50 Years Ago | Rumors result in ‘Who shot P.M.’ bumper stickers
I think it was about this time I heard rumors that something was going on in the personal life of Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald. This was kept hush hush by tribal officials who didn’t want it appearing in the newspaper.
The rumor, which turned out to be true, said MacDonald had divorced his wife, Ruby, and had gotten married to his former secretary at the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity.
I had never talked to Ruby but I would have a number of talks with his new wife, Wanda, over the next 30 years.
This story never made it into the Navajo Times or any of the border newspapers. I am not even sure MacDonald was ever questioned about it by a reporter. I know I never did, figuring at that time a tribal leader’s personal life was off limits unless it affected his leadership.
This wasn’t a secret to most Navajos since word of this made it to members of the Navajo Tribal Council and from there to the chapters, which I think greatly helped MacDonald because the story became a big one as far as tribal gossip was concerned. But by the time MacDonald ran again in 1974, it was old news and if his opponents tried to bring it up, it never became an issue to most voters.
I was told by sources within the chairman’s office that MacDonald was deeply affected for weeks, afraid that his decision to marry Wanda would affect his ability to be re-elected. In the 1974 campaign for the chairmanship, I kept waiting for it to be raised by anyone and if it was, I planned to write about it.
Former Chairman Raymond Nakai may have brought it up because this is the type of campaign he ran. But since he didn’t talk to reporters and gave all of his campaign speeches in Navajo, it never became an issue.
That was the way things were done in those days. In the future, beginning with Albert Hale in 1995, the tide had turned and the Navajo Times would print several stories about the problems he was having with his wife and his affair with a member of his staff.
Another local politician who benefited from this was Harry Mendoza, who had been a McKinley County commissioner and mayor of Gallup. He had been involved in the gang rape of a Zuni girl in 1948 when he was 15 years old. The others involved in the crime went to prison but Mendoza went into the military and was never tried in court.
I had heard rumors about this when he ran for mayor but a decision was made not to bring it up unless it became an issue in the campaign. But none of his opponents brought it up.
A decade or so later, the story did make it to the Gallup newspaper and became a major story.
Going back to MacDonald, his affair with his secretary was well-known to leaders of the BIA and this affected his ability to become commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1969.
After getting elected president in 1968, Richard Nixon was looking for an Indian leader who was a Republican to become BIA commissioner and the name again the top of his list of candidates was MacDonald. This was until Nixon learned that MacDonald had three children with his secretary at ONEO.
The decision by MacDonald to marry Wanda was, in hindsight, a major plus for reporters who covered the reservation.
Ruby, who was a member of another tribe, was very soft spoken and one who would not make waves as first lady. Wanda, however, would become the center of numerous articles.
One of the best, which did not make the Navajo Times until years after it happened, concerned bumper stickers and the “Dallas” television shows.
In 1989, I noticed that some cars in the Window Rock area were sporting bumper stickers saying “Who Shot P.M.” This was a takeoff of a popular slogan “Who shot J.R.”
As the story went, Wanda had shot her husband while he was at his home in Phoenix after she heard that he was having an affair with his secretary in the chairman’s office.
This resulted in those bumper stickers which, for a time, were very popular and appeared on the rear bumpers of both those who supported MacDonald and those who did not.
Was it true? Over the years I went up and down on this issue. I talked to many people close to MacDonald at that time said they knew for a fact that it happened and others who were credible who said it never happened.
Both Wanda and the chairman steadfastly denied it. The story went that MacDonald only had a slight wound from the shooting and Wanda once told me that, if she had shot her husband, it would not have resulted in a slight wound.
Another story that was circulating at that time was that a tribal police employee who had the bumper sticker was fired because of it. Although I tried I was never able to verify that rumor.
I did talk to tribal attorneys who said if it was true, the tribal employee would have a good case for getting his firing overturned although it would seriously affect his ability to get a promotion.
Another story I heard repeatedly was that of you wanted something from the chairman’s office, all you had to do was bring your concern to the attention of his wife because, unlike other first ladies, Wanda was knowledgeable about all the issues test came to the attention of her husband and he often sought her advice before making a decision.