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50 Years Ago: New chairman relatively unknown to Time’s staff

Dick Hardwick, the editor of the Navajo Times, questioned employees of the paper during a staff meeting, asking them how much they knew of the background of the tribe’s new chairman and vice chairman.

To his surprise, the only thing staff members had to say about the new chairman, Peter MacDonald, was that he is college educated and former executive director of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity.

It turned out that this was true for many members of the tribe who didn’t know him personally because no newspaper, including the Navajo Times and the daily papers in Farmington and Gallup, thought such an article was needed. Or it may have been due to the fact the Times had no reporters and the daily papers didn’t cover the reservation very much.

The Times finally corrected that mistake after the election when MacDonald was declared the winner.

The article pointed out that MacDonald was the eighth person to serve as tribal chairman and the first one that graduated from college. He was raised traditionally with plans to one day become a medicine man. He spoke only Navajo until he began going to a boarding school. For formal occasions, he would often wear semi-traditional clothes showing his continued reverence to the traditional lifestyle in which he was raised.

After getting an electrical engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma, he moved to Los Angles where he got a master’s degree in electricity from UCLA. He then went to work for Hughes Aircraft. He was apparently happy to stay in California where he and his wife, Ruby, raised their two children, Peter Jr. (Rocky) and Linda.

But that would soon change. In 1963, shortly after being elected chairman, Nakai convinced MacDonald to give up his life in California and come back to work for the tribe. He said he needed someone with MacDonald’s skills to work in the tribe’s operational and procedures department.

Two years later, he was named the first director of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity, a position that was perfect for someone who wanted to curry favor with Navajo voters. Speaking of MacDonald, once he began thinking of his inauguration in January, he made the decision to hold it outdoors, no mater how cold it would be.

He said he wanted to give as many tribal members as possible the chance to attend the event. Expecting several thousand to show up regardless of the weather, he said holding it indoors would limit attendance to only a couple of thousand.

This was a brave decision because temperatures on the reservation have been known to get very cold – below freezing – even in the afternoon. And don’t even talk about a major snowstorm. Another issue has come up.

What would MacDonald do with the Navajo Tribal Council? Nakai had come under heavy criticism for not presiding over Council meetings as other former chairmen had done. Instead he assigned this task to his vice chairman. But if you look at Naka’s relationship with the Council, you would see why he felt the less time spent running the council the better.

In his first administration, a majority of the delegates were supporters of the former chairman, Paul Jones. In his first administration, he attended a couple of sessions and reports indicated that he received nothing but criticism from the body. By his second administration, the majority supported him but the minority was extremely vocal so he would have come under heavy criticism even then.

Also Nakai probably didn’t see any advantage in running the sessions. In his first administration none of his programs were approved and in the second administration, he thought he had enough supporters to have anything he wanted passed. MacDonald, however, said he planned to have a hands-on approach.

By then members of the Council were accustomed to running their own affairs with only a nudge here and there from the chairman’s office. So MacDonald’s decision to have more control over the Council than any past chairman probably gave old-timers some doubts but he decided to do it gradually, which seems to have appeased all but a few council members. Over the years, he took a special interest in the makeup of the various committees and realized that if he strong supporters heading each of them, he would be able to control what legislation passed and which ones didn’t.

This was especially true of the Council’s Advisory Committee, which had a lot of power. Since the Advisory Committee was comprised of the heads of the various committees, he found it a perfect way to control all aspects of the tribal government. MacDonald also made it known that he planned a massive reorganization which would cost the tribe millions of dollars.

One thing he planned to improve was the tribe’s school clothing program, which had been allowed to languish during the Nakai years. The program was set up to help Navajo parents get clothing at the beginning of the school year. Working with Henry Hillson, who had a clothing supply firm in Albuquerque, the program soon had a better selection of clothing and more to choose from. Taking lessons from his ONEO days, MacDonald believed that providing tribal members with benefits such as free clothing would help him expand his political base. And he was right.


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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