Navajos Occupy Fairchild Plant

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Navajos Occupy Fairchild Plant

United States 1975


Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation was the largest employer on the Navajo Reservation in the 1970s. The tribal council actively courted industry to improve the employment situation of its people. Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the plant to protest the layoff and treatment of 140 Navajo workers. They objected to what they considered exploitation by Fairchild and demanded the rehiring of all 140 workers who had been laid off. AIM also had several other concerns related to conditions in both the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

Tribal leaders intervened minimally during the eight-day occupation of the plant. Their hope was that at the end of the siege, the company would continue to operate the plant. After the plant closed, an analysis found that the tribe and government had expended much more in keeping Fairchild in the area than the company had returned to the agencies or community.


  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1965: Power failure paralyzes New York City and much of the northeastern United States on 9 November.
  • 1969: Assisted by pilot Michael Collins, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin become the first men to walk on the Moon (20 July).
  • 1972: On 5 September, Palestinian terrorists kill eleven Israeli athletes and one West German policeman at the Olympic Village in Munich.
  • 1975: Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge launch a campaign of genocide in Cambodia unparalleled in human history. By the time it ends, with the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, they will have slaughtered some 40 percent of the country's population. Cambodia is not the only country to fall to communist forces this year: the pro-Western governments of South Vietnam and Laos also succumb, while Angola and Mozambique, recently liberated from centuries of Portuguese colonialism, align themselves with the Soviet Bloc.
  • 1975: U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft link up in space.
  • 1975: Two assassination attempts on President Ford in September.
  • 1978: Terrorists kidnap and kill former Italian premier Aldo Moro. In Germany, after a failed hijacking on behalf of the Red Army Faction (RAF, better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang), imprisoned RAF members commit suicide.
  • 1980: In protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter keeps U.S. athletes out of the Moscow Olympics.
  • 1985: In a year of notable hijackings by Muslim and Arab terrorists, Shi'ites take a TWA airliner in June, Palestinians hijack the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October, and fundamentalists take control of an Egyptian plane in Athens in November.
  • 1995: Bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, kills 168 people. Authorities arrest Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

Event and Its Context

The Navajo Invitation

The tribal council and tribal leader Raymond Nakai had taken pains to attract Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation and other industry to the reservation. Until Fairchild located a plant on the reservation, the Navajo had been badly in need of employment. Unemployment at that time was about 40 percent. Alcoholism was rampant among the unemployed. Unemployed Navajos often gathered at the trading posts to sell blankets and wool, but were otherwise idle. The Navajo Nation knew it needed to attract businesses that could guarantee jobs with futures. They wished to get away from mining and subsistence ranching or farming.

Beginning in 1963, the tribal leadership worked hard to bring industry to the area. With Nakai's persistence and leadership, the council issued a resolution 3 March 1964 extending an invitation to private investors "to develop the extensive natural and human resources of the Navajo Reservation." The document also suggested that assistance to relocating companies from the tribe would be forthcoming if substantial employment opportunities were made available to Navajo. The tribe upped the ante by earmarking $1 million of its assets for development.

Several companies took advantage of the program. Fairchild, attracted by the promise of cheap labor, had been the largest private employer to take advantage of the offer. At its peak some 1,200 Navajos worked for the company. Other companies including General Dynamics, Cardinal Plastics, Armex Corporation, and Westward Coach Corporation also opened facilities on the Navajo Reservation.

At the time of the siege, Fairchild had been operating in Shiprock for 10 years. The company had invested about $1 million to get the plant operational. They had significant help from the Navajo Nation, which constructed the plant. The facility was used to assemble integrated circuits. An estimated 470 Navajo worked at the plant. The weekly payroll was estimated at $55,000; typical wages were $85 per week. During this period, Fairchild had also helped to construct a 250-unit housing project.

Defense, Economy Prompt Layoffs

Neither Fairchild management nor the tribe had factored into the equation a slump in defense spending and a poor national economy beginning in 1970. "This is a business venture, not a charitable activity," said Paul W. Driscoll, the plant's manager. "We are here because it makes sense economically for us and for the Navajos." Fairchild officials acknowledged that the government provided job training, but pointed to a critical need for more education and management training.

Layoffs occurred at Fairchild, which was a nonunion plant, and at General Dynamics. The abrupt nature of the additional 140 layoffs in 1975 caused escalated bitterness and prompted AIM's involvement in what had been a local issue.

Members of AIM, about half Navajo but including no Fairchild employees, occupied the plant. The point of the strike was to register their objection to what they considered exploitation by Fairchild. AIM demanded that all 140 workers laid off be rehired. The action was also conducted to publicize and protest other local problems in both the Navajo and Hopi communities. AIM demanded a halt to strip mining and renegotiation of lease agreements with companies including Arizona Public Service Co., operators of the Four Corners power plant near Shiprock.

A day into the occupation, Fairchild executives stopped trying to negotiate and gave AIM a deadline for discontinuing the occupation. They left it to the tribe to get the AIM members off their property. Within hours of the missed deadline, local management handed out statements announcing the suspension of Shiprock operations.

