Saturday, March 11, 2017

The role of Navajo women in the early semiconductor industry

I learned that from 1965-1975 the Fairchild Corporation’s Semiconductor Division operated a large integrated circuit manufacturing plant in Shiprock, New Mexico, on a Navajo reservation. During this time the corporation was the largest private employer of Indian workers in the U.S. The circuits that the almost entirely female Navajo workers produced were used in devices such as calculators, missile guidance systems, and other early computing devices. [...] How and why did the most advanced semiconductor manufacturer in the world build a state of the art electronics assembly plant on a Navajo reservation in 1965? The short answer is: cheap, plentiful, skillful workers, and tax benefits. A 1969 Fairchild News Release explains that the plant was “the culmination of joint efforts of the Navajo People, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A), and Fairchild.” Navajo leadership helped to push this project forward; Raymond Nakai, chairman of the Navajo Nation from 1963 to 1971, and the self-styled first “modern” Navajo leader, was instrumental in bringing Fairchild to Shiprock. He spoke fervently about the necessity of transforming the Navajo as a “modern” Indian tribe, and what better way to do so than to put its members to work making chips, potent signs of futurity that were no bigger than a person’s fingernail? [...]

The idea that Navajo weavers are ideally suited, indeed hard-wired, to craft circuit designs onto either yarn or metal appeals to a romantic notion of what Indians are and the role that they play in U.S. histories of technology.

This experiment in bringing the high tech electronics industry to the Navajo Reservation at Shiprock ended abruptly. In 1975, protesters associated with the American Indian Movement occupied and shut down the plant, demanding better conditions for workers. Indeed, the industry had experienced a slow down and some workers had been laid off. Though this was part of a national trend and not unique to the Shiprock plant, given the national social context of protest against racism and civil rights violations, it is not surprising that this occupation followed on the heels of AIM’s stand-off at Wounded Knee and the occupation of Alcatraz in California. The protesters viewed the plant as a continuation of the exploitation of native people, and they were correct that the Shiprock area had suffered from economic hardship for many years, hardship that was directly related to the long-standing disempowerment and impoverishment of the Navajo. It was difficult for them to perceive these layoffs as anything but more of the same. The protesters left after a week, but by then Fairchild had already decided to close the plant permanently, focusing instead on its operations in Asia.

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