The Ramah Navajo community is located at elevations ranging from 7000 to more than 7800 feet, and is considered a high desert with the U.S. Continental Divide crossing the area in the mountainous, high semi-arid rangeland of west-central New Mexico. Pinon trees, and ponderosa pines dot the landscape. Mesa’s with colorful sandstone formation’s rise above the valleys, while small mountains, old volcanoes show upon the horizon, and wild flowers cover the open range in the spring.
The Ramah Navajos are a Band of approximately 3000 Navajos geographically separated from the Navajo Nation’s Reservation (as are two other Navajo Bands: Alamo and To’hajiilee). There are approximately 900 Ramah Navajo families.
The population is young–43% are under the age of 19 while nearly 60% are under the age of 25. They occupy about 300 square miles (approximately 146,953 acres) of “checkerboard” territory–lands owned by the Band, by individual non-Navajos, by the Navajo Tribe, by the State of New Mexico, and by the Federal government. This land is often referred to as the Ramah Navajo “Reservation” and has been regarded as “Indian Country” by the Navajo courts (Washburn v. McKensley, I Navajo Rep. 114 (1977). However, it is not a part of the formal Navajo Reservation.
The Ramah Band of Navajo, according to oral and written history have lived in the Ramah area for hundreds of years. The Band were living in the Zuni Mountains and Ramah valley and moved with livestock to areas as far south as Reserve, NM prior to the Long Walk period.
From the time of in-habitation by the Band, this area has been called “Tlo’chini’’ (place of wild onions) and is rich in history. The Ramah valley has hosted many people from the Anasazi (“ancient ones”) whose multi-story architecture once graced the land. Zuni Pueblo, the place where Coronado first made contact with New Mexico Indians, is located just west of the Ramah Navajo area with the two Indian land bases bordering each other. At the northeastern end of the Ramah Navajo area sits El Morro National Monument. Spanish explorers carved their names in the sandstone rock before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and on the eastern part of the Ramah Navajo area is the El Malpais National Conservation area. The Ramah Band of Navajos presence in the area dates back to the 1500's according to historical records and tree ring dating. The Spanish frequently referred to contact with the Navajos in the vicinity of the Zuni Pueblo in the 1600's.
In 1863, the Ramah Navajos were rounded up, along with nearly all other Navajos, by the U.S. military and removed to Fort Sumner, a bitter and wretched prison camp experience known as The Long Walk (or Hweeldi) and was a virtual concentration camp. Some of the “founders” of the Ramah Navajo Band have, of course, been prisoners at Fort Sumner and participated in the tremendous shock of this experience. After the Treaty of 1868, seven of the original families returned to the Ramah area when they were released even though it was not part of the new Navajo reservation set out in the treaty. Many reunited with relatives who stayed behind during the Long Walk. In all the time since then, the Ramah Band of Navajos have reestablished strong ties to the land where they had lived for many years before the Long Walk and it was during this period that Many Beads (Jose Pino) was recognized as a headman for the Ramah Band.
In the 1800's, travelers mentioned Navajos living in small groups in the vicinity of Ramah and of early Mormon settlers in 1877 who settled there for irrigation purposes. (However, according to Navajo oral history, it was the Ramah Band of Navajo who built the first Ramah dam) and later Anglo settlers seeking land under the Homestead Dawes Act in 1887. Unfortunately, Navajo use and occupancy of the area were not legally recognized for decades. Consequently, several waves of settlers, encouraged by the United States government to homestead what they called “open range,” entered the Ramah area, assumed control, and eventually had their occupation recognized under Anglo-American law.
Following passage of the Dawes Act, most of the Navajo families were allotted individual 160-acre plots in areas in which public domain land was available. Most of the public domain land remaining at this time was in the southern part of the original Ramah Navajo area of which most were lava land, making grazing and farming difficult for the Navajos. The Ramah Navajo Band were progressively pushed southeastward away from major water resources toward relatively infertile and inhospitable land, where they now, for the most part, reside. Nevertheless, most Ramah Navajo families moved south to their new land.
The few areas of public domain that were left were withdrawn from homestead entry in 1941 and were placed under the control of the Federal government through the Taylor Grazing Act. This control sharply curtailed non-Navajo use of public domain land, and the exterior boundaries of the Ramah Navajo area began to take shape. The new land was not fertile enough to sustain the same level of farming previously enjoyed; there was less plentiful grazing land for livestock; and families were again separated and dispersed. Virtually no legal title to land for the Ramah Band was acquired until 1920. Only a few individual Indian allotments were then titled, but the land was interspersed between privately-owned land, state lands, and public domains, further complicating the already tenuous Ramah Navajo position.
