50 years ago: Letters section allows a voice for complaints

If you were a reader of the Navajo Times in 1968, you may have noticed a major change in the paper that showed for the first time that the paper was giving Navajos a voice to air their concerns.

It could be seen every week when readers started reading the letters to the editor. One of the most read sections of the paper, Dick Hardwick, the paper’s managing editor, made it clear that if any reader had a concern, they could express that concern by writing a letter, as long as they didn’t libel anyone.

This was a major change from the editorial policy in the early days of the paper when the letters to the editor were mostly from people praising the Navajo Times for covering the reservation.

In almost every edition, there was a letter from a non-Navajo, thanking the newspaper for giving them information about the Navajo people. There were also a lot of letters from Navajos in prison and non-Navajos asking for people to be pen pals or asking general questions about the Navajo people (do they live in teepees, do they speak English, etc.).

The Times would print the letters but never supplied an answer so evidently it would be up to a reader to write back to the person and supply that answer.

There were so many letters praising the paper (and none condemning it) that at times it seemed as if the letters were part of a marketing strategy to get more people to read the paper. In the early years, either people did not write letters criticizing the Navajo leadership or the paper did not want to make anyone mad because there were no critical letters printed. But by 1968, that was changing with readers sounding out on all sorts of subjects.

In the May 23, 1968, edition, for example, a student at St. Michaels Indian School wrote to complain about the service at the Window Rock Lodge, a tribally owned restaurant and motel located across from where the Navajo Education Center is now.

First off, she complained about the appearance of the building, which was at that time more than 30 years old. “(Visitors) come to see the GREAT Indian (Navajo) Reservation and find only old, worn-out buildings. I’m only a young girl but I am also a Navajo proud of her Nation. But really now, what is there to be proud of?”

But then she gets specific and it’s evident that she does not hold the waitress at the restaurant in high regard. “When you walk through the door, you expect to see waitresses who are friendly.

But instead you find waitresses that won’t even smile at you unless you are a great person. They come to your table 15 minutes after you sit down and people don’t come to the restaurant to sit and stare at each other unless they are in love,” she said.

In the June 6 issue, a reader from Billings, Montana, commented on stories in the Times about the Indian traders who, for one reason or another, were abandoning their trading posts and leaving them vacant. Why can’t the tribe turn these buildings over to Navajos so they can run their own trading posts, he wondered.

“We have heard of complaints about dishonest traders,” he wrote, adding that too many traders were charging double what stores off the reservation sold the products for. And then there was this whole issue of Jake Chee, a state representative in New Mexico who received a job from the tribe’s 10-day program.

The letter, signed only “the Whitehorse community,” criticized the program for hiring him when there were more needy Navajos who needed the money and the work.

Two weeks later, another letter appeared in the paper about Chee and this one was also signed by “the White Horse community.” The letter said the chapter took a vote and of the more than 100 people who attended the meeting, 97 voted in support of Chee.

“The community has a great deal of respect for our state representative,” the letter stated, “and has no desire to hurt his reputation by printing such an article.”

They objected to the fact that the letter criticizing him was labeled “the Whitehorse community,” pointing out that “no sane person” would feel the way about Chee.

In the next issue of the paper, a non-Indian couple from Joshua Tree, California, wrote on support of the St. MIchaels student who complained about the Window Rock Lodge.

They said they had visited the reservation two years before and stayed in the lodge and agreed that the waitresses didn’t seem to care about the customers. “We could understand if the waitresses wanted to give preference to their own people,” the couple wrote, “but they treated us very badly.”

They added that if the Lodge wanted to continue receiving the patronage of non-Indians, they should consider changing the way waitresses treated customers.

Letter writers would complain about everything, it seemed, even the Fairchild company for giving jobs to Navajos. It seemed that the letter writer heard that the plant was hiring kids who dropped out of school and needed employment. What kind of message was this sending to the young people in Shiprock, the writer said, if dropping out meant you got a good paying job at Fairchild? What then was the advantage of graduating? he added.

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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.