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A Navajo Newspaper Tests the Boundaries

A sensitive story about the Navajo Nation's leader created a dilemma for the tiny paper, especially when tribal officials are the boss and the 1st Amendment does not apply.

October 19, 1997|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — It all started with an anonymous letter.

The typewritten sheet of paper was dated Dec. 19, 1995, but the writer must have hesitated before mailing it because the envelope was postmarked Jan. 4, 1996. The letter--signed, "Navajo voter and concerned educator"--contained an explosive allegation. The writer claimed to have seen the first lady of the Navajo Nation, Regina Hale, beating her 14-year-old stepdaughter outside the presidential residence. "I almost stopped to say something but I was too shocked, I guess."

Marley Shebala read the letter at her desk in a windowless corner of the Navajo Times newsroom. Although she had only been with the paper for two years, Shebala was considered the most tenacious reporter on the nine-person staff. She had been picking up rumors about Regina and Albert Hale for months. Word was that the marriage was in trouble, that Regina had moved out, that the president and his beautiful press secretary were spending a lot of time together. Now came this letter.

Located in an ugly, weed-bordered strip mall in downtown Window Rock, the Navajo Times is a scruffy rabbit warren of metal desks, rickety swivel chairs and obsolete computer terminals. The Times, which comes out every Thursday, has a circulation of 17,500. That's not a lot on a reservation of 250,000, but it still makes the Times one of the two largest Indian-owned papers in the country. The messiest office at the Times belongs to the man Shebala took her letter to, Tom Arviso Jr., the paper's director.

Tall, rangy, with an affection for football, the occasional beer and pickup trucks, the 40-year-old Arviso grew up on the Navajo reservation and has worked at the paper for 12 years; he has held the top job since 1992. There is something of the good ol' boy about him. His preferred dress is jeans and a T-shirt, and he punctuates his sentences with "man." Not known as a tough line editor--the writing at the Times is wildly uneven--he is valued by his reporters for his judgment and coolness under fire. In the unruly world of tribal journalism, these qualities are highly prized.

Arviso agreed with Shebala that they didn't have a story as long as Regina Hale's accuser remained unidentified. But maybe it was time to call her and see if she would go on the record about her marriage. As it turned out, Regina Hale was more than willing. She had heard about the anonymous note and wanted to tell her side.

So on a cold, knife-edged January night, the two journalists drove to a mobile home in a small valley 10 miles north of Window Rock. Gathered around a Formica-topped kitchen table, Arviso and Shebala listened to the first lady pour out her wounded pride. Yes, she slapped her stepdaughter, but only after the girl called her a bitch during an argument over money. It was one more proof of how messed up the family was.

Far from being the abuser, she said, she was the abused. Her husband was carrying on an affair with his press secretary. The woman had turned her two daughters against her. She opened a binder containing pictures of the aide and her husband, taken in one of those dime-store photo booths. They had loopy grins on their faces and his chin rested on her shoulder.

Overwhelmed by it all, she had moved out. After she left, her husband changed the locks at the presidential residence. One day, she managed to get back in and found him and the press secretary at the dinner table. She demanded to know why she couldn't get back into her house. "[The press secretary] was going to say something, but I said, 'You don't say anything.' I grabbed her hair. I dragged her." The president's security men broke up the fight.

Regina Hale talked on and on, Shebala taping everything. They sipped sodas and Kool-Aid, but the mood was far too tense to eat. It was after midnight when they stepped out into the frigid night, which to Shebala seemed blacker than usual. She and Arviso looked at each other. They were sitting on something huge. No question. Possibly the biggest scandal to hit the Navajo reservation since former leader Peter MacDonald was removed from office in 1989 in the wake of conspiracy and fraud charges that later sent him to federal prison for 14 years. What they had just heard could tear the tribe apart.

Maybe, Arviso suggested, they should have a prayer done for protection and guidance.

The debate that Arviso had with himself over the next few days is one that numerous newspaper editors have had to confront. "Is it really a news story?" he wondered. What did Hale's private life have to do with the performance of his public duties? Was there any way to bring the first family's problems into the open without turning it into a spectacle?

But Arviso had a problem that most editors don't have to worry about: Albert Hale, the man his paper was investigating, the president of the Navajo Nation, possibly the most powerful Indian in North America, was his boss.

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