The riot of '89

(Courtesy photo - Navajo Police Department)

Navajo Nation Police Officer Calvin Begay is attacked by individuals with clubs in front of Administration Building No. 1 in Window Rock during the1989 riot.

Day that erupted after months of controversy in power struggle disrupted lives, led to government reforms

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 16, 2009

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It was an event that would forever change life for many people on the Navajo Nation.

The immediate outcome of the July 20, 1989, riot was the death of two MacDonald supporters - Arnold Begay of Red Mesa, Ariz., and Jimmy Dixon of Indian Wells, Ariz. - and injuries to a number of other demonstrators and police officers.

Some two and a half years later, on Nov. 11, 1992, former Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. and nine of his supporters would be sentenced to federal prison terms of anywhere from 41 months to 14 years for their involvement in that riot.


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MacDonald got the biggest sentence but he would serve just over eight years and was released in January 2001 when his sentence was commuted by then President Bill Clinton on his last day in office.

There was talk by MacDonald just after the riot that this event would be remembered for all time by the Navajo people.

They placed a small memorial at the site where the two MacDonald supporters died and said that there would be an annual event remembering the sacrifices they made that day for the Navajo people.

The memorial was removed by tribal officials the next day and there have been no remembrances of the day except by the media on the anniversary.

This is a story of what was going on that day from various people who were around at that time.

MacDonald was asked if he would talk about the riot and he initially told a Navajo Times reporter he would but this week, Wanda MacDonald, his wife, said that the family decided not to comment and "dredge up” the past.

Over the years, Peter MacDonald hasn't talked about that day except to say that he wasn't at the riot. Law enforcement officials have questioned that, saying they had reports that MacDonald watched the riot from a van overlooking the administration building.

It was MacDonald and his supporters who, after the riot, made the biggest push for a federal investigation into what happened that day, asking that Navajo police officers at the scene be investigated for police brutality and for overreacting, causing the death of Begay and Dixon.

The investigation took place but the police officers were cleared and the focus of the investigation turned to MacDonald and his supporters.

A total of 32 were initially indicted and the plans were to have two trials but after MacDonald and the others were convicted, the cases against the others were dropped, because a key witness had died.

Here are some of the stories from that day.

Donald Benally

Donald Benally, who was a council delegate representing Shiprock at the time of the riot, served the most time of all of those who were convicted - 10 years. He was released in 2003 and is now a Shiprock chapter officer and a rancher.

He wasn't at the riot. He's not in any of the photographs nor in the video.

He said he was meeting with the Advisory Committee at the time the riot was taking place but federal prosecutors went after him, claiming that his speeches earlier the day at the Keeto camp in Tse Bonito, N.M., stirred up the demonstrators and was one of the main reasons the demonstration turned violent.

"It was a selective prosecution," he said this week, believing that prosecutors had a specific agenda in mind - getting MacDonald out of power.

Benally, however, said he believed in MacDonald's fight for tribal sovereignty and he ignored the "negative" aspects of being part of the MacDonald administration at that time.

For a short period during the turmoil, Benally was one of three men calling themselves chairman at the same time.

Just before the riot, he was chosen "the people's chairman" and was sworn into office by Bo Bowman, a rodeo announcer.

While some looked at the swearing-in as just another part of the craziness that was going on at that time, Benally said he took it serious and hoped that he would be able to mediate a solution to the madness and restore calm to the reservation.

He has never expressed bitterness about what happened to him, saying he guessed it was "part of the Creator's plan for his life."

"What I really appreciated was that when I returned to the reservation (after prison), the people came out and supported me," he said.

He said that looking back at the day of the riot and its aftermath, he learned a lot and after serving his prison term, he had a new love for freedom and being able to live his life.

"I learned that you can't take that for granted," he said.

Leonard Haskie

Haskie was elected by the Navajo Nation Council to serve as interim chairman after MacDonald was put on leave with pay in a tumultuous tribal council session.

He views himself as the tribe's first president under the amendments to Title 2 of the Navajo Tribal Code, which were enacted to prevent any one office from holding too much power as MacDonald had.

The amendments created the three-branch government and split the chairman's position into the new positions of speaker of the council and president.

Haskie served as interim chairman, then president for two years.

In 1990, he ran for president against Peterson Zah and lost. He now serves as an assistant superintendent for support services for the Gallup-McKinley County School District.

"It was a nightmare," Haskie said, remembering the riot and the days that led up to it.

There had been several demonstrations in and around the council chamber and administration complex and he said he remembered police using tear gas and firefighters using high-powered water hoses to get crowds to disperse.

His office was in the pink building just south of the council chamber and he said he remembers looking out his window one day and seeing a group of demonstrators attack Tom Lapahe, the council delegate from Whippoorwill.

"I remember seeing his head flopping about," he said.

On the day of the riot, he was at the Education Center when he was told by tribal police that the demonstrators were leaving the Keeto camp near the New Mexico-Arizona border and were marching to the administrative building, armed with clubs.

They planned on taking over the financial building so that those who worked for MacDonald could get paid.

Fearing for Haskie's safety, tribal police told him he had to leave the area and they brought several police vans and escorted him to the airport where he was placed on a plane and flown to Winslow.

