It used to be that when Indians left the reservation to head into town they always seemed to get the short end of the stick. People would trust businesses to treat them fairly only to find out that the vehicle they bought was not what it was supposed to be, that there were problems with financing, repossession, and payments. In some cases because you live on the rez somewhere out in the sticks you could not get any credit because the area had been redlined—determined by off reservation businesses as an area where Indian people could not buy anything on time.
Natives had to be wary of how they exchanged money, getting taken or overcharged and not having any way to fight the bad business practices that lurked in the bordertowns.
During the time of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, an idea for a rural legal services was conceived to serve remote places where access to legal help was hard to find or non-existent.
On the Navajo Reservation a non-profit legal services group was set up to serve the needy based on income, it was called Dinébe’iiná Náhii?na be Agha’diit’ahii which means “attorneys who work for the economic revitalization of The People.” Some would just say it also meant “man who speaks for his people.”
DNA paid very low wages and some lawyers would volunteer their time and worked with Navajo Tribal Court Advocates to provide legal help to the reservation. Many of the lawyers were young and had a fierce outlook, carrying forward the attitude that change was coming. They made their presence known both on and off the reservation.
A part of this effort was community education and taking the lawyers out in the outlying areas. One place where this was done is a place called “Circle of Trees” or “Trees which are round about” in Navajo known as Teec Nos Pos, which is near the Four Corners area west of Shiprock.
Some time ago a lawyer, a graduate of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, came to work at the newly formed DNA Legal Services, to be a poor peoples lawyer. He went to Teec Nos Pos to speak with the people from the community there. He talked to them about the services DNA provided. Everything involving the bad business practices that affected the local people, particularly shady car dealers.
When he finished his talk, which was being translated by a Navajo tribal court advocate, several people began to speak. The interpreter said, "They want to know more." Thinking he had perhaps been too complex in describing the law, and that the novelty of a lawyer working for them might require some further explanation, he began to discuss the general plan for Navajo legal services.
The interpreter stopped him. "No, that's not what they're asking about. They want to know about you. Where do you come from? Do you have any brothers and sisters? Things like that."
He was stunned. He later said, "In all my work, never had anyone asked about me, personally. Professional talk and personal life were in different categories of reality. This was not only common American practice, but was emphasized in my legal training. I remember my feeling of shock and surprise. I was embarrassed. But I was also thrilled. I knew that these people were listening to me, not just to their lawyer, but to me as a human being. I loved it."
That young lawyer’s name was Al Taradash, one of the few truly good lawyers I have known who would get up and find his way to the police station with his bushy hair and tired face who would be there to ask what is going on with this situation? and say "I am his lawyer" and get things done.
I saw him not too long ago. He is older now and working for the all the Pueblos as their lead lawyer. I remember him at that time just being young and full of energy and with a small group of lawyers changed the way things were done in business dealings in the bordertowns around the rez. Seeing him set me to remembering this old friend this morning, a friend who helped bring some sense of justice to the rez.
Many young lawyers came and they brought their words of iron and did battle for the people and changed the way things were done. The Navajo Justice system owes much to these folks who left the city life to venture west to find a small office in a trailer and there listen to the troubles of those who came in.
When Navajos meet someone they want to get a sense of where in the universe this person comes from, his place in it and how he is tied to it, how he represents himself and his family no matter where he or she might come from. This brings an understanding that we are the same….one person knowing another…person to person….family to family.
This is how we got to know a young man who came offering help from his people to our people. Some say we lost the War on Poverty, but we know it’s not over and it has in common with shooting wars that we make friends we’ll never forget.
Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.