The Diné Nation Today

By the end of World War II, the Diné nation, in the modern sense of the word, had come into being. Commodity production and commerce had broken down the isolation of the various clans. The Diné were now tied together by internal and external trade. Diné society had been divided into the two principal social classes of capitalism – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie had established itself as the master of society and was building its centralized state apparatus, albeit under the domination of the U.S. imperialists. The period since World War II has seen the further consolidation of the Diné nation and the growth of national consciousness and the national revolutionary movement.

The Diné Bourgeoisie

The Diné bourgeoisie is composed of a small number of families who own large stockraising and dairy operations and a number of commercial businesses. The members of these families control the tribal government, which puts them in a position to manage and control the resources of the various tribal enterprises and to lease the rights to the vast Diné mineral resources to the Anglo-American energy monopolies and control the revenues from these leases. In 1969, the latest year for which we have figures) there were 30 Diné families which had annual incomes over $25,000 (approximately $50,000 in current dollars). Six of these families earned over $50,000 a year ($100,000 today). These families were rich even by Anglo-American standards and were extremely rich in the context of the overwhelming poverty in the Diné nation. (In 1969, the income of the average Diné family was less than $2,500, while nearly one-third earned less than $1,000.)11 The richest of all the Diné bourgeoisie is Peter McDonald, the former Tribal Chairman, who is reportedly well on his way to becoming the first millionaire among the Native peoples. He is a member of the board of directors of the American Indian Bank and the Patagonia Corporation and four southwestern colleges. He has also been appointed to serve on the Energy Task Force of the Governor of New Mexico and Reagan's national Energy Task Force.12

The Diné bourgeoisie is essentially a comprador bourgeoisie allied with U.S. imperialism in the exploitation of its people and their resources. It is principally an agricultural and commercial bourgeoisie and, not having developed its own industry, it was never in a position to challenge the penetration of imperialist manufactured products in its nation. It has, however, fought a long battle to challenge Anglo-American domination of commerce in the Diné nation. Commerce in the Diné nation was for many years the exclusive domain of a handful of profiteering Anglo-American traders. As the Tribal Council's authority grew, it took steps to break this monopoly, promote the interests oft he small number of Diné traders who had been able to establish themselves, and develop a full-scale Diné commercial bourgeoisie. The ownership of gasoline stations was restricted to Diné franchisees, and Diné businessmen were given advantages in obtaining Tribal Council leases to establish new businesses. Tribal Council regulations sought to breakdown the limitations of the trade districts that the traders had established. These trade districts had fostered trade between a single district of the Diné nation and the exterior (through the trader), and the Tribal Council's purpose was to promote a greater degree of inter-district (national) trade.13

The efforts of the Diné bourgeoisie were aided by the federal government, which by the mid-1960's had adopted a policy of promoting a limited development of the bourgeoisie among the oppressed nationalities. The purpose of this policy was to strengthen the hand of bourgeois reformism within the oppressed nationalities in response to the growth of the revolutionary national movements. Federal loan programs to Native businessmen on reservations were created to promote "Red Capitalism."14

Peter McDonald championed the Diné bourgeoisie's desire to control its home market, expressing this bourgeois nationalist desire through the slogan: "Keep the Navajo dollar in the Navajo Nation!"15 "We must move immediately," he declared, "to designate six locations as economic growth centers, magnets to draw the dollars that now drain off the reservation."16 The strength of the Diné commercial bourgeoisie is growing, but most trade in the Diné nation is still commanded by Anglo-American merchants both on the reservation and in the border towns.