"I was getting regular updates from police as to what was happening," Haskie said, adding that he was "shocked" to learn of the human suffering that occurred on both sides that day.

He stayed with relatives that night and flew back to Window Rock where he began preparing for a press conference - reporters had been arriving there since the previous night from a number of major newspapers in the Southwest.

"But before I could hold it, MacDonald had already held his," Haskie said.

Over the next few days, all kinds of rumors began circulating. Threats were made against Haskie and there was talk that the BIA may take over the government or at least the police department.

James Stephens, who was then director of the BIA's Navajo Area office, had assembled a group of BIA law enforcement officers in a hotel in Gallup if they were needed.

But Haskie and the others stood their ground, saying that this was a Navajo problem that needed a Navajo solution and the BIA crew was disbanded a couple of days later.

Only one more demonstration was held - led by Indian activist Russell Means - but few MacDonald supporters showed up for it. The fight over who was in charge of the Navajo government was over.

"I'm just glad that peace was restored," Haskie said.

Joe Lodge

Joe Lodge, then in his second year of prosecuting federal crimes on the Navajo Reservation for the U.S. Attorney's Office, would get his most newsworthy case with the MacDonald prosecution.

The trial for the first 10 MacDonald supporters would take three months - mainly because each defendant had their own federal public defender - and the jury would take 18 days before the guilty verdicts were given out.

One of his vivid memories of the trial was when Stewart Calnimptewa, one of the investigators  of the riot, testified.

Calnimptewa was talking about photographs taken of the demonstrators, which showed that they were carrying plexiglass handcuffs in their back pockets. Demonstrators used a couple of them to handcuff police officers during the riot.

When the eight or ninth defense attorney questioned him, Calnimptewa was asked about the photographs and how he was able to discern that some of the demonstrators had the cuffs in their back pocket.

"I used a magnifying glass," he said.

"And do you have that magnifying glass with you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Calnimptewa said, pulling it out.

The defense attorney appeared to be a little flustered and said. "Who do you think you are - Sherlock Holmes?"

"No - Jim Chee," said Calnimptewa, referring to Tony Hillerman's Navajo detective character in his novels.

There is still a belief among MacDonald supporters on the reservation that Lodge and the U.S. Attorney's Office went after MacDonald because of his fight for tribal sovereignty - which was MacDonald's argument.

But Lodge said this was the furthest thing from the truth.

"We prosecuted these cases because of the violent nature of the riot. Cops got shot," he said, pointing to Sgt. Daniel Lee, who was shot in the leg.

Lee stayed on the job and retired just last year but he would live the next 19 years with a slight limp, a reminder of the riot.

He also disagreed with accusations that once MacDonald was convicted, the federal government lost interest in prosecuting the other 22.

"We don't just indict someone and not follow through," Lodge said.

The problem was that a couple of key witnesses died and in order to go to trial, the prosecutor's office had to have a reasonable expectation of getting a conviction. Without those key witnesses, there was no longer that reasonable expectation.

He said he realizes there is a group of people who feel the government was cold-hearted and had no concern for those it was prosecuting. But that wasn't the case.

While MacDonald was able to stay in a hotel and have his expenses paid for by groups on the reservation holding fund-raisers, little if any of that money was going to the other defendants and the prosecutors were concerned because they knew that most of the others were camping out because they didn't have any funds.

So Lodge said the prosecutors started raising funds so that the others would have some food while the trial continued.

Lodge said he didn't know if the story about MacDonald watching the riot from a van was true but he said there were several witnesses during the trial who talked about MacDonald being at the Keeto camp before the riot and telling them "to take the government back."

Lodge still works for the U.S. Attorneys Office and is stationed in Flagstaff where he prosecutes people who commit violent crimes.

Daniel Tso and Darrell Boye

Another council delegate at the time - representing Torreon, N.M. - Daniel Tso was a leader of the "49ers,' the group of council delegates that succeeded in taking control of the government from MacDonald.

He said he was in Torreon at the time and as soon as he heard about what happened, he raced back to Window Rock and met with Interim Vice President Irving Billie and others to discuss what needed to be done.

"Our main purpose was to make sure that services to the Navajo people were not disrupted and we were able to do that," he said.

This was a time when there appeared to be two - and sometimes three - chairmen, two police chiefs, two courts and two tribal councils. MacDonald and his group tried to appoint their own officials and give them legitimacy.

Darrell Boye, who is now a criminal investigator for the Navajo police department, said police were being pulled from both sides not knowing which side was actually in power. They also knew if they chose the wrong side, they could put their law enforcement careers in jeopardy.

In fact that happened to George Weybenais, who was a high-level police officer who had the unfortunate job of arresting George John who had been appointed by Haskie and the 49ers as their police chief.

When John first tried to gain control of the department, he was arrested and actually placed in jail. When he finally gained control, charges were placed against Weybenais, who was forced to step down and get out of law enforcement.

For years, there was a warrant out for his arrest in connection with that incident and a few years later, he talked to the Navajo Times and said that he still had a residence on the reservation and police officers knew where he was so if they wanted to arrest him, they could.

He was never arrested and Boye said this week that as far as he knew that warrant was still outstanding.

Eventually the courts ruled that Haskie and the 49ers were the legitimate government and the prosecutions took their course, leaving behind tattered lives and tragic memories.

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