50 Years Ago: Annie Wauneka pummels DNA legal services director
What happened on Aug. 6, 1968, on the Navajo Reservation had never happened before and stories about it made news all over the country. The Washington Post even put it on the front page two days later.
This is how the Navajo Times reported it in its Aug. 15 issue: “Ted Mitchell was kicked off the Navajo Reservation last week in an exercise which for sheer drama lacked only the ominous beat of the drum,” the lead paragraph on page 1 read. Mitchell was director of DNA-People’s Legal Services, the legal aid service on the reservation.
The Navajo Tribal Council had been trying for months to get him fired because of what they claimed was meddling in tribal affairs by DNA filing lawsuits against tribal programs on behalf of tribal members. “In an action that bodes to have serious consequences, the young DNA director was escorted to the reservation line by Capt. Frank Adakai and Lt. Franklin Eriacho of the Navajo Police,” the Times article stated.
The Navajo government had the right under the Treaty of 1868 to remove non-Indians from the reservation if they were causing problems or creating a nuisance. According to the Times, this had been done in a handful of cases in the past but only in cases where the non-Indian was considered to be violent and a danger to the community. In this case, the police were carrying out an order from the Council’s Advisory Committee, which four hours earlier had passed a resolution 11-1 to expel Mitchell.
That resolution said that Mitchell’s “ridicule of the Advisory Committee and other elected officials of the Navajo Tribe has increased tensions among the Navajo people to the point where there has been a breach of the peace and violent disturbances during a meeting of the committee.”
So what did Mitchell do that was so awful? He laughed. He was sitting in the back of the chambers with other DNA officials and he laughed. It wasn’t a loud laugh but it was loud enough to be heard by Annie Wauneka, who represented Wide Ruins and Klagetoh in the Council and who had a desk situated about five feet from where Mitchell was sitting.
Now the laugh would probably have gone unnoticed except for the fact that Wauneka had the floor and was raking Mitchell over the coals for some of his previous actions that she didn’t like. Afterwards, she said she felt Mitchell was laughing at her and she decided at the spur of the moment that she was not about to let him get away with it. The resolution called Mitchell’s laugh an act of “defiance and ridicule” and added that it threatened “the peace and well-being of the Navajo people and led to grave danger to the life and health of all members of the Navajo Tribe.”
Yes, it was only a laugh and apparently not even a laugh that had anything to do with what was going on in the committee meeting. Mitchell said later he was laughing at something one of his associates said and was not listening to Wauneka. While it may appear that the committee went overboard in its depiction of the affects of Mitchell’s laugh during the meeting, it had to be worded this way in order to comply with the language in the treaty.
The person who was to be removed must be a danger to the community and to the Navajo people in order for the removal to be lawful. But that is not to say there was no violence at the committee meeting. There was – but it did not come from Mitchell. This is how the Navajo Times described what came next. Wauneka “got up from her desk, walked to where Mitchell was seated and began pummeling him.” Mitchell said, “She hit me above the right eye and I saw stars.”
Mitchell said he threw up his arms to protect his face as Wauneka kept hitting him on his head. She said she was furious at him, adding that she was asking a question at the meeting about what authority the committee had to remove someone from the reservation. She was asked who she had in mind and replied she had no one in mind. It was at that moment that she said she heard Mitchell give “the silliest, dirtiest laugh I have ever heard.”
She then turned to Mitchell and told him to behave himself. Mitchell was allowed to come back on the reservation the next day to explain his actions but the committee then voted in favor of another resolution permanently banning him from the reservation. At that meeting, Mitchell agreed to leave peacefully and only asked to be allowed “to go to his home first and pick up his razor.” Capt. Adakai agreed but said police would have to go with him. “Never mind,” Mitchell responded. “I will go into Gallup and have it brought in.” The Times reported that he then walked out to his pickup and started toward Gallup accompanied by police. But he did not go directly to Gallup. Before he got to the reservation line, he stopped at a Shell station and got gas.