History of Ramah Navajo

“To Make a Life of Our Own”

The Historical Case for the

Ramah Band of Navajos

The People comprising the Ramah Band of Navajos — Tl’ ohchini Dine’e the People of the Place of Wild Onions – have arrived in the 21 st century intact, proud and independent. Having overcome a century of traumatic history that began with their ancestors perched on the precipice of extinction, followed by expropriation by foreign settlers of their ancestral lands and then decades of neglect by the institutions of federal and tribal government, the Ramah Navajos made their mark in the last three decades of the 20th century by taking control of their own destiny – beginning with the establishment of the first Indian community school governed by an all-Indian, locally-controlled school board.

From the 1970s to the present, the Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc., has capitalized on its status as a self-governing 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation by procuring millions of dollars in direct federal and other funding for educational and social programs for its people. This began with the reconstruction and re-opening of the day school in the adjacent Ramah Village in 1970, continued with construction of the multi-million-dollar Pine Hill campus in the heart of the Ramah Navajo community under direct appropriations from the US Congress, and evolved into an advanced system of educational, social and health care programs uniquely tailored to the culture and needs of the Ramah Navajo People. The first of these developments were established well in advance of the groundbreaking federal legislation in 1975 that would lead to increased local governance by Indian communities across America, Public Law 93-638, The Indian Self-determination and Education Assistance Act- thus establishing Ramah Navajo at the cutting edge of the Indian self-determination movement.

In the 1980s and 90s, the Ramah Navajo Chapter – first recognized in 1955 as a political sub-unit of the Navajo Nation – followed suit, first in 1986 by invoking the provisions of Public Law 93-638 to directly contract for and administer several services previously operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and then in 1997 by forming its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation as an instrument for obtaining additional funding and implementing new initiatives in the community. Along with the history-making School Board, these social institutions have made Ramah Navajo the most successful of all 110 political sub-units (Chapters) of the Navajo Nation in proactively planning for and obtaining the resources needed to serve the needs of its people.

These feisty, determined and independent accomplishments will come as no surprise to any serious student of the historical and political circumstances confronted by the Ramah Navajo People. Dating from the time of the return to their ancestral homelands by the survivors of Hweeldi, the Long Walk of the 1860s that had removed hundreds of Navajo families from their homes and incarcerated them in the inhospitable plains of Bosque Redondo near Ft. Sumner in eastern New Mexico, the customary lands of the Ramah Navajos – Tl’ ohchini – were never included in the lands established for the Navajo Reservation in the Treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Navajo Tribe. Navajo occupancy of the lands to the north and in the vicinity of the current Village of Ramah was not legally recognized for many decades, and these lands were thus made available as “open range” for homesteading by non-Indian settlers. Mormon settlers began moving into the valley in 1876, and a series of land acquisitions by the settlers -legally recognized under American law – effectively pushed the Navajos onto the less fertile lands to the southeast.

In subsequent years, local federal agents authorized Ramah Navajos to procure quarter section allotments in the area, thus removing these allotments from open range status and protecting them from homesteading. In the 1940s, the Pojoaque and Picuris Pueblos purchased over 55,000 acres of land in the Ramah area and placed them in trust on behalf of the Ramah Navajos. The Navajo Tribe later compensated the Pueblos for these lands, thus securing these lands for Navajo occupancy and use for posterity. In 1980, Public Laws 96-333 and 97-434 declared 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, thus bringing the total Ramah Navajo land area to over 170,000 acres.

The Ramah Band of Navajo Indians was never sanctioned under the Eastern Navajo Agency headquartered at Crownpoint, New Mexico, although the newly formed Navajo tribal government sometimes placed the Ramah Band under that Agency in the late 19205. However, Agency officials visited the Ramah area only infrequently, and the distance and traveling difficulties made trips by Ramah Navajos to Crownpoint very rare events.

In 1934, the 6 separate Navajo Agencies were merged into a single ”Navajo Service,” with headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona. This centralization was even more unfavorable to the Ramah Navajos, leading to their petition to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to place the Ramah Navajo community under the jurisdiction of the United Pueblo Agency – a transfer that was successfully accomplished in March 1942 on the recommendation of Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier. In subsequent years, Agency jurisdiction over the Ramah Navajos was transferred variously to the Fort Defiance, Northern, Southern and Zuni Agencies.

