50 Years Ago: Federal court mulls Mitchell’s attempt to overturn ban

The Ted Mitchell case ended this past week in federal court in Phoenix as Mitchell, the head of DNA-People’s Legal Services, continues to attempt to overturn a ban set by the Navajo Tribal Council which does not allow him on reservation land.

There has been no ruling yet in the case so Mitchell continues to run DNA from an office set up in a trailer in Tse Bonito, New Mexico, with lawyers and office workers coming him if they need to talk to him about something.

The hearing lasted several days as both sides tried to convince the judge that either Mitchell was a danger to communities or, in
Mitchell’s case, the Council had exceeded its authority to kick him off the reservation.

From letters that have been written to the Navajo Times, it appears reservation residents are divided on the issue, although, in general, the older Navajos appear to side with the council and the younger Navajos with Mitchell.

Much of the testimony centered around what actually happened at that Council session on Aug. 2 that caused all the furor.

The minutes of the Council session were put into evidence but that did little to settle the question since the events of that day that caused Mitchell to be expelled took place outside the debate and therefore was not a part of the minutes.

In general, most of the witnesses who were in the Council testified that they saw Annie Wauneka, the delegate from Wide Ruins and
Klagetoh, walk quickly to the back of the Council Chamber, get into a heated argument with Mitchell and slap him three or four times in the face.

Only a couple of the witnesses said they heard Mitchell laugh while Wauneka was speaking to other members of the Council. One witness said he heard Wauneka walk up to Mitchell and ask what he was laughing at but the witness said he couldn’t hear Mitchell’s reply.

The day after the slaps, the Council met again and passed a resolution throwing Mitchell off the reservation, citing a provision in the
Treaty of 1868 that allows the tribe to ban anyone who is believed to be a danger to the community.

Wauneka testified that the Navajo people viewed Mitchell as being arrogant and “thoroughly disrespectful to the Navajo people.” She said Mitchell had made it his practice to get involved in matters on the reservation that were solely the responsibility of the tribal
government and that he seemed to believe that he had the right to overturn practices on the reservation that had been followed for
generations.

Mitchell, when he testified, denied all of this although he did admit that DNA had, at times, filed suit against the tribe for things like jail overcrowding. He said this was done to protect the lives of members of the tribe.

As for that fit of laughter that caused all of the problems, Mitchell said he was not laughing at Wauneka. In fact, he said, he wasn’t even listening to Wauneka at the time but listening to a fellow attorney who had something he found funny. When asked what that was, Mitchell said he couldn’t recall what it was and pointed out that this happened more than five months before.

He added that he has never, in his opinion, been disrespectful to members of the Council or any member of the tribal government.

What this all boils down to, he said, was a vendetta against him by Wauneka who convinced members of the Council to join her in removing Mitchell from the reservation. And if that was all it was, allowing the Council to get away with it would set a bad precedent since it would pave the way for other people to be kicked off for minor reasons.

A ruling on the matter was expected at any time.

In other news, a major accident on State Highway 264 about three miles inside the New Mexico border has once again raised questions about the existence of the Navajo Inn less than a mile from the reservation border.

Two men and one woman died in the crash which officials for the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office said was due to a combination of bad
weather and the use of alcohol by the driver.

More than 300 residents from Window Rock and Tse Bonito signed a petition asking that the Navajo Inn be closed down or not allow the
package liquor store to sell after 6 p.m. The petition was basically ignored and the Navajo Inn was allowed to continue operating but this was not the last time it would come under fire.

With tribal elections expected to start getting hot and heavy in a few months, Dick Hardwick, who had been the managing editor of the Navajo Times for the past two years, was considering resigning and going back to work for the BIA.

He had already come under criticism from staff in the chairman’s office for articles they felt were critical of the Nakai administration. He knew it would only get worse as the election continued.

In the future, he would say that there was no way that anyone could survive as managing editor of the paper in an election year. There was just too much tribal politics.

He later said that he was convinced to stay on by staff in the chairman’s office who said it would be impossible to find anyone else
with the type of experience he had. They also stressed that they wanted a non-Navajo to head the paper because a Navajo would find it
almost impossible not to get involved in the election in some way and that would hurt the paper.

He also said that he felt it was probably the wrong decision, at least on his part, because the election turned out to be a bitter battle between Raymond Nakai and Peter MacDonald and the paper would find itself smack in the middle of a number of disputes with both
candidates before the election was held.


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About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.