By Christine C. Benally and Jack Utter
Racism & Movies
“Art imitates life” is a common saying. We see the idea most often, perhaps, in motion pictures. A recent film and an even more current one, Django and The Butler, respectively, address racism against black Americans. We‟ve watched both films, the latter on Memorial Day of this year. It was emotionally tough for Jack because of the too close reminder of the 1950s and ’60s South in which he grew up. It troubled Christine most because of subtle comparisons she made with today’s Navajo Nation. Django is a fictional parody of a brutal example of cotton plantation slavery in the mid-1800s. It ends with gratifying though equally brutal revenge by a gun-toting and explosives-wielding freed slave just before the Civil War. Django has the typical white master of a plantation; and a white overseer, or foreman. It also has a head slave butler who keeps all the other slaves in line through their fear of him and the power he exerts on behalf of the white master. The treacherous butler can have slaves flogged, beaten, and even killed. They do what he says.
The second film, coincidentally titled The Butler, is a true story. It begins, as well, on a cotton plantation in Georgia in the 1920s. Slavery has been unconstitutional since 1865, but racism obviously has not. The black workers on the plantation are still under great fear of job loss, intimidation, and perhaps much worse retaliation by the white plantation overseer―and others in the white-controlled political and legal system in the Deep South at that time. The overseer is, as well, the son of the white woman who owns the plantation. He wears a pistol as he patrols the black workers picking cotton in the fields. One day he takes a black worker‟s wife―from next to her husband and little son while they’re working in a cotton field―and rapes her in a nearby shack. The husband and the other workers, despite knowing and hearing what‟s happening, do nothing. The son, warned by his dad not to cross the overseer, asks why his father doesn‟t do something when the overseer walks by after the deed is done. The father then, and apprehensively, says, “Hey” to the overseer, who stops 10 feet away. The overseer turns toward the father, pulls out his pistol, and shoots him dead through the forehead in front of 20-30 black witnesses. They know their realities, and cower back into the cotton rows. The dead man is later buried in a makeshift hole by the field hands.
This was ordered by the plantation owner, a witness to the killing, and the murder goes unreported.
The little boy―about eight years old, and whose mother loses her mind―is taken to live in the owner’s house where he is strictly raised to be a house servant. Years later he leaves, and as an adult works his way north to Washington, D.C., where he becomes a waiter in one of the fanciest hotels in town. He is so good at his job that in the mid-1950s he’s hired to be a butler in the White House.
The butler works there originally for President Eisenhower, and on into the time of the Reagan Administration. Then he retires. Restrained but still degrading racism is experienced in the White House for most of the nearly 30 years of his employment. Two examples are the lower pay and no promotions for black staff, when compared to white staff doing the same jobs for the same length of time. This goes on for decades. The black staff, even in the White House, feel compelled not to question the discrimination in pay and promotion.
Eventually, under the Reagan White House, the butler from Georgia presses the claims for promotion and equal pay for equal work when he goes before the racist white equivalent of an “overseer” of the White House staff. The butler is denied his request. He only succeeds with an intervention by Mr. Reagan who, nonetheless, is not entirely sympathetic to issues of racial equality in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Window Rock, Retaliation, & Rebellion
Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capital, is a symbol of Navajo, or Diné, government; like Washington D.C. is for the United States.
There are perceivable parallels between the settings and racism of the films just referred to and what has happened and is happening to the Navajo Nation, and with the Diné People of today.
Since at least the 1930s, the Navajo Nation has been like a big money-making “plantation” for outside interests. It’s not cotton and slaves at issue, but things like coal, oil, gas, water rights, and border town fleecing of Navajo buying power.
The obvious “masters of the plantation” are multiple outside corporations, coal companies, power companies, politicians, major retail business interests, and the surrounding states. And, yes, they also include the Tribe’s “trustee,” the federal government, and its primary agent, the Interior Department.
The white overseers for the Navajo Nation are now, and have been, made up of certain lawyers in the Navajo Department of Justice (DOJ), and sometimes in the Legislative Branch, who further influence outcomes through their own Navajo and non-Navajo agents within the government. One of the more noteworthy of these non-Navajo agents, Najam Tariq, is within the Department of Water Resources (DWR). He controls nearly all Navajo livestock water and millions of Navajo dollars; a substantial amount of which he misapplies in ways that serve him politically, and perhaps otherwise. There is another highly relevant phenomenon about him. Jack, who also works in the DWR, has observed how closely this agent of DOJ compares to the white controllers of African Americans when, right after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the controllers had to change their ways. They cleverly modified their techniques of racial domination to be less abrupt and obvious, but still effective in keeping black people in check and themselves superior as before. The non-Navajo DWR man, Najam Tariq, manipulates, bribes, intimidates, psychologically dominates, intimates DOJ is tapping phones, and—very occasionally—physically threatens the more resistant from among the over 100 Navajo Nation employees in the Department; a number of whom “cower in the cotton” rather than stand up to him.
