From Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez (Dutton Caliber, 2011), Kindle Loc. ~1079:
Father, working at the trading post, learned that families all over the reservation and the Checkerboard were devastated by the massacre of their livestock. Any family with more than a hundred head of sheep and goats was subject to the “reduction.” The number of animals killed varied on a sliding scale, depending on how big each herd was. Horses and cattle were also killed, but their deaths were more humane. They were shot rather than burned.
The shocked families warned one another not to protest. There were rumors of arrests.
A historical perspective on the politics of this disaster doesn’t soften the blow still felt by the families who were deprived of their livelihood. The program may have been well intentioned, but like many other political decisions, the results proved disastrous.
It was during the Great Depression, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, was president. His legislative agenda, the “New Deal,” initiated many programs and public-works projects designed to help employ the needy. The disastrous livestock reduction might never have occurred if four things had not come together.
First, reservation and Checkerboard land, aggressively grazed by livestock, was less productive than it had been. Sheep were the primary animals raised, and they graze close to the ground, often killing the roots of plants. The dust bowl in the southwestern Great Plains had created a more serious problem than the problems on Navajo land, but still, overgrazing was then under the microscope of public awareness. As John Collier wrote: “The Navajo reservation is being washed into the Boulder Dam reservoir.” This government project, begun in 1931, is now known as the famous Hoover Dam.
Second, the overgrazing coincided with a federal New Deal push for a huge park to be created on Navajo land. The proposal, first made in 1931 by Roger Toll, died, but was renewed when Roosevelt was elected. People argued that the park would create jobs, but it would also absorb land needed for grazing Navajo livestock. The National Park Service decided that the Navajos could continue to live on the parkland, but they would have to retain their “quaint” ways of life, continuing to raise sheep and implementing no improvements. This would do nothing to relieve the already overgrazed conditions. It was driven home to officials that fewer animals would mean fewer demands for grass.
Third, John Collier, the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, felt pressured to do something to rehabilitate Navajo grazing lands. He opposed the Navajo National Park, but proposed a stock reduction program as the solution to the overgrazing problem.
And fourth, Collier also promised to expand the land area of the reservation in return for the reduction in livestock. He wanted to incorporate lands already used by the Navajo for grazing, making their stewardship official. This would include at least some of the Checkerboard Area. The idea seems somewhat contradictory, since with more land, more animals could be supported, but the land was, by then, so poor that Collier felt a livestock reduction would still be in order.
As planned, Collier’s recommendation for reservation expansion lessened the vehemence of Navajo objections to his proposed stock reduction. The stock reduction proposal passed. The Bureau of Indian Affairs jumped in, employing Navajos to execute the reduction mandate. In an attempt to make up for the diminished income from their liquidated livestock, the government also promised the Navajos an education that would lead to jobs with various New Deal public-works programs.
But then John Collier proposed the “Indian Reorganization Act,” a proclamation of “cultural freedom” for Indians which basically proposed to make the various tribes into corporations administered by the United States government. The act was passed by the Pueblos but rejected by the Navajos. Still, Congress passed the act in 1934, leaving the future of the Navajos poorly defined in the eyes of the government.
Once the livestock massacre was completed, with the Navajo sheep population having been reduced from a high of 1.6 million in 1932 to only 400,000 in 1944, the promised geographical expansion failed to take place, although, to his credit, John Collier did fight to obtain more land for the reservation. The proposed national park was also defeated, a small blessing for those who kept sheep and other livestock. Only a few Navajos were given public-works employment. And the education program that was promised—preparing more Native Americans to work on the numerous public-works projects—did not materialize for the members of the Navajo tribe, the tribe that had rejected John Collier’s Indian Reorganization Act.