Navajo Tribal Chairman
1964 - 1971
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. -The late Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai, 86, who died Sunday of pneumonia, is being remembered here today as the first modern Navajo leader, a champion of Navajo civil and religious rights, and the man who ushered in the first economic development initiative to the huge, remote Navajo Nation.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., expressed his condolences to the family of Chairman Nakai on behalf of the Navajo people. I want to express my appreciation to the family for sharing the Honorable Chairman with the people at the time he was Chairman of the Navajo Nation Council, President Shirley said. The contribution Mr. Nakai has made has served to have the Navajo Nation rise to a different level of being and awareness. With his leadership, our evolving Nation has continued to grow. I know he has left the world we live in but his influences will long be remembered.
David Clark, president of Bee Nahagha of the Din Nation and the first president of the Native American Church of Navajo land, called chairman Nakai one of the backbones to Navajo economic development. He advocated for the civil rights of the Navajo. He wanted to have a constitution established. That was his platform during the time he was campaigning.
Mr. Clark said he first got to know Chairman Nakai as a boy when Mr. Nakai returned from Navy service in the South Pacific and worked at the Navajo Army Depot in Bellemont, Ariz. My parents and many others, the elders, worked there, Mr. Clark said. He was employed there with the Department of Defense. He was a prominent leader at the time.
Chairman Nakai was born in Lukachukai, Ariz., on Oct. 12, 1918. He served two terms as chairman of the Navajo Tribe, as it was known then, from 1964 until 1971. He went on to be a councilman on the Navajo Tribal Council from Lukachukai after leaving office as chairman. He had great skills in communication both in English and in Navajo because he worked for radio station KCLS in Flagstaff, said Peter Iverson, Arizona State University history professor and author of The Navajo Nation.
He had appreciation for media. He served at a time of great transition and a time when important issues were being confronted. Among those issues were education, Native American religious freedom and civil rights. In 1968, Chairman Nakai played a vital role in the establishment of Navajo Community College today College the first tribally-controlled college in the U.S.
In 1967, Chairman Nakai met with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to explain his goals to create the college. The officials expressed disbelief the Navajo people planned to operate their own college. Chairman Nakai is remembered for having said, not asking for your permission. We are just telling you what we're going to do.
Chairman Nakai also presided over the Centennial of the Navajo Treaty of 1868, which freed 8,000 Navajos from captivity at Fort Sumner, N.M., known as the Navajo Holocaust, and established a Navajo reservation. One year later, in 1969, the Navajo Tribal Council passed a resolution to refer to the Navajo Tribe as the Navajo Nation. This was to remind Navajos and non-Navajos alike that, as a people, Navajos were distinct, Professor Iverson said.
Nakai said that it was asserting that we are both a part of the United States and we are apart from the United States, Professor Iverson said. In the long run, Chairman Nakai is somebody, I think, who will be seen as a more significant leader. He was an important person, and important to recognize and remember.
Chairman Nakai is also known for firing the first general counsel for the Navajo Tribe, Norman Littell, who had tremendous influence in the working of the Navajo Tribal Council in the 1960s. Littell did not go gently into the night, Professor Iverson said. They had a tremendous confrontation about that. And, in the end, Nakai's stance held. Chairman Nakai is also remembered for having asserted the right of people to use the sacrament peyote, known in the Navajo language as or medicine. In the 1960s, members of the Native American Church were being persecuted for their religious use of . On Oct. 11, 1967, the use of peyote in religious ceremonies by Native American Church members was approved by the Navajo Tribal Council by a margin of three votes.
Chairman Nakai is survived by his wife Ella M. Nakai, their children musician Raymond Carlos Nakai of Tucson, Ursula Nakai of Albuquerque, Michael Nakai of Window Rock, Richard Nakai of Lukachukai, and Laurinda of Flagstaff. In addition, he leaves three sisters, Mae Bekis, Lillian N.
Uentillie, and Eva N. Lee, all of Lukachukai, 10 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. Chairman Nakai was preceded in death by his parents John and Bilthnedesbah, his sisters Mary C. Tso and Nellie Nakai, and his brothers Frank and Paul Nakai.
Services will be 10 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, at St. Isabel Catholic Church in Lukachukai, Ariz. Burial will be at the Lukachukai Community Cemetery. Rollie Mortuary of Gallup is in charge of arrangements. A family viewing will be from 1-to-6 p.m. on Wednesday at Rollie Mortuary, 401 E. Nizhoni Blvd., Gallup.