The few who do resist are quickly suppressed, get frustrated and leave, or are fired. Oddly, but stereotypically, some of the oppressed are his biggest “supporters,” because they are either well assimilated to his control, or they benefit from it and do not want anyone to rock the boat.
He has also exploited the Nation for decades, making sure his family―living very comfortably in a nice Phoenix home five hours away―benefit more than they legitimately should, and at the cost of the Diné People. Although there is a Navajo hiring and promotion preference, this man cleverly avoids it and has displaced up to four thus qualified employees. He’s further insured he’s one of the highest paid employees on the Nation.
Over recent decades, the Navajo “head butlers”―who serve outside interests above their own people―have been a few Navajos on the Council, at DOJ, in the Speaker’s office, in the President’s office, and in several Divisions of the Executive Branch. They too, in their own ways, overly accommodate the outside “masters” and DOJ overseers who make up what many are calling the “shadow government” of the Navajo Nation. It is this shadow government, and not the legitimate Navajo government, that ultimately controls the Nation and its economic and political destinies; which remain in a nose dive as the outside interests parasite off the Diné in multiple ways. Within the Nation itself, it is DOJ and lawyers like Stan Pollack and Kathryn Hoover (and perhaps Henry Howe, now often named by the DWR agent, Tariq, as his helper) who head the shadow government, which wrongly rules the Nation to the benefit of outside political and economic interests.
Today’s DOJ, and the lawyers who preceded them, serve and have served as a conduit, or funnel, through which outside control is exerted on economic and other issues critical to the Navajo Nation. Here are two brief examples.
The first takes place in 1949. The Navajo Nation’s lawyers, with Interior Department support, told the Council it would be a great thing for them to give up to the surrounding states a large part of their sovereignty represented by the Nation‟s civil, criminal, and court jurisdiction. The Council was thereby duped into passing a resolution supporting this idea, by a vote of 37 to 20. But only Congress could finally approve the giveaway. It actually did. Not long after that Navajo vote the U.S. Congress, relying on the Navajo Council’s legislative support, passed federal legislation to accomplish this major step toward termination of Navajo government. A few Navajo leaders finally realized what was happening and desperately went to Washington to try to put a halt to implementation of the federal legislation. They and their few supporters were able to convince President Harry Truman to veto the
legislation. Incredibly, the Navajo Nation lawyers who backed this travesty retained their jobs.
The second representative event took place in 1969. The Navajo Nation’s lawyers again, and with tremendous Interior Department support, told the Council how great it would be to accept the supposedly super deal being offered them by the owners of the proposed Navajo Generating Station. (“NGS” is a coal-fired power plant then proposed to be placed on the Reservation next to Page, Arizona, where it has now operated for over 30 years.) The largest NGS owner, the U.S. Interior Department (which had, and still has, a huge conflict of interest), owns roughly 25% of the project. Accepting the advice of their lawyers and Interior, the Navajo Council approved everything put before them. Only recently has the full extent of how much the Navajos’ were cheated been realized. It amounts to hundreds of $millions since 1969. One of the smaller but most easily explained examples of the gross NGS cheating was the land lease fee paid to the Tribe for the 7,400 acres of Reservation land used by the highly profitable (for the owners) NGS project. The fee was set by the Interior Secretary; again the Tribe’s trustee and head of the biggest NGS project owner―Interior. For use of the NGS-related land, the Tribe would receive a one-time payment, covering the next 50 years, of 14¢ an acre. Therefore, they got a total of only $1,000 for use of the 7,400 acres for 50 years, when they should have received $millions. Thus, the entity which benefitted most from cheating the Navajos was the one which owned the largest interest in the NGS project, the faithful Interior Department trustee of the Tribe.
The Nation‟s lawyers were not fired and Interior was not sued for these gross violations of fiduciary and trust responsibilities. This was because of more “cowering in the cotton” and acquiescing in the arrogant and dishonest influence of the Interior Department, other NGS owners, and disloyal lawyers. Old habits, embedded in Indian country from centuries of oppression, are hard to change.
