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50 Years Ago: MacDonald promises to bring self-sufficiency to tribe in 8 years

Just two days after the new year, the “man in the turquoise necklace,” as the AP called him, was sworn in as the new chairman for the Navajo Tribe during festive ceremonies in Window Rock.

The whole day seemed to showcase a new beginning for the tribe as political visitors from all over the country showed up to be a part of the new order. The celebration continued later with inaugural parties and special events. It was Peter MacDonald’s day and he provided the best of it, giving a rousing speech that drew applause throughout.

Both the Navajo Times and the Gallup Independent printed MacDonald’s speech in full, something they had never done in the past.

MacDonald’s main theme resonated in tribal circles as he promised to bring self-sufficiency to the tribe within eight years. The 128,000-member tribe was still under the yoke of the federal government, which ruled over the reservation through a series of laws giving BIA officials the right to step in when deemed necessary.

While the Navajo Tribal Council had the authority to pass resolutions, for example, approving expenditure of funds, the approval wasn’t final until it was reviewed by federal officials. The same was true of many of the Council’s other resolutions as well. MacDonald promised to get that stopped, something no one really thought he would be able to do.

But by the time he stepped down in 1983, the Navajo government made all decisions and the only authority the BIA had was as trustee over the land. The new government diminished the authority of old political figures.

A new crop of politicians would take over for the next dozen years. George Vlassis, a member of the Bain and Vlassis law firm in Phoenix, became the new general counsel. He would become a fixture in the government as he and his associate counsel, Larry Ruzow and Katherine Ott, would provide legal advice not only to MacDonald but to anyone in Council who asked them for legal advice.

Marshall Tome, the first editor of the Navajo Times, became an assistant staff member to MacDonald as head of projects both big and small. Art Arviso and Big Jim Atcitty, who held various positions, were called upon by MacDonald over the next decade to troubleshoot and come up with solutions to a whole range of problems.

Samuel Pete was probably the most trusted of his aides and the person MacDonald depended on more than anyone else to make sure his back was covered and the tribe was being run responsibly.

These were the names that in the next years would take center stage and be MacDonald’s eyes and ears into what was going on in the tribal government. Just a couple of days after the inauguration, MacDonald and his aides were on the march down to Barstow, California, to meet with Navajo families there and pledge the new government’s support for providing them tribal aid.

Although the number of Navajos living in the Barstow area was small – fewer than 100 – they had a lot of political clout as many of them were former Code Talkers or members of the U.S. Marine Corps. The families settled in the Barstow area to get jobs connected to the military but kept ties with their families back on the reservation.

The families had been trying for years to get recognition from the tribe so that they could get some benefits, such as legal representation and tribal scholarships, but got nowhere under the Nakai administration. MacDonald, realizing the families could have some political clout among others who had served in the military, set up channels in his office to keep in touch with the families and make sure their needs were met.

One of the first things MacDonald did on talking office is assemble a task force to look into the situation with the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute and the possible relocation of hundreds of Navajo families. MacDonald was aware of the land dispute but until he became chairman, there was not much he could do but stand aside and watch events unfold.

Now that he had the power, he planned to do something about it. He quickly set up tasks for those in his inner circle as he wanted reliable information on just where negotiations were with the Hopis. He also wanted clarification on exactly what the BIA was doing to protect Navajo interests.

He set up a committee to begin dealing with members of Congress by making visits to important congressional leaders and making sure they understood that the Navajos – not the Hopis – were the victims in this land dispute.


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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