In the 1920's, a crises over land for the Ramah Band had reached such intensity, that Bidagaa, the son of Many Beads now the Ramah Band headman traveled to Washington, D.C. with other Navajo leaders, such as Chee Dodge, from the main Navajo reservation, including Franciscan missionaries to address the land issue, but to no avail.
The forced livestock reduction following the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, was a further setback, again reversing fortunes of the local community with nothing offered to offset the adverse impact on their primary livelihood.
This same year, Senate Bill 2531 was introduced to create a land base for the Ramah Band, but the bill did not pass the Senate floor. Between 1930 and 1940, the Federal government leased lands on behalf of the Ramah Band in the Ramah area. However, non-Indian ranchers and settlers petitioned to have the land opened up for sale, and the Government consented. As a result, the New Mexico and Arizona Land Company began selling off large quantities of land, some of this land was leased by Ramah Navajos. By this time, the Ramah Band were becoming aware of the importance of engaging the non-Indian “system” in order to protect their rights and interests, and assure their very survival.
The Ramah Band appealed to the United Pueblo Agency of the BIA to find a way to secure the land. Finally arrangements were made where on August 28, 1944 the Pojoaque Pueblo purchased 28,886.16 acres (Section 1 to 23 including T8N,R14W Twps. 7 & 8, R15W) and the Piccuris Pueblo purchased 26,726.28 acres (Section 25, 27, 29, 31, 33 & 35) for the Ramah Navajo Band at $2.00/acre from the NM and AZ Land Company (total acres 55,612.44 acres). This land was leased by the Pueblo to the Ramah Band at .08 cents per acre. Final arrangements were made to purchase the land through the Navajo Tribe, on behalf and for the sole use of the Ramah Band of Navajos. (In the early 1960's, the Navajo Tribal administration of Chairman Raymond Nakai determined that all past purchases of land by the Tribe would be governed by the Tribe. Even up to the present time, this has presented difficulties for the Ramah Navajo community in terms of developing and using tribal land).
In 1980, Public Law 96-333 (13,385 acres) and in 1983 Public Law 97-434 (4,807 acres) declared title of a total of 18,192 acres of Federal lands to be held in trust by the United States for the Ramah Band of the Navajo Tribe.
Ramah Navajo Chapter:
In 1922, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began recognizing Navajo chapters. In 1923, the BIA formally established the Navajo Tribal Council. The Navajo Nation Chapters were established in 1930 and introduced to the Ramah Navajo community in 1942. However, the Ramah Navajo Chapter was not recognized as a political subdivision of the Navajo Nation until 1955.
The Ramah Navajo Band was never sanctioned under the BIA’s Eastern Navajo Agency in Crownpoint, N.M., although the Navajo Nation sometimes placed the Ramah Band under that agency in the late 1920's. However, agency officials visited the Ramah area infrequently, and the distance and traveling difficulties made Ramah Navajo trips to Crownpoint a rare event.
In 1934, the six separate Navajo agencies were merged into one “Navajo Service” with headquarters in Window Rock, AZ. The Ramah Band felt neglected by this central reorganization. This tenuous relationship created feelings of unhappiness and neglect which prompted Ramah Navajo people to
petition for transfer of their jurisdiction.
In July 1941 a delegation of Ramah Band lead by Charlie Coho had a meeting with the General Superintendent of United Pueblo Agency and in March 1942 the Ramah Band were placed under the jurisdiction of the United Pueblo Agency, which eventually resulted in their being assigned to various agencies for federal services. At one time Ramah was under the Zuni Agency. A similar sense of neglect resulted from the early Ramah Bands experience with the Navajo Tribal Council starting in 1939. No consideration was given by Council in Window Rock, at that time, to matters with regard to Navajos living outside the reservation.
Finally the Ramah Navajo community got its own BIA agency in 1972. Ramah Navajo has been under the Southwest Regional Office (formally Albuquerque Area Office) along with the 19 pueblos, including the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apace Tribes and was never under the Navajo Area Office.
While the Navajo Nation and other Navajo chapters are served by the Bureau’s Navajo Area Office, Ramah Navajo is the only chapter of the Navajo Nation with its own BIA Agency. Because the Ramah Navajo Chapter operates as a local governing tribal body and because it is the only chapter of the Navajo Nation with the Southwest Regional Office, a government-to-government relationship has evolved over time between the Ramah Navajo Chapter and the BIA that is unique to this one Navajo community. Historically, the Ramah Navajo Chapter has been treated by the BIA as a “tribal governing body” for purposes of grant and contract programs administered by the BIA and Indian Health Services.
