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50 Years Ago: Nakai answers allegations of theft from tribe

Just six weeks after taking office, Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald convinced members of the Navajo Tribal Council they needed to have a hearing to look into allegations that the tribe’s former chairman, Raymond Nakai, took action just before he left office to give him and his vice-chairman thousands of dollars they were not entitled to receive.

He said he heard that the two received $10,000 each for unused vacation time. Nakai was also accused of taking with him some $10,000 in tribal furniture when he moved out of the house provided for him by the tribe.

He was also accused of using his power to give Indian Airways, of which he was the majority owner, the rights to the lands used by the tribe for airports on the reservation.

According to the Navajo Times, this marked the first time that an outgoing chairman had been accused of misappropriating tribal funds or property.

The Council had been called into special session on Feb. 28, 1971 to hear witnesses who had insight into these charges.

Nakai, who agreed to meet with local reporters to address these charges, said he had done nothing wrong, adding that this was just another attempt by MacDonald bad to make him look bad.

Talking about the allegation that he had the tribal controller pay him and his vice-president $10,000 each for their unused vacation pay, he said the amount was wrong. It was only $6,000 each. He added that there were no tribal laws prohibiting him from getting his unused vacation time reimbursed by the tribe.

MacDonald viewed it as theft, pointing out that elected officials for the tribe received a set salary which was meant to reimburse them for the hours they spent working for their constituents.
As for the theft of tribal property, Nakai didn’t exactly deny the accusation, “The furniture may have been worth $10,000 at one time but now it is worn out and not far from being worthless,” he said.

He added it was in bad shape when he moved into the chairman’s residence eight years before and he expected that when MacDonald moved in, he would have discarded everything and bought new furniture.

The Indian Airways accusation had some validity with Nakai admitting that he had acquired 51 percent of the company in recent months. He also admitted that before he left office, the tribal council’s advisory committee had approved giving the company leases to some 100 landing strips on the reservation.

However, those leases were cancelled by MacDonald shortly after he took office. He said this action as well as other allegations against Nakai would be discussed by members of the tribal council at a meeting he called for Feb. 24.

At the same meeting, MacDonald said he also planned to ask the Council to approve the hiring of George Vlassis as the tribe’s new general counsel. Vlassis, who was one of the partners in the law firm of Bain and Vlassis in Phoenix, had worked for a number of other Arizona tribes over the years.
Remember Ted Mitchell, the director of DNA who was expelled from the reservation for several months after he got into an argument with Annie Wauneka, the Council delegate from Klagatoh and Wude Ruins?

A federal district court ruling enabled him to return to work on the reservation. That ruling said the Navajo Tribe failed to give him a hearing before he as banned from the reservation. The tribe appealed that decision.

This was somewhat of a moot question now since Mitchell had resigned from the DNA and was now working in Micronesia as director of the country’s legal aid program. But the tribe had appealed that district court decision and it was still going through the appeals process.

On Feb. 10, the court battle ended with the tribe agreeing to drop the suit. Both sides agreed to pay for their attorney fees which were over $50,000 for each side.

By dropping the suit, some people took the position that the tribe admitted it did not have the authority to ban non-Navajos from the reservation even though the Treaty of 1868 listed this as one of the authorities that the tribe still had.

After the decision to drop the suit, MacDonald issued a statement that talked about that subject.

“This does not mean that the Navajo Tribe does not have the authority to remove people from the reservation,” he said. “It only means that a person cannot be expelled unreasonably and without cause.”

He said that the person that has done wrong had to have done something that is worthy of expulsion under tribal laws. Getting into an argument with a member of the tribal council was not a legitimate reason to expel someone from the reservation.

Since then, the tribe has threatened to remove a number of non-Indians accused of domestic violence against a Navajo woman but in each case, the matter was turned over to an off-reservation court to resolve since tribal courts did not have jurisdiction over non-Indians.

There has been only one case since then when the Council has banned a non-Indian from the reservation and this occurred some 30 years ago, again to an Anglo accused of abusing a child. Before the ban, the accused was given a chance to address the charges.


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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