YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

MacDonald Faces Cultural Conflicts : Embattled Navajo Leader Tries to Straddle 2 Worlds

March 13, 1989|TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writer

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Flung across the lunar edges of three states, the 25,000-square-mile Navajo reservation seems virtually unchanged from the days when it served as the eerily beautiful set for John Wayne movies.

Although rich in minerals, the high desert provides barely a Third World existence for most of the 170,000 tribe members who live here and call what lies beyond reservation boundaries "the outside world."

The contrasts can be striking.

While many of his constituents go without adequate housing, plumbing, electricity or telephones, the Navajo leader, Peter MacDonald, enjoys a life style replete with private jets, posh offices, luxury cars and lavish parties.

Some revere him. Others revile him. And the passions stirred by the enigmatic 60-year-old chairman of the nation's largest Indian tribe often reflect his people as much as his politics.

Now, amid allegations of corruption and fraud, MacDonald is waging an ugly battle to keep the powerful post he has claimed for 14 of the last 18 years. Under investigation by the U.S. Senate, a federal grand jury and his own tribe, MacDonald maintains he is the innocent victim of dirty politics and cultural ignorance.

He describes himself as a "fearless, aggressive" leader and favors comparisons to Geronimo or Sitting Bull.

Detractors call him "MacDollar" and liken him to less romantic figures--Ferdinand E. Marcos, Jim Bakker and Moammar Kadafi, to name a few.

"Listen, this guy is the Navajo Huey Long," said Peterson Zah, a former tribal chairman and rival of MacDonald, referring to the legendary "Kingfish" of Louisiana politics.

Over the weekend, MacDonald had the locks changed on the tribal council building and legislative office here after dissident members of the tribal council elected an interim chairman, challenging MacDonald's rule. "We really have a police state here," Zah said Sunday, referring to MacDonald's order.

The scandal and continuing tribal discord have nearly halted tribal government, periled Navajo business deals and divided a proud but impoverished Indian nation torn between tradition and progress.

The damage to MacDonald lies not only in what is being said about him, but in who has been saying it: The most damaging evidence came from his only son and one of his oldest friends.

Used Taped Conversations

That testimony, before a Senate subcommittee investigating alleged corruption in Indian country, included secretly taped conversations with MacDonald which portrayed him as a greedy, corrupt politician who would scheme to bilk his own tribe and persuade his son to take the fall.

Peter (Rocky) MacDonald Jr., 33, testifying under immunity and the apparent fear of losing his new place in the state bar, told Senate investigators his father solicited thousands of dollars--and a new BMW--in kickbacks and bribes from companies and individuals seeking to do business on the reservation.

The biggest hurdle the chairman faces is explaining his role in the tribe's purchase of the Big Boquillas Ranch near the Grand Canyon, about 100 miles outside the reservation.

Testimony alleged that MacDonald conspired with his old friend and golfing partner, Phoenix developer Byron (Bud) Brown, to buy the property at an inflated price and split the profit.

The Navajos paid $33.4 million--$68 an acre--for land they didn't realize Brown had purchased from the California owners just six minutes earlier for $26.2 million. The property had been on the market for two years at $25 million.

Reportedly Collected $50,000

Brown told the Senate subcommittee that MacDonald was to get $500,000 to $750,000 in kickbacks but actually collected about $50,000 in $1,000 increments the two referred to under the code "golfballs."

As chairman, MacDonald draws an annual salary of $55,000. He maintains homes in Flagstaff, Phoenix and Window Rock, and he sends his daughters to private school.

The $700,000 remodeling of the chairman's wing at tribal headquarters reflects his taste. Mahogany doors carved with the Navajo seal were imported from the Philippines to the tune of $4,800.

Described as a gifted orator in Navajo, MacDonald has been hopscotching the reservation lately to proclaim his innocence. He enjoys strong support among the elders. Many lack sufficient English to follow the news about their leader.

MacDonald refuses, on advice of his lawyer, to discuss specific allegations, nor would he testify before the Senate subcommittee or cooperate with a former U.S. attorney the tribe hired to probe the Big Boquillas deal.

MacDonald insists that accepting "gifts" is a respected part of his culture.

Alleges Racism

"There is a hidden agenda here," he said in a brief interview, suggesting that the federal government wants to undermine Indian leadership in a racist bid to regulate tribal business and challenge sovereignty.

He professes love for the son who betrayed him, saying: "Those folks made to testify did so under duress or some kind of threat."

Los Angeles Times Articles