Arizona Memory Project Preserves Navajo Times' Beginnings

Published: Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 12:53pm
Updated: Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 6:30pm
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MARK BRODIE: The Navajo Times newspaper is publishing news right now in the midst of a crisis for its people, as the Navajo Nation has seen some of the highest infection rates of COVID-19 in the country. But the paper began back in the 1950s as something very different. And now, the earliest years of the paper are being digitized as part of the Arizona State Library's Arizona Memory Project. To learn more about it, our co-host Lauren Gilger spoke with the paper's CEO and publisher, Tom Arviso, Jr. and the State Library's Sativa Peterson. Arviso actually started at the paper as an intern in 1983, and he told us the paper's evolution from a tribe-owned newsletter to the paper it is today has been a long time coming.

TOM ARVISO, JR.: The Navajo Times itself started really back in like 1958. It was a newsletter that was started among the, actually the Bureau of Indian Affairs and members of the Interior Department, as well as from the Navajo Nation. But they wanted to have a communications source, like a newspaper, that could actually serve as a communication source amongst all of the people on the reservation, but also to have a vehicle to send news to all of the students that were away from the reservation during the school year, as well as people who live off the reservation. It was like a newsletter for a long time. And then in August of 1960 — August 4, actually, of 1960 — is when it actually became a real newspaper. It was printed on newsprint. It was a tabloid-sized newspaper and cost 10 cents, first issue. And so that's how it started.

LAUREN GILGER: So Sativa, you're digitizing the first few years of this paper, the earliest years here. Give us a sense of what you see in those original papers.

SATIVA PETERSON: Right. So what we've done is we've digitized the issues of the Navajo Times for about five years, so from 1959 to 1963. So, you know, during those years, of course, it's after World War II. Navajo Nation is paying a lot of attention to self-determination and infrastructure — including health care, education, economic development. And so these are the stories that are covered in these first five years of publication. The paper was very successful in those early days. It was hoped that it would increase communication and help spread information to tribal members across the reservation, and it went from being published monthly to, under less than a year later, it was then being published twice monthly. And then by 1961, it becomes a weekly.

GILGER: And Tom, this paper began as a tribal entity, right? But now you're an independent paper. Can you talk us through that evolution?

ARVISO: Sure. From 1960 all the way to 2004, it was funded by the Navajo Nation government. Jan. 1 of 2004 is when we actually began operating as an independent newspaper, but also as an independent business. But for the longest time, when it was under the Navajo Nation government, you know, we had issues with the free press. You know, a lot of censorship issues. When I came back in 1988, and I actually became the editor of the paper, I had a lot of run-ins with tribal government officials over the content of our newspaper because I believe in free press. Always have. And so we pushed for making sure that our stories were accurate. They were fair. They were balanced. And we, and our ethics were really strong. And as a result, we had a lot of run-ins with government because basically the government, when they fund your newspaper or any other media outlet, they sign your checks. So they should have a right to dictate what should and shouldn't be in your newspaper. Our tribal council realized that we needed to have the newspaper separate in order to really make sure that we had a free press. And so I was able to get their support. We ran a resolution in front of our council in 2003. They voted 66-to-one to allow us to become a for-profit corporation and separate us from the Navajo Nation government, from leadership, from their control, and to also operate as an independent business.

GILGER: And Sativa, we've had you on The Show before to talk about the Arizona Memory Project and about some of the historic newspapers in the state that you've brought into it. So, how does the Navajo Times fit into this, and why do you think it was important to include it? 

PETERSON: Well, I really wanted to represent the Navajo Nation's rich heritage and make these first five years of the paper accessible. You know, throughout its history, the newspaper collection — we didn't collect just big, daily newspapers from a couple of the most populous cities. But really, the collection does show the scope of Arizona's diversity. We have tribal nation newspapers, papers with specific political or ethnic or cultural perspectives. I've been reading a lot of these issues in the last few weeks, and it's so interesting. They, of course, have issues of stewardship of native lands owned by the U.S. government, stories that still affect Arizona today. Requests for additional voting places on tribal lands, dedication of a hospital opening in Gallup. And then, of course, they also have photographs of the Navajo Nation fair and photographs of young graduates from Window Rock High School in 1962. And I've been thinking a lot about this just in the time that we're living in right now. You know, that this is a pretty difficult time on the Navajo Nation. And I really want to just share my sympathy to the Navajo people during this time. They're experiencing a loss of elders in their community, which I think results in a loss of shared memory and even to some extent a loss of that cultural heritage. So it's not lost on me as I've been reading through these issues, you know, that as I am looking at a young person graduating in 1962, that that young person now is a community elder who could be quite vulnerable. So it really brings this work full circle for me that preserving these newspapers is just one small piece of that history.

GILGER: So I want to turn to you lastly then, Tom, and talk about just that which Sativa just brought up. In light of what's happening right now on the Navajo Nation, it seems as if a paper like the Navajo Times is more important than ever. 

ARVISO: Oh yeah. And we had an editorial meeting this morning. And I was talking to my editorial staff, my reporters and my photographers, because they're the ones that are really out there on, out on the front line, going out into the communities and talking to our elders, talking to the EMTs, to our tribal leaders. They're the ones that are getting the stories about what is happening out in our communities. And I said, "You know what, you guys are doing a great job. Your work is so important because it makes a difference." And it really does. I mean, I think now we're just like any small town newspaper. When you get something like a real catastrophe or something like what's happening with this virus, having that connection with your hometown, with the local people is more important than ever before because you're the ones that are affected by what's happening in your area. You know the people. You lived with them, you talked to them, you related to them. And so that's why I think our newspaper is so important right now and what we do.

GILGER: Alright. We'll have to leave it there. Tom, Sativa, thank you very much. 

PETERSON: Thank you.

ARVISO: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

GILGER: Tom Arviso, Jr. is the CEO and publisher of the Navajo Times, and Sativa Peterson is the news content program manager for the State of Arizona Research Library, which just digitized the first editions of the Navajo Times as part of the Arizona Memory Project.

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