50 years ago

Rewind to the first Navajo taxpayers

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 30, 2014

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Given the fact that this is tax season on the Navajo Reservation as well as elsewhere, let's go back a little further than 50 years. Let's go back to Jan. 28, 1916 when something happened in Gallup that made news not only in Gallup papers but as far away as Santa Fe.

"Navajos pay taxes for the first time" was the headline in both the Gallup Herald and the Albuquerque Daily Journal that week.

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Two Navajos walked into the McKinley County Courthouse and paid taxes on the livestock that they owned and were raising on reservation land. It wasn't a lot of money, probably somewhere between $1.00 and $2.50, which was the average being paid by ranchers in the county who grazed small herds on their property.

But this marked the first time that any Navajo living on the reservation had paid any property tax to the county. With most of the 36 Navajo families in the county living on the reservation having sheep and a few head of cattle, the county was hoping to get as much as $55 in property taxes from them in 1916.

County officials said they were encouraging Navajos to come in and pay their property taxes even though there were questions raised about whether the county had the right to collect property taxes on Navajos living on the reservation.

The county position was that as long as they enjoyed benefits from the county, such as maintenance of county roads and law enforcement, the Navajo families had to pay property taxes like everyone else.

But there were Native groups who were protesting any payment of taxes, arguing that Navajos living on the reservation were protected by the Treaty of 1868 and the fact that their land was in trust and the responsibility of the federal government.

If their land couldn't be taxed, the argument went, neither could their property.

County officials admitted in January, 1916, that they didn't know for sure whether they could impose the tax or not but since it was unclear, they decided to go ahead with it anyway to see what happened.

To determine whether this was legal or not, the Interior Department was asked to render a legal opinion which would settle the question one way or another.

"In the event the department of the interior holds that such Indians can be taxed, the county authorities will proceed to collect the taxes from the Indians the same as anyone else," an article in the Gallup Herald reported, adding that if it was upheld, it would add "a respectable sum to the revenue of the county."

The news reports don't give the names of the two men who came to the county courthouse to pay what they owed but the articles stressed that both men came voluntarily, saying that they wanted to be treated the same as any non-Native taxpayer in the county.

The decision was finally rendered a few months later and it supported those who felt that Navajos on the reservation did not have to pay county property taxes.

Now that this was settled, let's look at what was happening on the Navajo Reservation 50 years ago according to the Navajo Times.

Peter MacDonald was back in the news but not for anything he did.

Marshall Tome, the paper's editor, quoted MacDonald in his weekly column.

"Peter MacDonald, Window Rock, said recently, 'How do you stop a charging elephant? You take away his credit card.'

On a more serious note, Raymond Nakai, who was celebrating 10 months in office, gave his first State of the Nation message to the members of the Navajo Tribal Council, pointing out what progress he had made since taking office.

He talked about the tribe's initiation of a social security program that was expected to bring in more than a million a year to Navajo families who needed the help. He also pointed out that a new housing agency, the Navajo Housing Authority, had been created and had already received $7.3 million to construct 500 homes on the reservation.

The past six months had seen approval of a major shopping center complex to be built on State Highway 264 at the junction to Fort Defiance. There were also plans to build an 80-unit motel in Kayenta.

Thomas Atcitty, another name that would become very familiar to Navajo Times a few years later got his photo in the paper for the first time by inspecting an AM and FM radio that was going to be given away at the Navajo Civic Center that weekend to someone who went to the movies there.

Second, third and fourth prize were going to be pairs of ice skates.

The paper also covered the wedding of Miss Patricia K. Reeves of Artesia, N.M. to Michael J. Tuohy of Tohatchi. Readers were probably thrilled to learn that her floor-length gown of peau de soie was embellished with French lace.

Dean Tome, in his column "Chit and Chatter" told readers of the paper that Mr. and Mrs. Birley Garner as well as Mr. and Mrs. Cato Sells of Window Rock made a trip to Phoenix the previous weekend and had a "very lovely trip."

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