AIM Occupation of Fairchild Plant on Navajo Reservation

Activism plays a significant role in improving employment quality and longevity, but situations like the occupation of the Fairchild Plant on the Navajo Reservation causes people to question whether or not activism is the best method to achieve such goals.

In the early 1960s, unemployment on the Navajo Reservation hovered around 40% and Tribal leadership desperately tried to create jobs for Diné peoples. In 1964, Tribal chairman Raymond Nakai advocated for better economic development on the reservation and – hoping to attract outside investment – opened up the Navajo Nation to outside businesses. To further entice companies, the tribe offered $1 million toward development to any company willing to relocate. Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation responded to the offer and decided to build a plant in Shiprock, New Mexico and provide housing for tribal members who helped with construction. After its completion, Fairchild employed more than a thousand workers (the majority being female) and provided consistent jobs for ten years.

In the early 1970s, however, the country’s economy lagged, affecting companies like Fairchild. Many of the workers in Shiprock faced reduced paychecks or even termination. According to one Navajo account, the plant manager said, “This is a business venture, not a charitable activity.” The weakened economy combined with news of the plant’s financial solution wounded the community’s morale. The American Indian Movement (AIM) – an organization founded during the Civil Rights Era that fought for indigenous communities’ rights – heard about the situation and decided to intervene. Protestors including activist Russell Means came to Shiprock and laid siege to the plant on behalf of the underpaid and dismissed workers. The protestors demanded that Fairchild rehire the workers and restore their paychecks to pre-reduction rates. However, some local Natives considered this protest against the company dangerous and unnecessary.

Fairchild refused AIM’s conditions and let the tribal government handle the matter. However, the tribal government did not help overcome the impasse and the siege ultimately shut down the plant. Fairchild executives expressed frustration over how the tribe handled the situation and withdrew from the reservation altogether, relocating their operations to Korea. Some AIM supporters perceived this result as a victory, but locals recognized the great loss of employment opportunity alongside a damaged reputation for future incoming businesses on the Navajo Reservation. Even today, these consequential outcomes continue to have a harmful effect on Navajo employment.