Amidst a myriad of outsourcing by U.S. manufacturing companies to Asian countries, one University professor seeks to expose the “forgotten early history” of such practices.
Lisa Nakamura, professor of Screen Arts and Cultures and American Culture, has been investigating the work done for the Fairchild Corporation by native indigenous Navajo women during the 1970s. She presented some of her findings to about 30 students and faculty at the Science, Technology, Medicine and Society Colloquium Series as part of the LSA Winter Theme Semester, “Understanding Race.”
The Fairchild Corporation was a major producer of semiconductors that primarily employed Navajo women from the Shiprock Reservation in New Mexico at their assembly plant. At a time when companies were beginning to move production to Asian countries to avoid unionization and labor regulation, Fairchild “outsourced” to the Navajo reservation, which presented these women with financial benefits and fewer labor regulations.
“The company was looking for a way to rapidly upscale the product of integrated circuits in a cost effective way by taking advantage of these tax breaks,” Nakamura said. “The government was interested in getting light industry onto the reservation as part of a larger plan to take Navajo people off of public assistance by teaching them how to work in factories, hoping they would migrate to cities and leave their land.”
Nakamura said Navajo women were well suited for the type of labor that the Fairchild Corporation’s semiconductor assembly required.
“The way chips were made at this time were very much by hand,” Nakamura said. “Part of the reason that the Indians were understood to be ideal for this work is that Indian women were famous for their rug making and jewelry production. The thinking was that this was the same kind of thing.”
Nakamura’s research showed that the Shiprock plant had the lowest error rate for new semiconductors among all the Fairchild plants. While the Fairchild plant in San Rafael had a 40-percent error rate, the Navajo women recorded just 5-percent error.
But Nakamura’s research also revealed the factory’s negative impact on the Shiprock reservation.
“One of the complaints that workers at Fairchild had was that they didn’t have time to do any rug weaving or even take care of their own children,” Nakamura said. “Rugs were made out of a form of cultural expression, but no one makes a circuit out of a form of cultural expression.”
In 1975, the American Indian Movement occupied and destroyed the plant because of protests over Native American unionization and the lack of employment for men in the community. Even after the plant closed, however, the legacy of Native American culture in digital media remained strong in the United States, Nakamura said.
“Indians were the original D.I.Y.-ers,” Nakamura said. “They were an inspiration to the counter-culture: buckskins, fringes, moccasins, beads, braids.”
The presentation also included an open discussion between Nakamura and audience members. Many in attendance were members of the University’s Science, Technology and Society Program.
Petra Kuppers, a professor of English and Women’s Studies said she attended because she teaches a class called “Indigenous Women’s Cultural Creative Art Practice,” which shares some similar topics with Nakamura’s work.
“I’m fascinated by the material that Lisa was able to unearth — this interesting material from the Shiprock reservation,” Kuppers said. “I think it’s really interesting to find out about how digital media and native studies are in contact with one another.”
Rackham student Adam Kriesberg said his friends in the Science, Technology and Society Program recommended the speaker.
“These types of things have been going on,” Kriesberg said. “The parallel between women’s work and the migration of factory work to Asia is a story that I was ready to receive, but (the presentation) did shed light on a specific story that I didn’t know anything about.”