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50 Years Ago: Race for chairman becomes two-man battle

The race to select a new chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council was underway and it was now evident that it would be a two-man race – incumbent Raymond Nakai versus Peter MacDonald, who had finally stepped down as director of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity to spend full time campaigning.

This left Sam Billison, a tribal educator who was running for the position, basically out in the cold although he still felt he had a chance of finally winning it.

Dick Hardwick, who was in his final year as editor of the Navajo Times, wanted to make all of the candidates happy although he knew Nakai hated the newspaper and believed everyone who worked for it was out to get him.

Two weeks before there had been an incident at one of his rallies when a reporter for the Gallup Independent asked him for an interview. Nakai, according to the reporter, ignored him as he walked up to him and made his request. Nakai then reportedly deliberately turned his back and walked away from the reporter, not even acknowledging him.

Hardwick, after hearing the story, went over to talk to Nakai’s assistants. He said later he made no attempt to talk to Nakai because he was afraid of getting the same treatment. But the staff members were encouraging, saying basically they had no control over him.

Hardwick was told that there had been one occasion a few weeks before when Nakai delayed giving his campaign speech because he thought MacDonald had sent one of his supporters to spy on him to learn what positions he was taking so MacDonald could take the same stance to draw away some of his supporters.

MacDonald would say that he didn’t send someone to spy on Nakai but it was very well known that some of the people Nakai thought were his biggest supporters had been lured over to MacDonald’s side and were giving him details of Nakai’s campaign strategy.

MacDonald would make good use of this information as a way to ridicule Nakai’s goals. MacDonald would often refer to Nakai’s position on the issues to show that he did not understanding anything about what was needed to be chairman of the largest tribe in the nation. Billison was taking the same approach but no one seemed to be listening to him.

He still got a good crowd at his rallies but some believed many of those were probably going to back MacDonald and were waiting for Billison to drop out of the race.

Later, in the 1970s, when he talked about this campaign, MacDonald would say he was bringing up issues that were before their time. One of these was a two-term limitation. Nakai had been chairman for two terms and MacDonald felt he was getting too much power and could conceivably continue to win until the day he decided to step down or died.

He brought up federal laws that limited the president to two terms and he felt that the same reasons this was enacted were also valid on the Navajo Reservation.

Although it was true Nakai was seeking his third term, you could argue that he had only been chairman for one term since he basically had no power during his first term because of tribal politics. When he was first elected, most of the 72 members of the council had been supporters of the former chairman, Paul Jones, and none wanted anything to do with Nakai.

And it showed. None of his proposals were ever given a lot of discussion and usually died in committee. Nakai would routinely be ridiculed during the Council meetings. At one point about two and a half years into his first term, the Council took away his power to hire and fire as well as his ability to oversee tribal finances.

By the time he got elected to his second term, Navajo voters had done away with some of the “Old Guard” and Nakai was able to get some of his goals enacted. Billison would later say this issue had little chance of being enacted because it never struck a chord among Navajo voters. “No one seemed to care,” he would say later.

Billison was also seeing some problems with the chairmanship type if government because it allowed the chairman, once he had the support of a majority if the Council members, to be in control over all branches of the tribal government.

The Council was controlled, to a large part, by the committee chairmen and the person who chose the members of the various committees. This was also the chairman so this allowed whoever was chairman to make sure Council committees were controlled by his supporters.

As for the tribal courts, during those days it was just another program within the tribal government under the control of the chairman.

The two issues would later come front and center in 1990 after MacDonald was suspended and the Council decided to do away from the chairmanship type government and replace it with a three-branch government with a president presiding over the executive branch.

There have been questions raised since 1990 over whether this was a good thing. Peterson Zah, who would be the only person to serve as both a chairman and president, wasn’t happy during his years as president because he realized after only a couple of months in office that he had nowhere near the authority he had as chairman as president.

Instead this authority had been transferred to the Council. So instead of having one man with the power to get things done, you had 88 men and women who spent mist of their time debating issues instead of getting things done.

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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