Archaeologist: Departmental infighting hinders paving

By Cindy Yurth
Chinle Bureau

FLAGSTAFF, Feb. 26, 2010

Text size: A A A

A tight budget and a circuitous bureaucracy certainly contribute to the lack of paved roads on the Navajo Nation, as mentioned in a recent article in the Navajo Times.

But according to a Navajo Nation archeologist, the situation is compounded by departmental infighting that has even escalated to violence.

The archeologist, Kimberly Mangum of Winslow, Ariz., leveled numerous charges against her former superior at the Navajo Nation's Historical Preservation Department's road office in Flagstaff.

The upshot, she adds, is to slow down archeological clearances needed on about 100 miles of reservation roads that are awaiting paving by the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation.

Mangum said her boss prevented her from going out in the field to collect data, sabotaged a finished report, framed her for the theft of a computer program, locked her out of her office and seriously injured her in a scuffle over a document.

The scuffle left her neck and back injured severely enough that she could not go out into the field to do surveys.

Between administrative leave and medical leave, Mangum said she was unable to perform her duties for most of 2009, and hasn't yet been cleared by her physician to do rigorous fieldwork.

She has filed criminal assault charges against the supervisor, Nina Swidler.

Swidler has since retired, but Mangum says the work environment at Historic Preservation is still toxic and there is bad blood between it and the Archeology Department, another branch of the Navajo Nation's Division of Natural Resources.

"The people who want to work are being prevented from doing their job," she stated.

Why would HPD sabotage its own work?

"All I can think of is (that) it has something to do with the money," Mangum said.

According to the archeologist, some of the roads she was assigned to survey have been waiting to be surveyed since 2001 - nearly 10 years.

The archeologist says she has reason to believe Historic Preservation is deliberately stalling projects so it can extort more money from the BIA.

That's not true, said Alan Downer, manager of the Historical Preservation Department.

"The holdup is not with HPD," he said.

Downer acknowledged there have been "personality problems" within the department, but added most of those have been resolved.

As for the assault charges against Swidler, "That's something for the courts to decide." The matter is set for hearing March 6 in Flagstaff Municipal Court.

According to Downer, HPD's main role with regard to roads is to reach an agreement with the Navajo Nation's Archeology Department or a private contractor to do an archeological survey, then review the report when it's done. HPD uses its own archeologists when the job is "too small for NNAD," he said.

Conflicts between supervisors and field archeologists arise when the latter are asked to make changes in their reports, Downer said.

"There's no point in doing this work unless it meets professional standards," he added. "Sometimes there's room for disagreement."

On average, Downer said, "It's less than a day between the time the report hits our mailbox and we forward it to the BIA."

A 'dictatorship'

Mangum said she was hired by HPD in 2008 to survey about 100 miles of roads that had been turned over to the Navajo Nation by the BIA. She had previously worked for the tribe's Archeology Department.

She said she started the job eager to go out into the field and get the work done, but her boss, Swidler, seemed to find excuses to keep her in the office.

On one car trip Swidler, who is white, made derogatory comments about NNAD and Navajo archeologists in general, according to Mangum.

"It made me wonder why she had hired me," she said.

Swidler did not return a phone call Monday.

Mangum said Swidler seemed much more concerned about procuring funding than doing fieldwork.

"It seemed like HPD was always asking BIA for money and BIA would say, 'What happened to the last money we gave you?'" Mangum recalled.

According to Downer, asking for money is part of the job.

"The BIA only gives us enough money for one phase of the project at a time," he explained, adding that it's not uncommon for Historic Preservation to have to go back to the BIA several times within the project deadline to request additional funding.

Downer said he doesn't know which meeting the archeologist was referring to, but "HPD can account for every dime we spend."

Mangum, meanwhile, began to chafe under the "menial" tasks assigned to her and Swidler's management style, which she says Swidler herself once described as a "dictatorship." Swidler, for her part, allegedly accused the archeologist of being recalcitrant and hard to work with.

