Russell Means’ all-but-forgotten Silicon Valley connection

The recent obituaries of one-time American Indian Movement leader Russell Means naturally included a list of the protests he participated in, including at  the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mount Rushmore and Alcatraz.

Little was written (in fact nothing as far as I could see) about one demonstration that has particular resonance in Silicon Valley and the tech world.

Means, who died Monday at age 72, was a leader of the American Indian Movement during the group’s armed occupation of a Fairchild Semiconductor fab on the Navajo reservation in 1975.

It was easily one of Silicon Valley’s most dramatic chapters and one that I wrote about years ago, after a visit to the abandoned plant. I’ve posted that story here.

Fairchild, the semiconductor company that started the semiconductor industry, was looking for cheaper labor markets in which to manufacture its chips.

The federal government was offering subsidies to open plants on reservations, where unemployment was crushing community and families. So rather than send the work to Taiwan, Malaysia or China, Fairchild in 1969 opened a plant in Shiprock, N.M., and put 1,000 Navajos to work.

Initially, the move was seen as a win-win.  But that wouldn’t last. As I wrote in my May 200o story in the Mercury News’ SV magazine:

Within a year, Business Week honored plant manager Paul Driscoll with a corporate citizenship award for his cultural sensitivity.

“There were so many of us that worked so hard to prove that these people were no different than anybody else, ” says Driscoll, 69, who was in Shiprock from 1967 to 1973. “It was something that no matter what happened, there was a part of me in there.”

Within three years, Vice President Spiro Agnew hosted a Washington, D.C. summit at which Fairchild representatives met with other business leaders to explain how to bring industry to reservations.

“Then, ” says Fred Hoar, Fairchild’s top PR man at the time, “the whole thing blew up.”

Before dawn on Feb. 24, 1974, two AIM members walked up to the Fairchild plant and told the guard they had car trouble. He let them into the building and they took him hostage, letting other protesters in.

The activists held the plant for a week while they negotiated with Fairchild. Eventually, Fairchild issued an ultimatum: Leave the plant by Fairchild’s deadline or the company would walk away and close the plant for good.

The protesters didn’t leave. And Fairchild did close the plant.

 

 

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