Skip to main content

'First modern Navajo leader' remembered

  • Author:
  • Updated:

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. -- The late Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai, 86,
who died Aug. 14 of pneumonia, is being remembered 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 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," 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," said Shirley.

David Clark, president of Aze Bee Nahagha of the Dine' Nation and the
first president of the Native American Church of Navajoland, called 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

Clark said he first got to know Nakai as a boy when 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," Clark said. "He was
employed there with the Department of Defense. He was a prominent leader at
the time."

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 -- '71. He
went on to be a councilman on the Navajo Tribal Council from Lukachukai
after leaving office as chairman.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"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 an 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, Nakai played a vital role in the establishment of
Navajo Community College (today Dine' College), the first
tribally-controlled college in the United States.

In 1967, Nakai met with BIA officials to explain his goals to create the
college. The officials expressed disbelief that the Navajo people planned
to operate their own college. Nakai is remembered for having said, "We're
not asking for your permission. We're just telling you what we're going to

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, Iverson

"Nakai said that it was asserting that we are both a part of the United
States and we are apart from the United States," 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."

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," Iverson said. "They had a
tremendous confrontation about that. And, in the end, Nakai's stance held."

Nakai is also remembered for having asserted the right of Navajo people to
use the sacrament peyote, known in the Navajo language as aze, or
medicine. In the 1960s, members of the Native American Church were being
persecuted for their religious use of aze.

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.