The era of Teec Nos Pos' favorite son: MacDonald

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

April 24, 2014

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There is an umbilical cord buried somewhere in the Teec Nos Pos area that has had a massive effect on the history of the Navajo Nation.

If it weren't for that umbilical cord, a chairman and not a president would still head the tribal government, the tribal Council would still be at 88 members and no one would have ever heard about the Big Boquillas Ranch.

The cord belongs to Peter MacDonald, Teec Nos Pos' favorite son, who used it as his justification for being allowed to run for chairman in 1986.

After losing the 1982 election, MacDonald had moved with his family to Flagstaff and tribal law required that candidates for chairman be a resident of the reservation for at least one year before running.

MacDonald, of course, was allowed to run after a court ruling was issued that a candidate must have some ties to the reservation and history then played out the way it has done.

With the Navajo Times profiling Teec Nos Pos this week, this would be a good time to tell younger Navajos who did not live through the turbulent times of the 1970s and 1980s a little bit about the man who is probably the best known Navajo of his generation.

The best way to learn about MacDonald is probably not "The Last Warrior," the book that came out under his name about 1991 with a first and only printing of 15,000 copies.

The book came out while MacDonald was being held in a Navajo Nation jail after being convicted of wrongdoing. Within a few weeks of its publication, he was transferred from tribal jail to a federal prison to start serving a 14-year sentence for conspiracy in connection with a 1989 riot on the Navajo Reservation that left two of his supporters dead.

Although MacDonald was listed as the author, the actual writing was done by Ted Swartz who was known in the publishing world at that time for his ability to write a book quickly.

While it gives a broad view of tribal history of the time that MacDonald was involved -- from his days as head of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity to his 14 years as tribal chairman -- the book's purpose was to tell the world that MacDonald was innocent of the charges that had been filed against him.

In the book MacDonald was "the Last Warrior É a man who feared neither scandal nor death ... who adorned his body with the white man's battle dress -- a three piece suit," said a review of the book that appeared in the Kirkus review.

One of the local criticisms of the book was that MacDonald failed to give any credit to the many people who worked under him during his years his office. The book also downplayed a lot of the criticism that MacDonald received during his years in office about his programs.

Instead, the book invokes MacDonald's position that his legal problems stemmed from his fight with the Bureau of Indian Affairs over his attempts to bring about Navajo autonomy. The charges against him, says the book, were "trumped up" by the federal government to get him out of power.

Another piece of literature, which came out during MacDonald's successful attempt in 1982 to get elected to his third term in office, is also not a good representation of MacDonald's role as a tribal leader.

That was the year that Mother Jones did a front-page cover on MacDonald calling him "the most powerful Indian leader in the nation." While that was true at the time, the article used MacDonald's opposition to portray him as a quasi-dictator in a Third World country and thousands of copies of that article were printed and distributed on the reservation that election season in the vain effort to keep him from being re-elected.

It will be interesting to see how future historians view the MacDonald years in light of the way the national press treated him.

In the 1970s, the press was generally favorable as the tribe took strides to bring about reform and economic progress to the reservation. I remember one article published in the Flagstaff paper during his second term that led with the mighty Navajo Nation finally waking up and exerting its authority.

Even the Arizona Republic, the state's biggest paper, was generally on MacDonald's side but by 1980, the tide had turned and it seemed that many of the articles published about him became more mean-spirited, concentrating on his power on the reservation and the efforts by his opposition to unseat him.

Just how low his status got can be seen in light of the severe criticism he received in the national press after he closed down the Navajo Times in 1987 shortly after he took office.

The national press, from the Washington Post to Hustler Magazine, took him to task for violating freedom of speech. You know that one's image has suffered irreparable harm when a magazine like Hustler takes a full page to list all of one's shortcomings.

But on the reservation at least, MacDonald has done an exceptional job of turning around his image after he was released from federal prison in 1990 and since then he has become a popular speaker at schools and organizations.

Any objective look at MacDonald will have to give him a lot of credit for the advances he made during the 1970s which led to the tribe taking away much of the power of the BIA and shoring up the tribal economy with taking the first steps toward enacting a tribal taxation program.

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