Dispute Over Tribal Leader Leads to Lawsuits, Violence

NAVAJOS

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IT was a sweltering desert day last month when 100 native Americans, some carrying four-foot wooden clubs, marched on their own reservation headquarters. The July 20 incident occurred along the border of Arizona and New Mexico in the Navajo tribal capital of Window Rock, Ariz. For five hours rioters attacked tribal police and tried to break into a building, before two of them were shot and killed.

To some in the community and the news media, the incident initially seemed reminiscent of the early months of 1973 at Wounded Knee, S.D., when two Indians were killed by federal officers. The South Dakota town had been seized at gunpoint by about 300 Indians and white sympathizers to ``dramatize'' the plight of Indians.

But the violence at Window Rock appears to have had different origins. The riot followed six months of verbal feuding within the tribe over the tribal council's decision to oust the tribe's elected chairman and replace him with one of the council's own members.

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The 88-member tribal council suspended chairman Peter McDonald following charges of corruption, and asked the federal government to probe his alleged personal benefit of $500,000 from the tribe's purchase of an Arizona ranch. The council then chose one of its own, Leonard Haskie, to complete Mr. McDonald's term that ends in 1990.

On Aug. 11, the Navajo tribe filed suit against Mr. McDonald in Maricopa Superior Court seeking $24 million in actual damages and $400 million in punitive damages in the ranch land deal.

``This is tribal politics,'' says William King. ``This is not a [US] government problem, it's a tribal problem.'' Mr. King, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) investigation expert, thinks Window Rock was nothing like Wounded Knee. His perspective is based largely on his own experience, and on reports from his staff on what is happening (and what is being said) at the reservation, 200 miles away.

But McDonald's supporters complain the federal government has taken sides by recognizing Mr. Haskie as chairman. King disputes this. ``The bureau has to recognize someone [interim chairman Haskie] because otherwise who's going to sign the checks?''

But the crux of the problem is that Haskie was appointed - not elected by the tribe, says Navajo Larry Manuelito, a private contractor living in Albuquerque. Mr. Manuelito was a candidate for tribal chairman in 1986.

Complicating matters is the fact that federal prosecutors have not yet charged or indicted McDonald, even though it has been months since a grand jury was convened in Phoenix to review evidence. Despite reports of plea bargaining between the government and McDonald, McDonald denies any deal is pending.

``It's taken the grand jury so long to act on the McDonald allegations'' that the feeling is growing stronger that he might not be indicted, Manuelito says. ``And what if he comes back and wants to be restored?''

Meanwhile, more tribe members are becoming dissatisfied with the interim government's actions. McDonald supporters claim Haskie has fired and replaced as many as 200 administrators who oversee day-to-day tribal operations. Haskie's supporters say the number is about 50.

The two dead McDonald supporters were shot by new tribal police, recently appointed and reporting to a new police chief, who himself reports to Haskie. The confrontation occurred because McDonald supporters tried to remove Haskie's police force and replace them with those who were officers under McDonald.

George Atcitty, an Albuquerque accountant whose family lives on the reservation, agrees that the Navajo reservation crisis is not like Wounded Knee, and would only seem so to the Sioux Indians who were affected by the earlier incident. This is because each reservation has its own form of government, he says.

Mr. Atcitty thinks the main problem is that Navajo law was misinterpreted. He argues that the rules dictate that a tribal chairman should be removed only with a two-thirds majority vote of the council. Instead, only 49 of the 88 votes were cast to oust McDonald, whom Atcitty believes should have remained in office until indicted.

``I think the feds, and especially the BIA, now realize they were wrong taking sides'' in recognizing the new interim chairman, Atcitty says.

``If an interim position is truly interim, then why remove all those administrators from the top down?'' asks Manuelito. ``The person who's going to do that should be elected.''

Tensions could be eased by moving the next election up one year, he says. That is something the tribal council is empowered to do. But it may balk at that idea, because it would mean losing a year of members' own terms.

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