Even when Navajo Nation lawyers of more recent times have been caught at still serving outside interests above the those of the Tribe (and at the cost of hundreds of $millions to the Diné People), the Navajo leadership eventually have backed off and let the offending lawyers―again including those like Pollack and Hoover―remain here and in control of things as they were before. The most glaring recent example involved the (thankfully) failed and potentially disastrous water rights settlement act proposal of 2012, known by its U.S. Senate
designation of “S. 2109.”
“These lawyers, and others, manipulate our government against itself and our People,” observes Christine. “It’s the case of ‘cowering in the cotton fields’ or ‘fearing the White House overseer’ all over again. Yet it doesn’t have to continue, as we should realize and change; like the Georgia Butler finally did during the Reagan administration.”
Thus, the entire premise behind this illegitimate shadow government on Navajo evolves from the same seeds of racist denial of human selfdetermination that took place on the plantations in the 19th and 20th eras, and even in the White House into the 1980s. “We’re still ‘less than’ to those traitors in the shadow government,” says Christine, “and we let it go on.”
So, racism routinely happens here on Navajo, and elsewhere in Indian country, in the 21 century. Again, we saw it in the patronizing, deceptive, and bigoted introduction of S. 2109 into the U.S. Senate by Jon Kyl on Arizona’s 100 birthday in 2012. He was supported―secretly, illegally and in writing―by the two white lawyers, Pollack and Hoover. Neither of these lawyers has any Navajo Nation sovereignty and no right to unilaterally exercise it, yet they did so without permission from, or even knowledge of, the Council or the Navajo People when it came to S. 2109. The Diné were thereby denied their human rights of free, prior, and informed consent. This, again, was ultimately and obviously a race-based denial. There’s an English term for that kind of treachery, if it were done to the United States. It’s called treason. Why would these lawyers dare do it?
It’s because they look down on the Diné, as do People like Jon Kyl. And, they believe they can get away with it, even if caught. They bet on the Navajo leadership eventually reverting to the old pattern, and relenting under the authority of arrogance and lies exercised by DOJ (and supported by the outside “masters‟ and a white-controlled system) much like the field hands in Georgia did in the 1920s.
It’s not the Council’s fault, until they realize exactly what’s been going on for decades. “The bizarre thing is, the shadow government (especially the lawyers and their internal agents) only has the power we Navajos allow it to have,” remarks Christine. “The flow of that power from us to them can be cut off in an instant, as soon as the truth of the betrayal is recognized and acted upon. We have genuine greatness among us, but it is greatness interrupted and stolen by the shadow government.”
What underlies this ongoing sedition and sabotage? “It‟s racism and greed, plain and simple,” adds Christine. “Yet, again, it would stop if we, the People, and Window Rock would halt it.”
The subversion was seen once more with the recent NGS lease renewal and Peabody Coal-related issues, and the condescending actions of DOJ and the public relations people for NGS and the corporations. These outside interests, in union with DOJ,had the audacity, for example, to repeatedly transport scores of Corporate employees to the Navajo Council Chambers in fancy commercial buses, and subsidize and feed them, so they (serving as political agents of NGS and Peabody) could come in and take over the physical space and atmosphere of the Chambers and intimidate susceptible Council members.
They did similar intimidation of the small numbers of grassroots Diné (including some non English speaking elders) who were somehow able to get to the Chambers for the few seats left, and who used their limited funds and transport to come and observe and perhaps participate in their government‟s process. But the process became dominated by NGS’s, Peabody’s, Salt River Project’s, Jon Kyl’s,
and DOJ’s dishonest influences. (We don‟t have the time or space to address the collateral issues of environmental, economic, and health racism observed here and elsewhere in Indian country.)
Navajo water rights were also wrongly tied to and much limited by the NGS lease renewal agreement. This too was bigoted, as it was done to keep the Navajos down and prevent them from moving forward on their Colorado River rights and having an equal place at the table with the other competing Colorado River interests. But the Navajo Nation’s lawyers and the usual outsiders conspired to once again deceive the Nation into thinking it has to sit in the back of the bus on this extremely important issue relating to Navajo economic and political survival. And, yes, the same lawyers were behind this too, serving as that conduit of power and control the outside employs to minimize the Diné People and maximize the economies of the surrounding states.
