From Calvin College to Navajo Chairman – Part II

From Calvin College to Navajo Chairman – Part II

This blogpost continues the story of Paul Jones. He had become connected to Christian Reformed Church in the early 1900s, as a boy and young man at the residential school and CRC mission in Tohatchi, NM. He had lived in New Jersey with a CRC missionary and his family, and he had attended the preparatory school of Calvin College (1917-1918). See Part I here. Part II focuses on Jones’s time as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council. In the cover image of this blogpost we see him in that role. President John F. Kennedy, seated at desk, is handing him a pen after signing a bill to authorize the Navajo Indian Irrigation and San Juan-Chama Reclamation Projects.


Information about Jones and his career increases from the 1930s on. In 1933, amid the Great Depression, Jones and his family returned to the Navajo Nation. He worked in Fort Defiance, Arizona, for the Emergency Conservation Work, a New Deal-era soil erosion program. He also was an interpreter for the Navajo Tribal Council and became known for his facility in Navajo and English. And he worked as a district supervisor in Piñon, New Mexico.

One of the traces of Jones’s time as a district supervisor I found is short letter from 1944. He wrote it to the superintendent of the Navajo Service in Kearns Canyon. Jones reported that Hopis were “trucking wood” from the region. He was not opposed to Navajos and Hopis taking wood with wagons and burros (likely for subsistence use) but protested the use of trucks to take larger amounts of wood (likely for commercial purposes).

In 1951, Jones and his family moved to the Navajo Nation’s seat of government at Window Rock, Arizona. There, Jones worked as a liaison officer between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. federal government. He regularly traveled to Washington, D.C., and to various states as an interpreter, and he represented the Navajo Nation at meetings with other Native nations.

Navajo Tribal Council meeting in 1951; Jones is not in the photo.

In 1955, the Navajo people elected Jones chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council. They chose him again in 1959. As the leader of his people, Jones focused on education and economic development. His training and education at Tohatchi, Calvin, and McLoughlin’s and his work in business and inter-governmental relations made him well-suited to this role.

News stories and scholarly studies provide context for Jones’s leadership. “All income from reservation resources is controlled by a 74-member council,” the Calgary Herald, a Canadian newspaper in an oil-rich province, explained in 1960. It is “elected by the tribe and headed by Paul Jones,” the story continued, depicting him as “a 65-year-old Navajo with the shrewdness of a big-city banker.” The story describes the sound of oil drilling, wheels on asphalt roads, and rock & roll music on radios. It notes the low levels of literacy in the Navajo Nation and efforts to build roads and schools and develop health and welfare programs. Jones also promoted dams for irrigation and power generation. The money for efforts like these came in part from the federal government, but also from Navajo resource development projects.

Jones giving an inauguration speech in 1959.

In his second inaugural address, in 1959, Jones said that “Divine providence” had made possible the “unexpected wealth” the Navajo were now earning from oil and other “natural resources not known to be there in our earlier history.” Native American leaders sometimes are categorized as either “traditional,” for trying to preserve old ways, or “progressive,” for encouraging their people to adapt to modern American life. Most Native leaders and ordinary folk did not easily fit such categories.

Jones was in favor of modern developments in education and the economy. “A truck is better than a horse,” he once remarked. His thinking was practical, as were his policy goals. He worried that federal financial support for Navajo Nation would disappear. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the federal government was trying to “terminate” “tribal status” of Native nations. He viewed resources such as oil as an alternative source of revenue to federal funds. It would provide means for social development and greater autonomy and self-sufficiency.

“We are not going to let our people starve,” Jones emphasized in 1956. “We will give [our people] as decent a living as we can within our power. That is the reason for the various projects, to get industry and drilling for gas and we are able to do this.” One of his successors framed this goal politically by insisting on referring to the “Navajo Nation,” implying sovereignty and autonomy, rather than Navajo Reservation.