Mangum says Swidler increasingly began to bypass the Archeology Department and her own staff and funnel contracts to her white cronies in Flagstaff. The archeologist said Swidler wrote a request for proposals that mandated outside references, which NNAD doesn't have since it only works for the tribe.

Conflicts between the tribe's Historic Preservation and Archeology departments are mentioned in meeting minutes of the Fort Defiance Agency Road Committee throughout the summer and fall of 2008.

By October 2008, tension between Swidler and Mangum had escalated to the point where the archeologist had to psyche herself up to go to work. She began to get the idea Swidler was trying to make the work environment so hostile she would quit.

First, she said, Swidler wrote her up for driving a tribal vehicle to a training seminar, something she thought she was authorized to do. Then Swidler had Mangum erase everything on her laptop because "the IT guy needed to look at it," then accused her of stealing a GIS program that had been on the computer.

When Mangum turned in a report to Swidler, it came back "covered with red marks," while reports turned in by Anglo archeologists were rubber-stamped, she said. On one occasion, Mangum said, her report appeared to have been tampered with before being edited.

"Someone had introduced misspellings into it, and different tables," she said. "I kept the original report, so I was able to compare them. The one that came back to me covered in red ink was not my report."

Getting physical

The coup de grace came on Oct. 17, 2008. Mangum wanted to go to the library at Northern Arizona University to do some research and Swidler didn't want her to leave the office. Finally, about 2 p.m., she was allowed to leave. But when she returned to the office a little after 5 p.m., her key didn't work in the lock.

"I thought, 'Could she have changed the lock?'" Mangum recalled. "'Why would she do that?'"

She called Swidler at home and left a message. The supervisor finally showed up at the office with her husband about 6:30 p.m. and let Mangum in.

Mangum demanded a written explanation of why she was locked out with no notice. Swidler wrote out an explanation, saying the order to change the locks had come down from Window Rock because there had been security problems at the office. She also wrote that Mangum had refused to leave without the written document, which the employee said wasn't true.

Mangum refused to sign the document and tried to put it in her backpack but, she said, Swidler grabbed her from behind and told her husband, "Get the paper!" Mangum says she screamed, and Swidler covered her mouth with her hand.

Mangum wrenched free and held onto the paper, but strained her neck and suffered two herniated discs in the struggle, she said. Swidler called the police and accused Mangum of "trespassing."

The police arrived and settled the situation with neither woman pressing charges, but after giving the matter some thought and learning the extent of her injuries, Mangum decided to file charges. Swidler and her husband each face charges of assault, disorderly conduct and unlawful imprisonment.

In 2009, little work was done on the road survey. Swidler and Mangum were both placed on administrative leave while the incident was investigated internally. The investigation cleared both women but a different supervisor was put in charge of Mangum. Swidler worked out of her home while Mangum worked out of the office.

Each woman filed for a protective order against the other, with Swidler at one point in her hearing accusing Mangum, who is Navajo, of witchcraft. Mangum's protective order was upheld while Swidler's was dismissed. Mangum has also filed a grievance with the Navajo Nation Office of Labor Relations, which authorized her to start a proceeding with the Labor Commission.

Mangum took several months of medical leave, once for post-traumatic stress disorder and twice for back pain. Even so, she said, she was able to finish a report on a complex of roads around Chinle that had been on the books for eight years.

Swidler retired last year, but Mangum said her legacy lives on.

"I still see contracts going to non-Navajos," she said. "People still call her for advice."

Downer, meanwhile, maintains his department is functional and doing its job.

"Everyone involved in this (roads program) is constantly trying to wring out one more project this year with funding that is completely inadequate and a compliance process mandated by federal regulation," he said. "If you look into it, you'll find a bunch of people trying to keep a lot of plates in the air, and doing pretty well."

Back to top ^

Text size: A A A  email this pageE-mail this story