Parting Shots

When the occupation ended, both AIM and Fairchild Semiconductor left Shiprock. Damage was incurred to the plant, company property, and inventory. Fairchild executives were upset at the way the tribe had handled the event. The Fairchild employees blamed intertribal politics. Peter MacDonald, who had replaced Nakai as Navajo tribal leader in 1970, had failed to either come to Shiprock or to contact Fairchild representatives during the eight-day seige. Local residents supported Nakai, which may have influenced the tribal council's approach to negotiating with the American Indian Movement (AIM). Local residents had, in fact, supported his successor in tribal elections. MacDonald promised AIM that the tribe would ask for employees to be rehired and that they would ask for an investigation of employment practices at the plant, including an audit of federal payments made to Fairchild. The tribal council also granted unconditional amnesty to those involved in the takeover.

There had been hopes within the community that the plant would reopen. With no assurance from the tribal leadership that this sort of action would never happen again, the plant remained closed. The protest over the loss of 140 jobs resulted in a loss of almost 500 jobs.

Russell Means, one of those AIM members who had occupied the plant, told The Navajo Times that Fairchild's departure was a forgone conclusion. "They [plant owners] were going overseas to Korea. They were leaving this area. They were leaving the Navajo Nation," he said. "Fairchild used that as an excuse and who got the blame? The victims."

The tribe's attempts to court new business to the plant were unsuccessful. The protest tainted Shiprock. Local residents, including former employees, were rightfully upset. Some resented AIM's actions, saying the group did not represent their views. Area business slowed significantly by as much as 60 percent according to some estimates. Some local businesses were forced to halt new construction or expansion. Investors that had planned to locate to the area went elsewhere.

John Trudell, AIM national chairman, called the event a success. It had ended peacefully. "Fairchild can no longer openly and quietly exploit Indian people," he said. Indeed, according to an Economic Development Administration analysis, the cost of creating jobs—both to the tribe and government—had been $5,672 per employee. The rate of return for these investments was a paltry 1 percent. According to author Peter Iverson, "Given the isolation of the Navajo country and the knowledge that the tribe would be less extravagant in its inducements to companies, company officials tended to shy away from locating on the reservation. In some ways, the closing of the Fairchild plant in Shiprock may have set the tone for this period."

Key Players

Anderson, Larry: Anderson was AIM national treasurer and one of the AIM leaders during the takeover of the Fairchild plant.

Curtis, Mercer E., Jr.: Curtis was the Fairchild Shiprock plant manager during its occupation by AIM.

Driscoll, Paul: A former Fairchild Shiprock plant manager, Driscoll had been recognized for his work on business development within the community for which he received an award in 1970 from Business Week.

Johnson, Fred: Member of the tribal council, Johnson acted as intermediary between the tribe and the AIM group during the Fairchild plant occupation.

MacDonald, Peter (1928-): A 1957 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, MacDonald was chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council at the time of the siege at Shiprock. He had been elected in 1970 as director of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity. Among his political deals, one in particular was struck that, in a roundabout way, gave AFLCIO union organizers entrée to organize on the reservation. Despite attempts to modernize the Navajo Nation, he was reportedly dismissed with the nickname "Peter MacDollars, Shah of the Navajo." Opinions about MacDonald within the community were extremely polarized.

Means, Russell Charles (1939-): A Lakota Sioux, Means was one of the 20 armed AIM protestors who occupied the Shiprock Fairchild plant for eight days in February 1975. To this day, Means contends the group was asked to take action by the Diné(Navajo) AIM. He has been taken to task for not mentioning his participation in this event in his autobiography. Means says he is no longer an AIM member.

Nakai, Raymond (1918-): Nakai was the tribal chairman initially responsible for attracting industry to the Navajo reservation. He served as Navajo Tribal Council chairman between 1963 and 1970. He is credited with helping to develop a variety of employment opportunities within the Navajo Nation, particularly for his efforts in attracting Fairchild to the reservation. Shiprock area residents backed Nakai in the 1970 tribal elections, but Peter MacDonald succeeded him.

Trudell, John (1947-): A Dakota Sioux, Trudell was the national chairman for American Indian Movement at the time of the occupation of the Fairchild Shiprock plant. He was first involved with the Indians of All Tribes organization during the native American occupation of Alcatraz Prison in California and, immediately after that event, he became active in AIM.



Benedek, Emily. The Wind Won't Know Me: A History of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Iverson, Peter. The Navajo Nation. Westport, CT:Greenwood Press, 1981.

Malinowski, Sharon, ed. Notable Native Americans. George H. J. Abrams, consulting editor and author of foreword. New York: Gale Research, 1995.

Weyler, Rex. Blood of the Land: The Government and Corporate War Against the American Indian Movement.New York: Everest House Publishers, 1982.


Atchison, Sandra D. "Letter from Shiprock." Business Week(15 September 1975).

Brenner, Malcolm. Review of "Where White Men Fear to Tread," by Russell Means. The Gallup Independent, (n.d.).

"Will Fairchild Really Pull Out of Shiprock?" Business Week Industrial Edition, Employment (17 March 1975): 28.


American Indian Movement Web Site. [cited 6 August2002]. <>.

Tohtsoni, Nathan J. "American Apartheid: Russell Means Defends His Case Against Navajo Nation Courts." The Navajo Times. 15 February 2001 [cited 6 August 2002].<>.

—Linda Dailey Paulson