“I can visualize ultimately a grid of power lines throughout Navajoland,” Jones said in 1956. He envisioned “electric power in Navajo dwellings and with the advent of such power, the acquisition of electrical appliances, including refrigeration.” Progress for his people, he suggested, would be “coupled with the further development of Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities.” Navajoland would vie with the big cities and suburbs of Arizona for influence.

If Jones’s goal of providing “a modern way of living” for his people sounds “progressive” and modern, it was. But Jones also was “traditional” in some aspects, notably in his goals of maintaining a strong Navajo community. He wanted to ensure that Navajo citizens could choose to stay on their homeland, rather than have necessity and federal termination policies drive them to seek work away from their homeland and scatter as a people.

In a two-part documentary in 1958 by the National Education Television series, “The Search for America,” Jones and other Navajo leaders discussed aspects of traditional culture giving way to modern ways.

Jones is featured in the documentary starting at about 21:00.

The filmmakers interviewed Jones and other Navajo Tribal Council members. Jones described both his own experience and those of “medicine men” recognizing how modern ways (e.g., medicine) improved on some traditional ways (YouTube at about 22:00). In this vein, he and other Tribal Council members worked to modernize hospitals. But he also spoke positively about the Navajo “Blessing Way,” healing songs and rituals. He explained that what he cherished most in life was education, contact with the outside world, and people from the outside world learning more about his people. He seems to have wanted a middle ground, where his people both incorporated modern ways and maintained aspects of their traditions. [For a summary of traditional and Christian religious practices among Navajo people today, see “Religion on the Rez”: here or here.]

Jones and the Navajo Tribal Council were aware of the dangers that came with development. These included injuries to workers, injuries to and illness of people who lived near oil rigs or mines, and degradation of the land. Much of his work as chairman was to win more profits for his people from partnerships involving energy and resource companies, the federal government, and the Navajo nation. He and his people would no longer accept long-standing practices of experiencing the damage from development, but seeing little of the profits. Navajo leaders and citizens would disagree over resource development and the damage it caused into the twenty-first century, as would other Native American nations (and Americans in general).

Jones revealing a dedicatory plaque, Navajo Tribal Park in Monument Valley, 1960.

In retirement, Jones continued to promote education. He become a professor at the recently started Navajo Community College (now Diné College) in Arizona.

The traces we have of Jones tell us little about his religious views over the course of his life. They suggest that he had an ongoing connection with Christian Reformed missions at Tohatchi and Rehoboth, in New Mexico, and that this connection changed the course of his life. As chairman he expressed support for medical missionaries and church run hospitals, perhaps in part reflecting his relationship with Lee Huizenga in the 1910s. It is not clear whether he was a member of a Christian church, Christian Reformed or otherwise.

In general, Navajo leaders recognized the place of the CRC among Navajo people. Shortly after Jones left office as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, in Window Rock, a Christian Reformed congregation started there. Its leadership was Navajo, and Jones’s successor as Tribal Council chairman, Raymond Nakai, spoke at the dedication of its new building in 1967.

Jones died in November 1971 at a hospital in Gallup, New Mexico. He was buried nearby in the Rehoboth Mission Cemetery, which was associated with the CRC. In a Deseret News story, the Navajo Tribal chairman Peter MacDonald said of Jones that he had always been “unquestionably devoted to the best interests of the Navajo people.”


William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.

The cover image for the blogpost is from the John F. Kennedy Library, Digital Identifier JFKWHP-1962-06-13-A. The image of the Navajo Tribal Council in 1951 is from the Truman Library: Oscar Chapman Scrapbook. 1951. Truman Library. Accession Number 2013-2018. All other images are part of the Heritage Hall collection.

In addition to the Acts of Synod and news stories, this blogpost draws from a chapter on Jones in Virginia Hoffman and Broderick H. Johnson, Navajo Biographies (Rough Rock, Ariz.: Rough Rock Demonstration School, 1970), to which Jones himself contributed; Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); Peter Iverson, ed., “For Our Navajo People”: Diné Letters, Speeches & Petitions, 1900-1960 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002); and, Peter Iverson, Diné: A History of the Navajos (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 2002).

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