The U.S. Congress would never let such a thing happen to itself, yet the illegitimate shadow government controlling the Navajo Nation helps engineer it and keep the Nation in economic bondage; with a never-ending unemployment rate
that hovers at 50% and above, while the surrounding states and the U.S. anguish over a mere 7.5% unemployment rate. The average unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 17%.
“So we don’t have an economic depression, but a chronic economic disaster continually imposed on us by outsiders and our own lawyers,” declares Christine.
Then why don’t more Navajo people speak up? Many have. But those who do realize they run the risk of retaliation from the racist and subversive “masters, overseers, head butlers, and inside agents’ of the shadow government.
As we write this, these same subversives are attempting one of their perennial efforts to terminate Jack’s job. (They’ve already demeaned, demoralized,
and indirectly forced out his Navajo supervisor.)
They do this to those who question or expose them. In Jack’s case, this time, it’s because he, with his supervisor’s consent, agreed to speak the truth on Navajo water rights and S. 2109 to Council members in the summer of 2012―at the Council members’ request. Despite their declarations that no retaliation would be tolerated, it has been Jack’s continuous experience since then. DOJ and the rest
of the shadow government are at the heart of it. The fear factor created by what they did to Jack’s supervisor and are doing to Jack is supposed to intimidate others who might think that human rights, equal rights, a democratic government, and a level playing field are worth pursuing for the Diné People.
The question must be asked, why and how can retaliation, intimidation, work harassment, and related activities go on with impunity? Once more, it happened to Jack’s boss, it happens to him, and it happens to others. How is it that these
perpetrators―like the disloyal DOJ lawyers, a certain Division director, one or two Executive Office staff, and DWR’s Najam Tariq (described earlier, as one of
DOJ’s agents)―can go on doing these things? What does this do to Navajo Sovereignty?
What does it do to free speech? What does it do to elected officials of the Navajo Nation and the Diné People and their ability to obtain the truth and not be denied their human rights of free, prior, and informed consent. It destroys all of these.
Can the destruction be countered?
Yes, and it’s not that difficult. It requires exercising Navajo sovereignty for the Tribe itself, and championing Diné rights and self-determination.
This will involve the firing and/or voting out of the traitors who implement the racist cloud of illegitimate control that so contaminates the Navajo Nation from the outside (i.e., from “the plantation masters”) and from the inside (i.e., by “the overseers, head butlers, and agents‟ of the illegitimate shadow government).
“These inside people are insurgents, in basic rebellion against the Diné and our lawfully established government. They must be removed if the Diné are to survive as a Native Nation. We can forgive the insurgents their racist sins, but they can never again be empowered over the Diné People. Investigations for collateral and other crimes must also be initiated—now.” Christine C. Benally.
All we know is that there is no water settlement for the Navajo Nation. All we know is that there probably wont be a settlement for many years. The Navajo tribe can only hope that a settlement can happen now. If there is no settlement, then a non-Indian judge, who doesn’t care about Indian people, will be making a decision about how much water the Navajo tribe will get. How will that turn out? Probably not good.
This article is very critical. All the allegations against Navajo Nation DOJ and Najam Tariq seem to just be sour grapes. The authors of this article don’t even give any proof that the allegations actually happened. Najam Tariq may or may not have done these things. The point is, there is no proof. And how can DOJ attorneys Pollack and Hoover do something “secretly, illegally and in writing” all at the same time? Must not have been too secret when it was in writing for everyone to see. The authors of the article don’t even say what was illegal. The authors of this article are hoping nobody will ask for proof. The authors just hope people remember the bad things being said.
As an older Indian I think its wrong that people can write things like this and have it published on the internet without any fact checking. Just makes all imperfect tribal governments look horrible. Who would want to do business with Indians now? Christine C. Benally and Jack Utter seem to be going out of their way to destroy the credibility of the Navajo Nation just because things didn’t go their way. Utter and Benally took the easy road and are just pointing out flaws in a system everybody knows isn’t perfect.
The truth is, tribal leaders will never please 100% of the people they represent. Especially in complex issues. Leaders have to make decisions for the best interest of the people. Sometimes leaders must make decisions that the people don’t want, but leaders must do it because it will benefit the people. The tribal leader must lead sometimes. You can’t please everybody all the time. Leaders must make decisions based on information they have in front of them. Will they make mistakes? Sure they will. Will there always be someone complaining? Sure, just read this article.
I’m glad people have a way to vent their frustrations, but this article could have been done better. Its just complaining. I’m surprised I finished reading it. Not every tribal leader is a sell out. Not every lawyer is bad. There is no perfect government.