What America Looked Like: The Struggles of the Navajo Nation in 1972


Images from one of Arizona's reservations in the early 1970s, compiled from the DOCUMERICA series in The National Archives

With camera in hand, photographer Terry Eiler ventured into Arizona's stark northeast corner in 1972. Hired by the Environmental Protection Agency, he was instructed to document how much the nation's growing environmental concerns were impacting the Navajo community -- a society that was often missed on the country's radar.

His images reveal a people who valued kinship and who had one noble -- and seemingly simple -- goal: the protection of a deeply-rooted culture.

But it's also clear that Eiler found long-perpetuated hardships and a decisive resistance to most of modernity.

Looking through the gallery above, we see that the standards of living in the 1970s were low, and that many Navajo families were struggling to make ends meet. Although the mining of coal and uranium was a substantial source of income for the tribe during the second half of the twentieth century, Navajo miners often worked in dangerous conditions -- and for very low wages. 

Still, uranium extraction would soon be prohibited due to environmental contamination, and the market for coal would decline as well (although it's currently still the most significant source of revenue for the Nation). At the time of Eiler's visit, though, the unemployment rate in the Navajo Nation was around 32 percent. And an "above average" household was more or less one that had four walls and a roof -- running water and electricity were considered rare luxuries.

Forty years later, the Navajo nation finds itself in a similar -- and equally challenging -- situation.

A 2011 statement from the Navajo Division of Natural Resources reported the Nation's poverty rate at 37 percent with incomes well below federal guidelines. Almost half of the Navajo population is unemployed. But, as a 2010 report notes, the unemployment rate fails to take into account the Nation's "strong underground economy" -- which includes self-employed arts and crafts vendors and those who work outside of the reservation. Still, 38 percent of households lack electricity and running water; 86 percent do not have natural gas service. And in addition to these alarming figures, the Nation is experiencing an educational drought: high school students are dropping out in large numbers.

What's unfortunate is that few people seem to pursue these problems, and even less are aware of their existence. The Navajos have beautiful and unique traditions to offer -- not to mention a history that's longer than the rest of the country. But their community is endangered, and barely anyone is paying attention.

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Madeleine Kruhly writes and produces for The Atlantic.

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