In addition to its private agricultural and commercial businesses, the Diné bourgeoisie has also developed a number of large-scale capitalist enterprises that are nominally the property of the Diné nation as a whole. The most important of these is Navajo Forest Products Industries (NFPI), a large, vertically-integrated timber operation which cuts, processes, and markets the Diné timber resources. In 1977, it was worth some $25 million, had $3 million in profits and employed 614 people. The NFPI was created in 1958 using a sawmill built in 1888, and has been expanded and modernized several times since then. A more recent development is the Navajo Agricultural Products Industries which began operating large, capitalist irrigated farms in 1973. The Tribal Council's plans call for the development of 110,000 acres of irrigated farmland, a cattle feedlot, and food processing facilities which would employ a total of 6,000 people. Other tribal enterprises include the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority which provides power, water, and sewage services; the Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority; the Navajo Times newspaper; the Navajo Wool Program; and the Navajo Arts and Crafts enterprise. The latter two projects handle the marketing of all wool produced in the Diné nation and a part of handicraft production, and represent efforts to further restrict the profiteering activities of the traders.

These tribal enterprises, while nominally belonging to the entire Diné people, are controlled, through the Tribal Council and the boards of directors of the individual enterprises, by the families which make up the Diné bourgeoisie. The tribal enterprises, like the private Diné businesses, are almost entirely dependent on Anglo-American capital, acquired either from the federal government or private banks and insurance companies. The timber and agricultural operations depend on technical and managerial expertise provided by Anglo-American businessmen and are oriented to produce not for the needs of the Diné nation, but exclusively for the Anglo-American market. Indeed, the Tribal Council is considering proposals from three major Anglo-American agribusinesses to manage the agricultural operations.17

The Tribal Government

The Treaty of 1868 between the Diné and the U.S. government recognized the Diné as a sovereign people with the right to determine their own destiny. At the same time, and in contradiction with this understanding, the Diné territory (the reservation) was to be "held in trust" for the Diné by the federal government and the Diné people were to be "wards" of the federal government. An early Supreme Court decision interpreted the treaties with the Native peoples this way: "Indian tribes possess all sovereign powers over domestic matters within their territorial boundaries unless the United States decreed to the contrary." The system of government actually established on the Native peoples' territories is very similar to a classic colonial apparatus. The tribal government is expressly subordinate to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which in turn is responsible to the Department of the Interior (DI). The Commissioner of the BIA serves as a colonial governor, enforcing the rule of U.S. imperialism over the territories of the Native peoples. In many ways, the tribal government carries out the functions of a county government. The Diné bourgeoisie, however, is interested in fortifying and extending the authority of the tribal government, pushing for greater sovereign rights. The Navajo Tribal Code, which voices the aspirations of the Diné bourgeoisie, declares that the Navajo Nation is seeking "to work out the relationship of its nation to the United States and the surrounding states" and to require that "these governmental systems recognize the extent to which the Navajo Tribe has become a truly sovereign entity."18

The efforts of the Diné bourgeoisie to assert its national rights have led to continuing contests over the authority of the Tribal Council in relation to the federal and, particularly, the state governments (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah). In the 1940's, the Tribal Council won the right to exercise control over the funds of the Tribe, which have grown substantially due to revenues from mineral royalties and the tribal enterprises (although this control is still limited by the veto of the BIA). In addition, it pressed to have all government programs in the Diné nation administered by Diné personnel. An ongoing battle has been waged to win the right of the Diné nation to levy taxes, and to limit the authority of the state governments to levy taxes within the Diné nation. As the Diné police and the Diné court system have been strengthened, conflicts have developed over the jurisdiction of the tribal legal system versus that of the state governments. In particular, the tribal government has demanded the right to try non-Diné individuals for violations of Diné law within the Diné nation.

