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50 Years Ago: Did MacDonald’s big secret affect election results?

I started covering the Navajo government on September 1971 so I missed the 1970 election between Peter MacDonald and Raymond Nakai. So my accounts of the race in the past few columns have been based on stories printed in the Navajo Times and local newspapers as well as a few things I remember being told about the election.

That’s the reason why I have been wondering what effect, if any, did MacDonald’s “big secret” have on the election outcome and whether it played any role in the results. The big secret, of course, had to do with MacDonald’s personal life and the fact he was having an affair with his secretary at the Office of Navajo Economic Development.

It wasn’t as if no one knew of his secret. It must have been talked about within the BIA because it kept him from being appointed commissioner of Indian affairs by newly elected President Richard Nixon. Nixon wanted to appoint someone in Indian Country to head the bureau.

The person also had to be Republican and there were few Indian leaders who were Republican. It was soon obvious that the best of the candidates was MacDonald. But once Nixon was told that MacDonald was having an affair with his secretary and even had children with her, that ended any chance MacDonald had of getting the appointment.

So if BIA officials knew about MacDonald’s secret, it’s likely Nakai knew about it as well. And if he knew about it, there is little doubt that he would use it against MacDonald in the 1970 election to capture the Christian vote. The problem is that none of the newspapers in this area actually covered the election to any great extent.

The only reporter the Navajo Times had was Dick Hardwick and, as managing editor of the paper, he didn’t have the time to hear the candidate’s give speeches. Neither the Gallup Independent nor the Farmington Daily Times covered the election other than printing a few press releases and an interview or two when a candidate held a rally in their town.

So if Nakai used this information in his rallies or on the radio, it didn’t make it into print. In fact, no paper printed anything about MacDonald’s affair until the Navajo Times printed the Nixon story after Walter Hickel recounted it in his memoir as secretary of the Interior during the Nixon years.

One reason why I believe it was still a secret to most Navajos in 1970 centers around events that took place a couple of years before. MacDonald decided to divorce Ruby, his wife, as a first step to marrying Wanda, his secretary. Or maybe Ruby decided to end the marriage and go back home to Oklahoma. In either case, this was a hard time for MacDonald.

I was told by aides to MacDonald that he was so shaken up after the divorce that for a couple of months he couldn’t think about anything but how it would affect his political future. It had such an affect on him that George Vlassis, the tribe’s general counsel, had to step in and basically run the tribe during this period.

Of course, MacDonald spent the next decade becoming what Mother Jones Magazine called “the most powerful Indian leader in Indian Country.”

DNA-Peoples’ Legal Services announced a major victory for Navajo families who send their children to BIA boarding schools.

After meeting with BIA social workers and receiving information about a program that gives families a $50 grant to buy school clothes for the upcoming school year, DNA found that the program in the past required families to request the grant and, since few were aware of the program, it didn’t cost the BIA much money. But the new program requires the BIA to give the grant to all 10,000 children who will be attending BIA schools this fall. This means a total cost to the BIA of $500,000 a year.

A statement by DNA said this will also be a big boon to stores in border communities who sell children’s clothing at cheap prices. It also proves to be a boon for the Navajo Times, which receives several new advertisers. Speaking of BIA schools, Fort Wingate has begun a program to help new teachers better understand the world their students come from.

The boarding school has hired Tom Ration, a 65-year-old medicine man from the Eastern Navajo Agency, to teach a one-day program that will concentrate on explaining customs in which Navajo children participate when they go home. This includes the role of ceremonies in Navajo society and taboos that are meant on teaching children how to live their lives.

The U.S. Defense Department announced it is eliminating about 200 jobs at the Fort Wingate Army Depot over the next two years as part of plans to phase out the facility over the next decade. Those affected will mostly be Navajos and Zunis employed at the depot.

The decision is a blow to the local community since it means that more than $2 million will be taken out of the area economy. The Defense Department has been reducing personnel at bases across the country as part of efforts to find more funds to fight the war in Vietnam.


About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.

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