A beautiful summer day

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 16, 2009

Text size: A A A

(Times photo - Althea John)

This was the front page of the Navajo Times on July 27, 1989, one week after the riot at the financial building in Window Rock that left two supporters of former chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. dead.

In the Diné way, there is always something positive that comes from something that is negative.

And that is so true of the July 20, 1989, riot at the Navajo Nation's financial building.

I and former Gallup Independent reporter Richard Sitts were the only news people present when the violent confrontation between a handful of Navajo Nation Police and hundreds of supporters of then Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. erupted.

I was working for the Farmington Daily Times as a reporter at the time after losing my position as KTNN radio station's first news director due to suspicious budget cuts.

Richard and I had heard that the MacDonald supporters had planned another demonstration following several others so we drove to the executive offices but no protestors were in sight.


Investigator hopes exhibit will show truth

The Riot of '89

I remember that it was a beautiful summer day. The deep blue sky overhead was filled with huge billowy white clouds.

When we found no protestors, we immediately declared it a work-free day and began making plans to have some fun.

But our plans were suddenly cut short when a Navajo police sedan zoomed past us. It was headed to the executive offices. Without hesitation, Richard turned his little pickup truck around in pursuit of the police car.

We caught up to it in front of the front doors. The officer was standing outside his car and talking on the radio. We heard him say "financial building' as he jumped back in his car and roared away with us right behind him.

But Richard's little truck was no match for the police car and we were left in its dust. We decided to park along the highway that was east of the building because it gave a good view of the building and the police department, which was south of it.

We got out of the truck and saw a large crowd of people quickly walking towards a police officer, who had parked his car in front of the building on the east side, which is where the main entrance was.

Most of the people carried baseball bats and wooden clubs. Many of them had the bats and clubs raised over their heads.

As the demonstrators closed in on the lone officer, who was later identified as Lt. Daniel Hawkins, the officer began backing up towards his car.

His left arm was raised chest high and straight out. The palm of his hand was toward the people. It was a stance for the people to stop.

His right hand was on his revolver at his side.

When Hawkins had backed up between the building's doors and his car, the people began hitting him with their bats and clubs. He fell behind his car and out of view. All I could see was the bats and clubs raising and dropping.

Some of the demonstrators pointed at a police van that came swerving around the north side of the building at a high rate of speed, which was an open field of sand and bushes.

The demonstrators yelled and ran towards the van, which had gotten stuck in the sand at the far north end of the field. A lone officer jumped out of the police van and ran down a nearby ditch with the mob in close pursuit.

I watched as one of the protestors jumped into the van and emerge with a rifle that he raised over his head as the demonstrators cheered.

More police arrived and smoke bombs began exploding as people began yelling and screaming.

Richard and I were running down the hill off the highway towards the chaos.

And then I heard gunshots.

I broke through a cloud of people and saw an older man lying motionless, face up on the ground. He was wearing a nice western shirt, blue jeans and boots.

He was quiet and staring straight up into the deep blue sky where the while billowy clouds moved ever so slowly and gently across the sky.

His dark brown eyes were glazing into grey. I had never seen anyone die but I knew he was dying.

A soft breeze moved the grey smoke around him.

I learned later that his name was Jimmie Dixon. He was 58 years old when he died a few hours later.

I looked around and saw another man laying face up on the ground.

An emergency vehicle seemed to appear out of nowhere. Navajo emergency technicians immediately began first aid on the dying elderly man.

Their efforts were hampered by the demonstrators, males and females, who had surrounded them and were screaming and hollering at them for some unknown reason.

I can still see their faces. They were overflowing with pure hate. They reminded me of a mob of wild vicious dogs that were enraging themselves for a deadly attack.

I feared for their safety.

And then two or three police officers walked up and placed themselves between the frenzied pack and the EMTs.

One of the EMTs was a young female and she was visibly terrified. Each time someone from the rabble lounged at the police officers, she would look up and her hands would freeze.

