50 Years Ago

Littell fights Nakai's effort to remove him

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

July 31, 2014

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Norman Littell, the controversial general counsel to the Navajo Tribal Council, was back in the news again in August 1964.

This wasn't unusual since Littell's fight to keep his job in the face of strong efforts to remove him by Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai had been covered a lot by the Navajo Times throughout 1964. Many of the fights between Littell and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall also made the national news as well.

Navajos living during that time may remember that the old guard on the Navajo Tribal Council, those who still had loyalty to the former chairman, Paul Jones, supported Littell.

Nakai wanted his own man in the job because he didn't trust Littell and spent much of his first tern trying to get him fired and Littell seemed to spend a lot of his time trying to keep his job.

Fifty years later, it's hard to understand why Littell put up such a fight since he had other clients and his contract with the Navajos set his base pay at only $32,000 a year.

But people who remembered Littell from those days said he enjoyed being in the public eye and enjoyed being the center of the controversy.

In August, his main opponent wasn't Nakai but Udall as he issued a statement claiming the Interior secretary was guilty of "character assassination" in trying to oust him from his position with the Navajos.

Udall had tried to cancel his contract a couple of months before but a federal circuit court in Washington, D.C., had ruled in Littell's favor, allowing him to keep his job.

When the decision was made public, Littell had called it "one of the most significant opinions in the history of Indian affairs" in curbing the influence of the Interior Department on matters dealing with Indian tribes.

In hindsight, that may have been overstating it a little but it was obvious that Littell was mad about statements made by Udall, calling his character in question for trying to represent a tribal government that didn't seem to want him to represent them.

This kind of remark really upset Littell who accused Udall of trying to defame his character. "Character assassination is no less of a crime than murder," Littell said.

In fact, said Littell, it is even worse because the victim of these slanderous lies has to live the rest of his life with his reputation and life destroyed.

"We have seen enough of murder and rape by expert wielders of switchblade knifes," Littell said, "but never did I expect to see such low morality in high places in the government as that demonstrated by the Secretary of the Interior and his subordinates involved in this case."

Littell went on to say that Udall, because of his government position was safe from being sued for libel and added that he felt the Interior secretary had been holding a knife to his throat for months because of the dispute.

A few days later, the Washington correspondent for the Navajo Times managed to find Udall and ask for a response. He reported that Udall laughed and said that those kinds of remarks just showed how little character Littell had.

Nakai, according to the Times, was upset saying the kinds of remarks that Littell was making against a great government leader were demeaning to the tribal government and for about the 900th time since he had been elected chairman, he called on Littell to resign and leave the Navajos alone.

At the time, Littell had been involved with the Navajo Tribe for 17 years and said he planned to frame a portion of the federal court decision, which gave him credit for helping the Navajos become one of the riches tribes in the country.

The court decision said that in 1947 when Littell was first hired, the Navajos "were one of the most poverty-stricken tribes in the country."

But thanks to Littell's efforts in getting the tribe a fair deal with energy companies, by 1964 the tribe had more than $80 million on deposit in the U.S. Treasury and had a monthly income of between $800,000 and $1 million.

Of course, Littell didn't realize it at the time but his days as general counsel were numbered and Nakai in August of 1964 scheming to get the tribal council -- or at least a few key members -- on his side.

To do this, Nakai said later, he would sacrifice any of his goals because he felt that as long as Littell oversaw the tribe's legal affairs, it would be Littell and not the tribal government who would be making the major decisions that would affect the tribe's future.

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