These have been sharp conflicts. While the Diné bourgeoisie has been pressing for the extension of the rights of its nation a powerful section of the Anglo-American bourgeoisie is pressing to have all legal recognition of the rights of the Native peoples annulled. These forces, represented most openly by a number of the energy monopolies and by wealthy western ranchers and capitalists, have launched a major offensive against Native peoples in recent years. The Western Conference of the Council of State Governments and the American Farm Bureau Federation recently passed resolutions calling for the termination of all special treaty rights and the elimination of all Indian reservations. Their object is the division of these territories among the energy monopolies and wealthy ranchers and capitalists. A major spokesman for these interests has been James Watt, who, during his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, was directly responsible for the administration of the Native peoples' territories.19

The Plunder of Diné Mineral Resources and the Diné Bourgeoisie

The Diné nation contains immense reserves of energy resources. In 1977, the Diné were estimated to have reserves of 100 million barrels of oil, 25 billion cubic feet of natural gas, 80 million pounds of uranium ore, and 5 billion tons of easily accessible coal. These resources are owned by the Diné nation, but are controlled by the Department of the Interior, which actually establishes the conditions of their exploitation. The Department of the Interior has traditionally been controlled by the large mining companies who have used it to gain access to the mineral wealth on lands owned by the government and on the Native peoples' territories for little if any compensation. The contracts signed over the rights to the Diné people's minerals have been among the worst. Among the companies making super-profits in the Diné nation through lucrative deals worked out by the Interior Department are Texaco, Superior Oil, Conoco, Phillips Petroleum, Exxon, Mobil, Gulf, Peabody Coal, Consolidation Coal, El Paso Natural Gas, Utah International, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Among the most devastating of these give-away contracts have been the coal leases that were signed in the 1950's and 1960's. Millions of tons of coal are strip mined every year from the Black Mesa region to power several huge power plants that provide electricity for Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a large region of the Southwest. The leases give the coal companies perpetual rights ("as long as minerals are produced in paying quantities") to mine coal at a fixed price of pennies per ton. In 1975, the Diné nation received an average of 17˘: a ton for its coal, a mere 2% of the market value. Electricity produced from this coal is sold back to the Diné nation for between $150 and $200 per ton of coal burned. The gross underpayment received by the Diné in return for their non-renewable natural resources is illustrated by the fact that the energy monopolies pay more in taxes to the states of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico for their operations in the Diné nation than they pay the Diné in royalties, rental fees, bonuses, and wages combined. Moreover, the energy monopolies have been known to practice outright thievery, extracting more minerals than they actually pay for while the BIA looks the other way.

In addition to miniscule compensation, the energy monopolies have become notorious for their practice of job discrimination against Diné workers and for their contempt for the Diné land and people. They have failed to adequately reclaim strip mined land or provide for environmental protections. Two of the huge coal-fired plants alone spew 465,125 tons of pollutants into the air yearly, leaving a haze over the Diné nation. In fact, astronauts orbiting the earth reported that the only manmade feature they could see on earth was the thick black cloud produced by these power plants. Diné uranium miners have been subjected to dangerous levels of radiation. At least 25 miners have already died from lung cancer and it is estimated that one out of six of the miners employed during the 1950's and 1960's will die as a result.

Large scale exploitation of Diné mineral resources began in the 1950's and over the last three decades a large part of their reserves have been removed by the Anglo-American monopolies. Oil and gas reserves have been largely depleted and revenues from these resources have already begun to drop off. Coal and uranium reserves could be depleted in 20-30 years. The exploitation of the Diné's non-renewable natural resources is taking place under conditions controlled by the Anglo-American monopolies. Minerals are extracted and exported, usually in crude form, to the imperialist nation to be processed and used as dictated by the needs of its economy. The profits made are not reinvested in the Diné nation but concentrated in the hands of the U.S. monopoly capitalists. This process has generated superprofits for the energy monopolies; on the other hand it is leaving the Diné with nothing but gaping pits, a depleted water table, poisoned air and water, crippling diseases and little or nothing in terms of capital accumulation or economic development.

