50 years ago

Motel development squelched by liquor ban

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

Feb. 27, 2014

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On March 4, 1964, the Navajo Tribal Council approved a deal that could have had a major impact on tourism on the Navajo Reservation. The key words here are "could have" because the tribe reneged on its promises.

The resolution was simple -- permission to build a million dollar motel in Kayenta.

"The construction is to get underway as soon as possible to put up an 80-unit motel, coffee shop and dining room," the Navajo Times reported. "Also, there will be a large balcony in the dining room for the entertainment and pleasure of guests."

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All of the funding for construction of the motel, said the Times, would be from outside capital.

The new motel would create a boom in employment in the Kayenta area, the paper said. Plans were to hire four cooks, 20 maids, 16 waitresses, two housekeepers, six busboys, two switchboard operators, three clerks, six laundry workers and three maintenance men.

In all, the motel expected to hire some 50 people, most of whom would be Navajo and from the Kayenta area.

With an expected 80-percent occupancy rate, the motel was expected to bring in about $320,000 a year. The owners of the motel agreed to pay the tribe five percent of the gross as a rental fee, as well as 40 percent of the profits.

The motel was also expected to bring in annually tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars to local businesses and local craftsmen.

With Monument Valley just around the corner, the owners were predicting that the new motel would attract conventions from all over the United States. But what wasn't made public at that time is that this statement was based on a promise from Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai on which he never delivered.

Martin Link was director of the Navajo Tribal Museum at the time and heard from other tribal officials that the main reason the developers were willing to invest a million dollars was because Nakai promised that approval would be given to serve liquor on the premises.

A ban on liquor would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to attract any major conventions to the reservation, especially since the nearest liquor outlet was more than an hour away.

"They even constructed a bar in the motel," said Link.

But the bar doors would remain locked as the motel -- now the Holiday Inn -- opened and approval to sell liquor never materialized.

Link said he expected there was opposition from community members as well as concerns by members of the Navajo Nation Council that this would lead to liquor sales throughout the reservation.

Nakai's failure to deliver on his promises ended the possibility for decades of motel development on the reservation, even though efforts were made periodically to test the waters by the few motel owners on the reservation to see if the tribe would relax its ban on liquor sales.

The Navajo Nation Council would relax its ban for the first time in 1998 when approval was given to sell liquor at the resort the tribe was building on the east side of Lake Powell. The Council did it again for the three Navajo casinos - Fire Rock, Northern Edge and Twin Arrows.

But the tribal government still refuses to consider the idea of allowing motels on the reservation to serve drinks with meals.

The Times in March also featured a story about a Maori who traveled 9,000 miles from his home in New Zealand to be a missionary for the Mormon Church on the Navajo Reservation and to learn the Navajo language.

Elder Hector Tahu was only 19 years old when he came to the reservation in January 1964 to begin his quest to be able to speak Navajo.

"There are a number of similarities between the Maori and the Navajo language," he said. "Some of the vowels and a few other sounds are identical."

Since his missionary assignment on the reservation was only for two years, Tahu would have to work fast but the Times pointed out that a number of Mormon missionaries in the past have managed to get a really good feel for speaking the language in their two years here.

The Times urged its readers to help Tahu and the other Mormon missionaries learn the language "by always talking to them in only Navajo."

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