In the various speeches, consultations and negotiations of his historic life, it was often the core theme and message of Ramah Navajo leader Chavez Coho, longtime member of the Navajo Tribal Council and co-founder and later President of the Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc., that it did not matter which federal or tribal agency had ”jurisdiction” over the Ramah Navajos – the result was always the same: near-total neglect and utter failure to deliver needed services to the Ramah Navajo community. It was this recognition by Mr. Coho and his fellow leaders that led to their bold moves in the late 1960s and early 1970s to take matters into their own hands, to establish local services and resources for their people, and to assert their effective independence – to the highest feasible extent – from the “jurisdiction” and control of the Navajo Tribe and of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In 1972, the Ramah Navajo community became the only Navajo Chapter to receive its own BIA Agency, which in turn was organized under the BIA’s Albuquerque Area Office (now “Southwest Regional Office”) of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, along with 19 Pueblo tribes and the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Tribes. As the only Navajo Chapter served by the BIA Southwest Regional Office, the Ramah Navajo community is totally unique in having a well established and mature government-to-government relationship with that office. The Ramah Navajo Community is also considered its own Service Unit under the Albuquerque Area Office of the Indian Health Service (IHS). Within these historic relationships, the Ramah Navajo Chapter has been treated by the BIA and the IHS as a “tribal governing body” for purposes of administering grant and contract programs.

The Ramah Navajo Chapter currently provides a variety of local government services under PL 93-638 contracts with the BIA, including real estate, natural resources and agriculture, law enforcement, community resources, facilities management, property and procurement, and administration. These services and programs are entirely separate from programs offered by the Navajo Nation to its other Chapters on the Navajo Reservation. All contracts currently operated by the Ramah Navajo Chapter are considered “mature” pursuant to the 1988 Amendments to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

The long-standing relationship between the Ramah Navajo Chapter and the BIA has been endorsed by the Navajo Nation Council, most recently pursuant to Resolution CJY-61-94. Ramah Navajo’s level of contracting authority is also consistent with the Navajo Nation’s Local Governance Act. 26 NNC, which was enacted in 1998 and which delegates new levels of governmental authority to individual Chapters of the Navajo Nation.

The federal government recognizes the Ramah Navajo Community as a separate group, the Ramah Band of Navajo Indians, which has allowed the Community’s institutions to apply directly for funding from various federal sources, such as Workforce Services and Title IV programs.

While the Ramah Navajos – now some 3,000-strong – value the heritage, culture, language and bonds of kinship they share in common with their fellow Navajos in other communities, they have evolved politically and institutionally beyond the need for direct jurisdiction, tight control and service by the central Navajo Nation government. This is particularly true in the field of educational services. Indeed, the Ramah Navajos have created the means for obtaining and focusing resources and services within their own community, whereas the Navajo Nation government has 109 other communities for whom the Nation is the primary provider of resources and services. It is only logical to observe that nothing can be gained, for either the central Navajo Nation institutions or for the Ramah Navajo community, by subsuming Ramah Navajo’s self-governance activities under the close supervision or control of the Navajo Nation.

Cultivated literally from scratch, the programs, facilities, funding and human resources of the Pine Hill Schools have evolved as a function of the Ramah Navajo Community’s longstanding relationship with the Albuquerque Area Office – now Southwest Regional Office – of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Most recently, this relationship has come to include the newly created Albuquerque Educational Line Office (ELO) under the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). Accompanying this relationship have been a number of formal connections with the State of New Mexico with respect to accreditation of the Schools and licensure of the teachers. Placing Ramah Navajo educational services under the Navajo Regional Office would require a whole new set of accreditation and licensure processes and relationships.

Over the course of the past four decades, the Navajo Nation has always supported the Ramah Navajo School Board in its efforts to run its own programs, and therefore RNSB and its programs are not, and have never been, directly controlled under the Navajo Nation’s Education Plan. RNSB has maintained high standards of accountability and compliance with the accreditation requirements of the State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, and the Nation has provided periodic monitoring for the purpose of reauthorizing RNSB’s activities, without intervention. The forced transfer of Ramah Navajo from Albuquerque to the Gallup ELO would imply the transfer of numerous historical and existing contracts, well beyond ISEP, involving tremendous loss in efficiency, violation of long-standing institutional relationships, and reduction in services to the Ramah Navajo People. With 40 years of institutional history, the Ramah Navajo School Board has developed a unique capacity to administer its own programs and – true to its founding vision – to educate its own people.

The Ramah Navajo People have come a long way on the road to self-determination and to establishing the capacity to govern and educate its own people. There is still a way to go on that road, and the best way to stay the course and to continue to make progress is to maintain the current institutional relationships that the community has forged with its tribal, federal and state partners.

Jeff Kiely

(RNSB Staff 1976-1984)

August 2009