The Diné bourgeoisie, from Chee Dodge forward, has placed itself at the service of the Anglo-American energy monopolies in facilitating their plunder of the Diné natural resources. The Diné bourgeoisie has led the Tribal Council to agree to all of the outrageous arrangements proposed by the monopolies and their agent, the Department of the Interior. These agreements were made in exchange for the continued financial and political support by the U.S. government and the U.S. capitalists for the efforts of the Diné bourgeoisie to strengthen its political and economic position and increase its wealth. The energy leases promised immediate royalty payments, which have been the mainstay of the Tribal government's budget, and are in turn the source of high bureaucratic salaries, business loans, and the expansion of the tribal enterprises and the government apparatus. For these reasons, the Diné bourgeoisie has consistently fought all efforts by the Diné people to prevent the energy monopolies from destroying their land, plundering their natural resources, and ruining their Iivelihoods.20

McDonald and Zah

Peter McDonald, Tribal Chairman from 1970 to 1982, had institutionalized the alliance between the Diné bourgeoisie and the energy monopolies to a greater extent than any of his predecessors. In 1974, he was instrumental in creating the Council on Energy Resource Tribes (CERT), which brought together the chairmen of 23 Native tribes to collectively organize the exploitation of their energy resources. CERT was promoted as the "American Indian OPEC" and its pronouncements were couched in talk about "Indian rights" and "self-determination." In reality, CERT was initiated and funded by the energy monopolies and the federal government to promote the orderly exploitation of energy resources on the lands of the Native peoples. Its purpose was to cultivate an elite group of comprador agents for the energy monopolies among the Native peoples. Jerry Bathke, an Anglo-American "Indian affairs specialist" for ARCO Petroleum and a founder of CERT, explained that the United States "isn't going to have successful natural resource developments on Indian lands unless tribes have qualified leaderships experienced in the energy business."21 McDonald was, in the Anglo-American imperialists' eyes, the perfect example of this "leadership." Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement, spoke of McDonald in less gratiating terms: "Peter McDonald is the shah of the Navajo. He is being sodomized by the multinationals and the U.S. government and enjoying every minute of it."22 McDonald showed how appropriate the comparison with the Shah of Iran was when he hired Ahmed Kooros, the former minister in charge of oil production under the shah, as CERT's chief economist. (Kooros is certainly intimately familiar with the U.S. energy monopolies!)

Even the most reactionary comprador politicians like Peter McDonald press for more independence from the BIA, the right to tax, etc. and make a habit of speaking about "self-determination." But for McDonald "self-determination" does not mean the right to secede and form a genuinely sovereign state, it means reforms in the relationship between the Diné and Anglo-American bourgeoisie, within the context of U.S. imperialist domination. The programs of reformist politicians like Peterson Zah, who defeated McDonald in the November, 1982 tribal elections and became the new Tribal Chairman, do not differ fundamentally from those of McDonald. Zah, who characterizes himself as a "Kennedy-type Democrat," has promised to institute a number of reforms such as the renegotiation of unfair mineral leases, the protection of the land and the traditional occupations of the people from the rape of the energy monopolies, the withdrawal of the Diné from CERT, and the retrieval of the Lincoln Continentals from the top bureaucrats in the tribal government. Because of the strength of the Diné national movement, he may actually be able to make some reforms. But even if he does make some reforms, he does not intend to change the fundamental relations of national and class oppression in the Diné nation. He accepts the basic pre-conditions of bourgeois rule and U.S. imperialist domination. Since Zah was inaugurated in January, the Diné people of Big Mountain in the "Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area" have already noted that the confiscation of their livestock by BIA agents has been stepped up and Zah has done nothing about it.23

The Proletariat

The Diné proletariat continues to be primarily a reserve army of labor for U.S. imperialism and suffers from low wages, high rates of unemployment and a constant fluctuation in employment. But, precarious as wage labor is in the Diné nation, the dependence of the people on wage labor increases from year to year. The continuing contraction of the traditional sector of the economy and expropriation of the smallholders is expressed most clearly by the continuing sharp decline of stock animals per capita: in 1931, there were 21 sheep and goats per person; by 1974, there were only 3.6. Since 1974, the sheep population has been declining at an average annual rate of 5%.

