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50 Years Ago: MacDonald easily wins election for tribal chairman

“Peter MacDonald, who dropped out of school at the age of 12 to become a Navajo medicine man, was elected the chairman of the Navajo Tribe on Tuesday,” the lead of the AP story on his election stated.

It wasn’t even close. The article in the Navajo Times that Thursday said at press time, 88 of the 94 precincts had reported and MacDonald was leading incumbent Chairman Raymond Nakai by 17,669 votes to just over 11,000. Tribal election watchers were predicting a turnout of over 33,000 in the election.

A total of 43,112 Navajos were registered to vote. If that number was reached, it would be the biggest turnout in the tribe’s history. It also turned out to be a time for change in the Tribal Council with 11 of the 74 members losing their seats. Included among these was one of the only two women on the Council, Mable House. The other woman, Annie Wauneka, was easily re-elected.

MacDonald met with a group of supporters after it was obvious he had won, telling them, “I feel humbly grateful and honored I got your support. You wanted a change and the victory is yours.”

MacDonald was 41 years old when he was elected. He became the first college graduate to be elected chairman of the tribe. He immediately began planning for his inauguration, which is scheduled for Jan. 3. He is scheduled to make $18,000 a year, according to a press release, which also placed membership of the tribe at 128,000. He will take over a tribe with assets of more than $200 million and cash reserves of more than $67 million.

Nakai, as expected, did not take his defeat well, placing the blame on supposed lies MacDonald and others said about him during the election campaign. He didn’t elaborate on what the lies were. He also blamed the media, saying it was obvious that the Navajo Times worked against him, helping to spread the lies and undermining him at every opportunity.

Dick Hardwick, the managing editor of the paper, responded that the paper’s news coverage of both candidates was equal and fair. He pointed out that no negative stories were printed against either candidate.

The Times did receive more than n 20 letters to the editor, some praising him and others critical. News media off the reservation didn’t print any letters, although it isn’t certain that they received any since none of them printed many articles about the reservation and its government.

“We tried to stick to the issues and I think we did a very good job in doing that,” Hardwick said, pointing out that the Times published more stories about the election than all of the off-reservation papers.

That was a fact since no newspaper printed more than three articles about the election due to fact that no paper had a reporter assigned to covering the election. That changed in 1971 when the Gallup Independent set up the Diné Bureau with an office and home for a reporter in a trailer park in Tse Bonito.

On another issue, for the first time in the history of the tribe, Navajo officials have told a cattle company that the reservation is off limits to it. The company was the Great Western Cattle and Land Company, which was planning a giant cattle drive from Grants to Colorado next April, entering the reservation and heading north through the Eastern Navajo Agency.

This would mark the second time the cattle drive would go through the reservation. In the spring of 1970, the cattle company held its first cattle drive through reservation land, which resulted in hundreds of Navajo ranchers issuing complaints about the destruction the drive caused to reservation lands. The cattle drive resulted in thousands of acres of reservation range being stripped of all of their grass, leaving nothing for Navajo cattle for the winter.

“You call this the Great Cattle Drive,” said W.B. Bonner, a supervisor in the tribal range program, in a letter to company officials. “We call it the Great Grass Steal.”

The company pointed out that it had received a permit to travel through federal land. Bonner said the tribe had no problem with that, adding that the federal tracts are scattered throughout the Eastern Navajo Agency and it was impossible to travel in the agency for more than a couple of miles before you find yourself on tribal land. He warned the company that any of their employees who stepped on reservation land would be arrested and prosecuted for trespassing. Any cattle brought on reservation land would be impounded. Given the feeling of the tribal government, company officials said they were looking for an alternative route for next year’s cattle drive.


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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