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50 Years Ago: MacDonald takes action to increase power over Tribal Council

It didn’t take Peter MacDonald long to start making changes to the Navajo government that would make him the most powerful leader the tribe has ever had. In January 1971, the power in the government rested within the Navajo Tribal Council, which made all decisions.

The chairman was there to make sure that the resolutions and decisions made by Council were put in place. That didn’t mean, however, that the chairman had no power. To be effective, the chairman had to have the support of a majority of the members of the Council.

Take Raymond Nakai. In his first term, the supporters of the man he defeated, Paul Jones, controlled the Council and Nakai had to watch as all of his proposals were ignored and the Council, at times, took away his power to hire and fire.

During his second administration, he worked to get enough new Council delegates elected so that his supporters were in the majority. That happened and he saw his proposals sail through Council.

MacDonald didn’t want that. He wanted a government where the chairman called all of the shots and the Council passed resolutions to make it happen. The smart thing was he made changes slowly over a year’s time so that Council delegates didn’t realize just how much power they had turned over to him. It was classic “How to take over a tribal government,” and there never was and never will be someone who could do it as well as he did.

It all began two weeks after he took office. The new Council was holding its first meeting and there he was, sitting in the chairman’s chair. This also was different.

Nakai usually let his vice chairman preside over these sessions and he appeared only a couple of times a year to give a report tor the Council. Another difference: MacDonald instead of the Council drew up the agenda, so immediately he had control over what was discussed.

What he wanted to discuss was the Budget and Finance Committee, the most powerful committee because anything having to do with money went before them before getting to the Council. Previously, the Council itself picked who would be on each committee, based primarily on who wanted to be on that committee and who seemed to be knowledgeable in one way or another in financial matters.

It was quite common, however, that two or three of the people appointed to that committee were lacking in that knowledge — but since there were nine members on the committee, no harm was done. MacDonald gave a short speech saying the Navajo people expected the Council to work with him to better serve the people.

Following that, he presented a resolution calling for the selection of certain people to the Budget and Finance Committee. All nine men were among his strongest supporters on the Council.

There was little debate on the matter. Within minutes, the resolution was approved 66-1 and MacDonald had control over all the expenditures made by the tribe.

The value of this was shown a few minutes later when Howard Gorman, who represented Ganado, tried to put a resolution before the Council that would have provided financial relief to ranchers who had lost livestock during a recent snowstorm.

MacDonald immediately pointed out that the resolution they had just passed required all resolutions dealing with money to go before the new Budget and Finance Committee. So instead of coming before the Council where delegates had a chance to seek funds for their constituents, any request for funding basically had to go through MacDonald.

Another change the Council put into effect that day called for resolutions approved by the budget committee to go to MacDonald before going to the Council. This gave MacDonald the opportunity to see where the money was going so he could make sure that chapters who supported him got special treatment. On the same day, the Council did the same thing with the Advisory Committee, giving MacDonald and not the Council the authority to pick who was placed on the committee.

The Advisory Committee was the second-most powerful committee since it set the agenda for Council sessions. By controlling that committee, MacDonald would be able to prevent resolutions he didn’t like from getting on the agenda. He used this power steadily throughout his administration, frustrating efforts by delegates who opposed him to get their resolutions before the Council. This did not always work, however.

In 1989, the anti-MacDonald Council delegates submitted a resolution to the Advisory Committee calling for the suspension of MacDonald, who was being investigated on a number of charges dealing with things like cheating the tribe over the purchase of the Big Boquillas Ranch and taking bribes from vendors. Since he controlled the Advisory Committee, the resolution was rejected and the group had to come up with another way to remove MacDonald.

They could get it on the agenda by motion in the Council meeting but they could not get the number of delegates to make that happen. So what they did was get a resolution passed that nullified all previous resolutions of the Council and when that passed, all they needed was a simple majority to get it approved.

Forty-nine of the 88 delegates of the Council approved the resolution, which is how the anti-MacDonald faction in the tribal government became known as the 49ers.

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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