Currently, the Ramah Navajo Chapter provides local governance and services revolving around the Ramah Band of Navajo land base and livestock, including other services such as Real Estate, Natural Resources/Agriculture, Law Enforcement, Community Resources, Facilities Management, Property & Procurement and Administration through contracts with the BIA under the Self-Determination Act.
Since 1986, the Ramah Navajo Chapter successfully contracted programs for a number of services previously operated by the BIA. The programs provided are entirely separate from Navajo Nation programs offered on the Navajo Reservation by the Nation for its other chapters. All contracts currently operated by the Ramah Navajo Chapter are considered “mature” pursuant to the 1988 Amendments to the Indian Self-Determination Act. This long-standing relationship between the Chapter and the BIA has been endorsed by the Navajo Nation Council, most recently by Resolution CJY-61-94. This level of contracting authority is also in accord with the Navajo Nation Law, 26 N.N.C., Navajo Nation Local Governance Act, which was enacted in 1998. This act recognizes governance at the local level by delegating more governmental authority to the individual Navajo Nation Chapters.
The mission of the Ramah Navajo Chapter is to foster the well being of the people and promote growth of the community through the continued development of self-determination efforts. The Chapter operates numerous community service program and works for the development of a self-sufficient community.
Currently, Ramah Navajo is one of 110 chapters (local government) that make up the larger Navajo Nation. Because of the Ramah Bands geographic separation from the main Navajo Tribe, the Band has historically been ignored by the Tribe and Navajo Service in Window Rock. As a result, the Ramah Band of Navajo people have taken their welfare into their own hands and related to the Navajo Tribe in a semi-autonomous fashion and have established a direct government-to-government relationship with the federal government. The Ramah Navajo Chapter bears exclusive responsibility, with no assistance from the Navajo Nation, for providing educational, health, social and community services for the Ramah Navajo people.
Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc.:
Prior to 1942, there were no continuous local educational facilities for the Ramah Navajo people. In 1943, a BIA day school was constructed by community members in Mountain View, New Mexico. This day school provided one teacher for the first through the third grades. (After the third grade, the students were sent to an off-reservation boarding schools in Albuquerque, Wingate, Inter-Mountain, Riverside and other areas). When the local day school became overcrowded, consolidation with the public school occurred which was established in 1954 in the village of Ramah. Although plans to enlarge the day school facility had been made, the non-Indian residents in the village of Ramah requested that a dormitory be built in Ramah. Despite a very strong opposition by the Ramah Navajo community, a BIA dormitory was built in 1955 in the village for the Navajo children to attend that public school. This dormitory replaced the day school in Mountain View. For the next thirteen years the Ramah Navajo community students had to attend the Ramah village public school.
In 1968, the public school in the village of Ramah was condemned and closed. The Gallup-McKinley County School District School Board claimed that low enrollment prevented the operation of a new high school in Ramah village. But the enrollment of Navajo students inevitably dropped because the BIA did not expand the dormitory space and the County school board did not expand the bus line. Ramah Navajo parents were again forced to send their children to schools far away from the community – to Gallup, Grants and Albuquerque and even outside the state. Thus, not only were they denied any voice in the education of their own children, they were even denied the right of seeing their children who went away to boarding school for months at a time.
On August 05, 1968 at 2:00 p.m. the DNA (Navajo Legal Service Program) filed a lawsuit against the Gallup McKinley Schools district to keep the school open on behalf of the Ramah Navajo community. This lawsuit was known as Ben Jose v. Gallup-McKinley County School District. The Plaintiffs were Isabelle Jose, Kee Yazzie Maria and Janie Pino. DNA claimed that in closing the school, the school board must have known that it was exiling a significant number of Navajo children to off-reservation public schools or BIA boarding schools – and thus greatly increasing Navajo student dropout rates. In 1969, the Ramah Navajo community lost its lawsuit and the school remained closed.
This was a crises the Ramah Navajo people revolted against in 1970. The Ramah Navajo Band have enjoyed strong, progressive, independent, and determined leadership. When faced with obstacles limiting educational opportunities for their children, they formed a non-profit corporation, the Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc., (RNSB). On February 06, 1970, after lengthy meetings between the Ramah Navajo Chapter, then DNA Attorney, Mr. Mike Gross and DNA Director, Leo Haven, the Ramah Navajo community through the Ramah Navajo Chapter, established the RNSB and elected a Board of Trustee. This motion was made by Ms. Rose Henio and was seconded by Mr. Leo Narrcisco Martine with 44 in favor and 0-opposed. The newly established school board were Mr. Juan Martine, President; Bertha Lorenzo, Vice-President; Bessie Begay, Secretary; Chavez P. Cohoe, Member; and Sam Martinez, member. No one else stood up for the Ramah Navajos in this fight for its own school. Not the Navajo Nation, nor any Council committee or division. This effort was achieved alone by the community and set a stage for Indian self-determination efforts. On February 10, 1970, RNSB was incorporated in the State of New Mexico as a private, not-for-profit corporation to provide education, job training, health, and social services for the Ramah Navajo people.
