddings and births, the problem with publishing that information is twofold: There are too many each week and there was no way of getting that information since the tribal courts do not provide the names of people filing for marriage licenses and IHS hospitals do not release the names of women who give birth.

Funerals, however, are a different matter and Hardwick said he and his staff had had numerous discussions on how to provide readers with details on who passed away. Hardwick said the obituary sections of most small newspapers are probably the most read section of the paper, especially by older readers who want to see if anyone they knew died since they may want to pay their respects or go to the funeral.

All off-reservation papers have obituary sections with information provided to them by funeral homes in the area. The problem the Times has, he said, was that while funeral homes provided information to local papers they had been reluctant to provide the same information to the Times unless specifically requested to do so by the family.

Hardwick said he would like the paper’s readers to consider the Times as the paper of record for what happens on the reservation and if more funds were available it would have a reporter assigned solely to keep up with what the tribal Council and its various committees were doing because this affected all members of the tribe.

If a family member wanted funeral details printed in the paper, the staff would take it and publish it but until something could be worked out with the funeral homes, the publishing of obituaries would be hit or miss.

And finally, the Times published a list of men who were considering running for tribal chairman in 1970. So far only Raymond Nakai, the tribe’s current chairman, and Sam Billison, who has run and lost in the previous two elections, have formally announced. Peter MacDonald, the executive director of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity, is positioning himself to be a candidate but so far has not officially announced. Three other political figures on the reservation have also expressed an interest – Joe Watson Jr., Irvin Jones and Lloyd House.

The only one who stands a chance of winning is House, who has been involved in Arizona state politics and who ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He has been spending a lot of time in recent months trying to get funding to build a bowling alley behind the Window Rock Inn.

 



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.