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Concerns over tribe spending too much for lawyers


A couple of days after the Navajo Tribal Council approved hiring Brown, Vlassis and Bain to be great new general counsel with the help of a Washington law firm to handle congressional matters, a backlash arose within the Council because of concerns that the tribe was spending too much on legal services.

In fact, the Council approved new contracts that will cost the tribe $162,000 a year for legal representation, up from $100,000 the year before.

“Why are we spending that much more for attorneys?” asked Annie Wauneka, who represented Klagatoh and Wide Ruins.

“None of the attorneys we had in the past have helped us collect a cent of money we are owed,” she added.

Wauneka had been down on tribal attorneys since 1968 when she asked the tribe’s general counsel at the time, Harold Mott, to help her file a lawsuit against Ted Mitchell, the head of DNA-People’s Legal Services, for laughing at her during a Council session.

Mitchell denied laughing at her. He said someone had told him a joke and he laughed at that, not at Wauneka, who was making a speech at the time n front of the Tribal Council. Mott had to explain to Wauneka that Mitchell had a right under the first amendment to laugh during her speech.

In any case, Wauneka should have gotten some satisfaction from slapping Mitchell in the face when she confronted him.

Mott later would say when talking about this that if anyone had a right to file a lawsuit, it was Mitchell for being assaulted by Wauneka.

The fact that the tribe’s new chairman, Peter MacDonald, wanted to spend more money on legal representatives was not surprising since he would acquire a reputation for spending more money on everything from lawyers to running his own office. He also spent more money every time he was inaugurated as chairman.

To be fair about it, however, the extra costs were more than made up by his efforts to increase revenue to the tribe. His fight to get U.S. Supreme Court approval for the right to impose taxes would add millions of dollars to the tribal treasury annually.

To the surprise of many people, the Navajo Times decided to weigh in on the question. This would never have been done when Raymond Nakai was chairman. But Dick Hardwick, who was spending his last weeks as the paper’s editor, sensed a more liberal attitude coming from MacDonald and others in the tribal government for having the Times address issues facing the tribal government.

“Are attorneys worth this much to the tribe?” Hardwick wrote in an editorial the week after the Council approved the expenditure. “That seems to be the question.”

At the present time, with the tribe in land disputes with the Hopis and the Utes, the answer would be yes. But if these disputes were settled, the answer would be no.

Since the Navajo-Hopi dispute would continue for the next 30 years and the Ute dispute a good 10 years, it would seem the Vlassis law firm would not have anything to worry about.

In fact, the tribe’s annual cost for legal representation, including in-house attorneys, would reach several hundred thousand dollars a year by the end of the decade as the tribe would deal with taxation and discrimination issues.

Hardwick did agree with the cynics on the Council that pervious attorneys for the tribe have not been of much value, but the decision by the tribe to hire a law firm instead of a single lawyer may change that in the future.

Hardwick said during Council debate on the subject, several law firms who had applied for the position were discussed at length.

By the end of the first day of discussion, many members of the Council reported being confused by the law firms having multiple partners listed on their mastheads.

This resulted in Carl Todacheene, who represented Shiprock, passing a memo around to other delegates, which stated, “the next presentation to the council will be from the law firm of Todacheene, Todacheene and Todacheene.”

The Todacheene memo brings up a subject that is not very often covered in the Times – humor in the Tribal Council.

Remember these were the days when a Council delegate had no limits on how long he could speak (delegates nowadays are limited to five minutes and there is a timer which cuts off the delegate’s microphone when that limit is reached).

The Council delegate usually spoke first in Navajo and either translated to English for the official record or Carl Beyale, the Council’s official interpreter, did the translation.

As a result, there were many times during the day when Council delegates had to listen for 20 or 30 minutes for a translation of something they had already heard. As a result, there as a lot of downtime during which some delegates would go to a small room set aside on either side of the chambers where they could meet with constituents or reporters or go to the restroom.

Those that elected to stay in their seats made no pretense of actually listening to the English translation. Instead, they would often read a newspaper or talk to another Council member.

It was also a common practice by some delegates to draw something of a humorous nature and pass it around to other members.

Over the years when I attended Council meetings, I would see the notes being passed around and delegates looking in my direction.

When the note finally came to wherever I was sitting, I would find a drawing of the Council of the reporter from Gallup writing an article about what was going on with some humorous headline. The drawing would often make fun of whatever newspaper I was working for at the time.

The humor was never vicious and was often witty. I now wish I had saved them because it would make a good feature story.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan wrote about Navajo Nation government and its people since 1971. He joined Navajo Times in 1976, and retired from full-time reporting in 2018 to move to Torrance, Calif., to be near his kids. He continued to write for the Times until his passing in August 2022.


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