As soon as the EMTs and police officers got the elderly Navajo man into the ambulance, the ambulance raced away.

I looked up the hill towards the highway and saw a large crowd of people. They were angry and yelling at the MacDonald supporters to go home.

The MacDonald supporters yelled back and asked them to join them, which made the crowd on the hill angrier and more critical.

A woman in her mid-30s walked by sobbing and shaking her head. She was headed toward crowd on the hill.

I asked her if she was OK. She could barely talk because she was crying so hard. She wailed that "they" didn't tell her that bats and clubs would be part of the protest.

As I watched her walk away, I saw several people, including an elderly Navajo woman and a young Navajo woman, carrying armloads of bats and clubs.

The two ladies laughed as they threw their load into an open car truck. The elderly woman was dressed in a blouse and long skirt. The young lady was dressed in a pink aerobics outfit.

A young Navajo man who was videoing the protestors in the east parking lot of the financial building was suddenly chased, shoved to the ground and beaten by about three or four young MacDonald supporters. A couple of them wore their long dark hair tied in the traditional Navajo bun.

But as the MacDonald supporters pounded the video man, another group of young Navajo men raced down the hill and slammed their bodies into the attackers. A short but intense fistfight broke out.

The video man jumped up, grabbed his camera and ran off smiling towards the crowd on the hill who were cheering for him and throwing insults at his attackers.

I walked to the front of the financial building. The large glass doors were broken. A small crowd of MacDonald supporters lingered about. I recognized Kee Ike Yazzie, who headed the tax office as a political appointee of MacDonald.

I asked him what the protestors were doing. He said that they were waiting for MacDonald.

As I interviewed Yazzie, I noticed that it was late afternoon. The sun had cast a long shadow of the building across the east parking lot. Suddenly, my head was yanked back and I almost fell backwards.

Two young Navajo females ran past me laughing. One of them had grabbed a large beaded barrette that I had clipped in my hair at the back of my head.

The unprovoked attacked made me look close around me and I suddenly realized that the large crowd of protestors had dwindled to a few people.

I looked towards the hill and people were walking slowly down the hill.

It was estimated that about 300 MacDonald supporters were involved in the deadly two-hour uprising that also took the life of a second demonstrator, Arnold Begay, 27, of Red Mesa, Ariz.

Two other demonstrators survived gunshot wounds as well as two tribal police officers.

Between 10 and 12 individuals were treated for bruises and cuts. Most of the individuals were police officers.

An eight-minute police car video that was taken of the riot was too blurry to identify individual rioters but it did show that police officers, who were far outnumbered by the mob, battled the protestors with their police batons and not their guns.

But gunshots were exchanged between the police and demonstrators over a 10-second period.

July 20, 1989, was not a single incident in the political dispute between the council and MacDonald and it should not be remembered like that.

There were events that lead up to July 20, 1998 - far too many to write in this reporter's notebook.

But out of the political turmoil, deaths and post-traumatic stress disorder, came the birth of a three-branch government and the end of a dictatorship that most of the Navajo people never knew existed.

The Navajo government, like any other government, is not perfect.

But I believe that it could be close to perfection if the Navajo government truly reflected the Navajo way of life, which I was taught is cradled in respect for all of life living between the Four Sacred Mountains.

In that respect, all of life is treated equal.

That may sound simple but it was very complicated because it would require the Navajo Nation Council, President Joe Shirley Jr. and Vice President Ben Shelley, and Chief Justice Herb Yazzie to operate their branches under a magnifying glass to ensure that all of life is treated equal.

I look up at the blue sky and billowy white clouds today and prayed that we, the Diné, learned from July 20, 1989, that we must always remember that the Holy Ones told us that everything we need is within the Four Sacred Mountains.

We do not need to look to the outside for our answers, especially our healing.

Text size: A A A  email this pageE-mail this story