Richard Fowler Van Valkenburgh:
Friend of the Navajo People

"No white man has ever worked among us with greater devotion and understanding."
Navajo Tribal Council Resolution, August 6, 1957

PART I
by Mary VV McNamara

Richard Fowler Van Valkenburgh was born June 16, 1905, in Newark, Alameda County, California. He was the son of Hiram Phinney Van Valkenburgh and Florence Fowler, and the grandson of Civil War veteran Richard Barnes Van Valkenburgh and Minerva Phinney.

In 1922 Richard graduated from Compton Union High School, Compton, California, and between 1923 and 1928 was employed by Standard Oil and Richfield Oil Companies. In 1928 Richard began work in Archaeology as a student assistant with the Los Angeles Museum of History, Art and Science.

He developed a life-long interest in the Indians of Southern California and Arizona during his involvement in archaeological excavations in both these states. As a field assistant, he surveyed Chumash Indian Territory in Ventura County, California, and was in charge of a field party sponsored by Burroughs-Welcome Medical Foundation of London, England. This party investigated the relationship of the diet of the Santa Cruz Island Indians to dental conditions found in skeletal remains during excavations.

Richard started research in Navajo archaeology and ethnology in 1934. In 1938 he wrote A Short History of the Navajo People, and in 1941 the Bureau of Indian Affairs published his work Dine Bikeyah (The Navajo Country). Both these books are considered very valuable for reference purposes. Between 1938 and 1948 Richard wrote extensively for western magazines.

More than forty of his articles were published in Desert Magazine alone, and he had many others in Arizona Highways. Most important to Richard, in the course of his life, was his work for and with the Navajo people. He was first employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to conduct research on land problems, but resigned in 1942 to protest the stock reduction program and other policies that he could not accept and regarded as adverse to the welfare of the Navajos. Some years later, in 1951, Richard returned to the reservation to work on Navajo land claims for the Tribal Council. He was Chief of the Land Use and Surveys Section of the Navajo Tribe, and did a great deal to establish proof of the historical occupancy rights of the Hopi and Navajo Indians from earliest times.

In a Resolution and Memoriam issued at Window Rock, Arizona, at the time of his death, the Navajo Tribal Council listed this and other achievements in their behalf. Richard analyzed boundary line disputes, was influential in the Governmental decision to add lands to the Navajo Reservation when the Glen Canyon Dam was built, aided in preserving historic records and files of the Navajo Tribe, and brought about the establishment of a Navajo Park Commission for the preservation of Navajo antiquities. Throughout his extensive work on Navajo problems, he lived, ate, worked and slept among them, the Resolution states.

"He was dedicated to the dignity of man and the freedom of the individual, raising the confidence, faith and hope of the Navajos.. We the Navajo people resolve that the affection which we have for Richard F. Van Valkenburgh shall never die but shall be borne forever in theheart and memory of the tribe."

Richard died of a heart attack on June 19, 1957. At the time of his death he was working with the Navajo Land Claim, gathering material from elderly Navajos and the country itself to prove Navajo occupancy and use of much of the country surrounding the present Navajo Reservation. His unusual rapport with the Navajos proved most valuable in this work.

He is buried in the Navajo Cemetery at Fort Defiance, in an honored place next to the late leader of the Navajos, Chee Dodge. For ten years his grave was unmarked, but on Memorial Day, 1967, a large stone, cut by volunteer Navajo labor, was erected there. Many people attended the services, including Navajos who had worked with Richard. The Navajo Rangers, an organization he had founded, formed an uniformed honor guard. Richard Fowler Van Valkenburgh had three children, daughters Mary and Linda and a son, Richard, Jr.

(Continued next issue)

The information for this article came from Editha L. Watson, Anthropologist Aide, Navajo Parks and Recreation; an obituary in the Gallup Daily Independent, August 7, 1957; a Navajo Tribal Council Resolution dated August 6, 1957; and employment notes made by Richard himself.


Back to Summer 1998 Index