50 Years Ago: One family succeeds at life in Chicago

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

Over the past decade, thousands of Navajo families have left the reservation in order to get education or find a job and, except for their families, most Navajos never hear about them again. That’s especially true for those who read the Navajo Times because very rarely does the tribal newspaper write stories about the life of Navajos who live in major cities off the reservation.

But 50 years ago, the Times told its readers about one Navajo family who had made their home in Chicago and thrived. “The Bennie Shelly story is one that is not too different of many other families who have come to Chicago because of the BIA’s adult vocational training program,” said the Times article. The Shellys – husband Bennie, wife Martha and daughter Florine – come from the Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, area of the reservation and moved to Chicago in 1966 with plans to move back to the reservation once the training was done. But those plans changed as the family laid down roots in America’s Second City.

With four months of training as a construction equipment mechanic, Bennie had made a good life in Chicago for his family. “His seriousness and intent of purpose, backed by his wife’s willingness to stand by her man make this success story possible,” the Times writer stated.

The article said that both Shelly and his wife were extremely homesick for the Navajo Reservation when Shelly completed his training. But it took a lot of will power for them to stay in Chicago. They both realized they had opportunities in Chicago that they did not have on the reservation and Shelly said he has been able to maintain some contact with home by traveling back whenever they have a vacation. Now, just a little over two years after they settled in Chicago, the family has purchased a nice home in the Hampton Park area with the assistance of a home purchasing program sponsored by the BIA.

Shelly recently changed jobs after working as an apprentice mechanic for the Case Equipment Company. Because of the experience he received there, he secured a job as mechanic with the Shaw and Slinka Company. It seems he had no problem getting the new job after his former employees wrote that he was “one of the best apprentices they ever had … very thorough … conscientious … very competent … never misses a day.”

“The Shelly’s know now that they have made the right decision to stay and are justifiability proud as we are of them,” said the Times reporter, adding that the Navajo people are also proud of them.

The story of Ben Shelly, as most Navajos know, did have a happy ending. He and his family would stay in Chicago for 16 years and returned to the reservation and he started his own company and then went into politics, serving as a McKinley County commissioner, a Council delegate, vice president and finally president. He currently runs his own transportation company and lives in Thoreau, New Mexico.

Finally, Dick Hardwick, the managing editor of the Navajo Times, reported that not all criminals who commit crimes on the Navajo Reservation are heartless. Take the case, he said, of what recently happened to the Window Rock Homemaker’s Club.

It seemed the club was planning to hold a party and purchased several gallons of cider to serve guests. The night before the event, they set it outside so it would cool in the cold night air. When they came back the next morning, the cider was gone but the thieves left in its place a case of a popular brand of beer.

This caused some discussion by the club’s membership. Beer was prohibited on the reservation but it wasn’t as if the club purchased the beer and brought it on the reservation. The law, one member said, was that you couldn’t bring beer on the reservation but now that it was here, what should the club do? The decision was that the club had to get rid of the beer as soon as possible and since the meeting was coming up and people would be thirsty, the decision was to get rid of the beer during the party. Everything worked out in the end, said Hardwick, with club members giving their appreciation to the thieves who made that party so memorable.


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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.