American Socialist, September 1957

Navaho Indians: Oil and Mining Buzzards Hover Overhead

by John R. Salter Jr.

(The author is an Arizonan who writes for the American Socialist for the first time.)

NINETY years have now elapsed since, in 1867, the Navaho Indians ceased their hostilities with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Sumner, at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico Territory. The 8,000 Navaho comprising the loosely federated were given a portion of northeastern Arizona and northern New Mexico as a reservation; they were promised schools for their young, medical facilities, and the opportunity to make their living from the raising of stock animals and crops. In return, they surrendered most of their hunting grounds.

Today, in 1957, the Navaho tribe comprises nearly 85,000 individuals. They have been given some schools and some hospitals—not nearly enough, however. Disease is rampant among the Navaho; many adults and children cannot write or speak English and have no real conception of the land beyond the borders of the Navaho reservation. And in some portions of the Navaho homeland there are fully grown adults who have never seen a Caucasian.

The original reservation has been gradually and unwillingly extended by the government to include some 15,000,000 acres on which the Navaho are expected to eke out their semi-nomadic existence as stock raisers and farmers. But in spite of the tremendous area encompassed by the reservation, it is the poorest land in the Southwest, a land attractive on the post-cards of the tourists, perhaps, but not a land for any sort of real subsistence. It is waterless, grassless, and rocky; fifty acres are required to support one sheep or goat; three hundred acres are needed for a horse or a cow. The result is that Navaho stock is in a deplorable condition, Navaho farming most nil, and the Navaho people are a starving people.

Recently, there have been some mineral discoveries—oil and uranium—but it is difficult to determine whether the Navaho will obtain the benefits from these, or whether the large oil and mining concerns will. If past experience is a guide, the Navaho has good reason to worry. It has been a comparatively short time since both the government and the oil concerns combined forces in Oklahoma to seize most of the land and resources of the Five Civilized Tribes. It could quite easily happen to the Navaho, and there are indications that it may. The politicians are now speaking of moving the Navaho one and all from their reservation, ostensibly to ‘make them better Americans’; the flock of oil and mining operators are hovering over Navaholand like so many buzzards over an animal soon to die.

To the individual Navaho family group, the reservation offers only slow and miserable starvation. No cultural group desires to exchange its way of living for a new and strange alien mode—the Navaho do not—yet most of them realize that they must eventually leave their homeland and seek employment outside. What awaits these Americans-of- longest-standing, once they begin to switch their culture, and attempt to live in the off-reservation communities of Grants and Gallup, in New Mexico, and Holbrook, Winslow, and Flagstaff, in Arizona? They are given at the best some ‘south side’ slum in which to take up residence, and quite often some sort of a skid-row district. Because of lingual barriers, they are constantly preyed upon by a variety of dishonorable self-seekers; they are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, tolerated if at all simply because of their ‘local color.’ They are given no chance to improve their lot, only the most menial and under-paid positions are allowed them. They are told by missionaries of the Christian faith that their ancient Navaho beliefs are false and detrimental, and that they must surrender these ‘pagan’ beliefs for the faith of the missionary and for the sack of cast-off clothing which is promised them if they comply. And because of all of these things, the Navaho who has left his reservation eventually returns, a thoroughly unhappy individual, to his barren home- land to live out a life of the most miserable sort.

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