The new Board went almost immediately to Washington, D.C. on February 25, 1970 with then DNA attorney Mike Gross and Don Olson with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation to request for funds by making personal contacts with the New Mexico Congressman, Ed Forman, NM Senator Joseph Montoya, Senator Walter Mondale, Senator George McGovern, aides to Senator Edward Kennedy and many others.
The Board members also met with the BIA officials to outline plans for the school. It was during this meeting where there were pressures and counter- pressures on the BIA and at which time Ms. Bertha Lorenzo stated that “We have been waiting since 1920. We want our children back home...we won’t leave this building until we get a definite commitment of support from the BIA.” Support of the BIA came that same day in form of letter from Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Mr. Louis Bruce. After three days in Washington, the board members traveled to New York to make proposals to private foundations.
On April 04, 1970, a letter of intent was received from the BIA-Washington office to provide funding of approximately $368,068.00 for 167 students and included three additional years of funding. On April 07, 1970, the Board members met with Walter Olsen, BIA Albuquerque Area Office Director where the Bureau were informed of what was needed, such as a building, office space, equipment, etc. A surplus trailer was provided for office space.
On April 21, 1970, the Board members made a return trip to Washington, D.C. and on April 22, 1970 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Mr. Louis Bruce and RNSB signed the Indian Education Program School Contract which resembled an Indian Peace-treaty signing ceremony. On June 06, 1970 an additional amount of $15,000 was received from Edward Elliot Foundation in New York for development of a summer program. After days of negotiations, they received a Congressional appropriation to start Ramah Navajo High School at the old public school in Ramah which was previously closed. Classes were held in army surplus tents until the school was renovated.
On September 12, 1970, the Ramah Navajo High School was dedicated and is the first Indian controlled school in the country. A telegram was sent by President of the United States, Mr. Richard Nixon that stated: “the establishment of this school as the first Indian controlled Junior-Senior high school in the country represents an important new direction in Indian Education which my administration will actively encourage.” New Mexico Congressman Ed Forman presented the U.S. Flag which flew over the Capitol to the RNSB President, Mr. Juan Martine. In addition, the new Board also started immediately to outline plans for a new school to be constructed and in 1973 after heavy lobbying efforts, Congress appropriated funds for the new school construction at Pine Hill.
In 1974, a new high school, elementary, and gymnasium buildings were completed in Pine Hill, New Mexico (20 miles southeast of the Ramah village). A kindergarten building was completed in 1976 and the library/media center were built in 1980. In 1989 a new middle school and multi-purpose building were constructed and staff housing units were completed in 1995.
The RNSB has been operating for more than 30 years, has grown considerably to where it now encompasses numerous programs and facilities: Early childhood programs such as the Birth-to-Five program, the Family and Education Program (FACE), the Day Care Center and the Head start program, a football and track stadium, a school farm with a fair ground and rodeo arena, the Pine Hill Health Center which was recently expanded by a 10,000-square-foot addition.
Pine Hill Schools provides educational services to almost 600 students in K-to-12. Since its first graduating class in 1971, the Pine Hill Schools has graduated more than 600 students through the 2000-2001 school year.
Pine Hill School is fully accredited both by the State of New Mexico and the North Central Association Commission on Schools (NCA). All the course offerings at the school meet the state of New Mexico standards. Above and beyond the state requirements, the Board of Trustees approved additional courses whereby a student must have two (2) additional units to graduate from Pine Hill then students in New Mexico public schools. In addition to the standard requirements in English, social studies, math, science, and physical education, students are required to take the Navajo language course.
RNSB is recognized as a model for the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, passed by Congress in 1975 as Public Law 93-638. The RNSB provides a wide range of services to the community through contracts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Self-Determination Act and the Indian Health Services.
The Ramah Navajo Chapter and RNSB paved the way in Indian Self-Determination programs by being the first Indian community to have an Indian-controlled contract school in the United States. Today, its facilities at Pine Hill accommodate almost 600 students from the head start program through the 12th grade. Radio station KTDB-FM, the first Indian-controlled radio station in the country, is a National Public Radio affiliate and provides a vital communication like with tribal members. It features a wide variety of informational and cultural programming.
The accomplishments of the Ramah Navajo community continue to serve as a model for self-determination for tribes throughout the United States, including other Navajo communities.