By the mid-1970's, wage labor accounted for about 60% of the Diné community income and welfare accounted for another 26.6%. The traditional sector accounted for only 13.5% (livestock 10.1 %, weaving and singing 2.3%, agriculture 1.1%). The Diné proletariat continues to have the characteristics of a rural proletariat. Despite the small amount of income generated by traditional occupations, at least 65% of the potential labor force is engaged in these activities to earn at least part of their living. In other words, most Diné families still raise sheep and plant crops to supplement their income, although they are mainly dependent on the wage income of family members who are employed.

As we have said, the main jobs available to the Diné proletariat have traditionally been in the Diné labor gangs that are recruited to work on the railroads and harvest crops throughout the West. A large number of Diné women have also been recruited to work as domestic servants. These continue to be important sources of income today, although their importance has fallen sharply since the 1950's due to the decline in the number of workers needed in these sectors, and the increase in the number of other jobs available to Diné workers. Today, some 2,500 Diné workers in migratory agricultural labor crews work in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. With the development of large-scale mining and oil production in the 1950's and 1960's, many Diné workers began to work in the mines and construction projects associated with mineral and energy production. The construction projects typically employ a large number of workers for a relatively short period of time, while mining jobs fluctuate depending upon the requirements of the economy. In 1974, some 1300 Diné workers worked in the mines or the other energy related industries.

The Vietnam War, like the wars that preceded it, brought about a new demand for Diné labor in the war industry. Two major electronics firms, Fairchild and General Dynamics, established factories in the Diné nation to exploit the labor of Navajo women in the production of electronic components for armaments. Wages were set slightly above the level of welfare payments for a mother with four dependents. After armaments orders declined with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, however, Fairchild closed its plant permanently, laying off over 1,000 workers.

The expansion of the Diné tribal government apparatus and the creation of federal jobs programs (particularly CETA) created many government jobs in the 1960's and 1970's, and in fact, led to a situation in which most people employed in the Diné nation worked for the government. These jobs, however, also proved to be unstable. The drastic cutback in social programs (once again, particularly CETA) by the Reagan administration has led to massive layoffs in the Diné nation.

Employment in the Diné nation fluctuates drastically. Even in times of economic expansion, however, the level of unemployment remains high. In 1973, at the height of an economic "boom" period, when Fairchild's war plant was still open and power plant construction was taking place, 35% of the Diné workforce was unemployed and another 21% were only seasonally employed. By 1982, the economic crisis and government cutbacks had driven the unemployment rate up to 80%. The tremendous rate of unemployment is the result of the severe underdevelopment of the Diné economy and its dependence on U.S. imperialism, which uses the Diné territory as simply a source of raw materials and the Diné people almost exclusively as a reserve labor force. The Diné are only able to survive under these conditions through subsistence agriculture and stockraising, welfare, and the sharing of income with relatives – a strong Diné tradition originating in the clan system and the pastoral economy.24

The Diné proletariat, like all proletarians, has moved to organize itself to fight collectively for its interests. This has long been true of the Diné railroad workers and in recent decades the Diné miners have become the most highly organized contingent of the Diné working class. Nearly two-thirds of all Diné miners are members of the mineworkers' union, and this high rate of unionization has been achieved in a region where the coal monopolies have been very successful in keeping the union out. Other sectors of the Diné proletariat have also attempted to organize themselves. The occupation of the Fairchild electronics plant in 1974 was the most dramatic of these attempts, although this effort was cut short by Fairchild's decision to close the plant.

The struggle over the workers' right to organize unions has brought out the deep and inherent conflict of interests between the Diné bourgeoisie and the Diné proletariat. While the Diné proletariat has strived for union organization to protect itself against the capitalists, the Diné bourgeoisie has declared itself completely against union organization. Not satisfied with Arizona's already extremely restrictive anti-union "right to work" laws, the Tribal Council moved to make all union organization illegal in the Diné nation.

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