50 Years Ago | MacDonald aims for money from enterprises

It’s now been about eight months since Peter MacDonald was elected leader of the Navajo Tribe and for the first time in his administration, the heads of all the tribe’s enterprises met in a joint meeting.

Mo Christenson with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority called it a “gathering of eagles” and said it was a perfect opportunity for enterprise leadership to set up a new level of communication so they could share ideas on how to make improvements.

This came when MacDonald was trying to get the enterprises to start sharing profits with the tribal government, something only the Navajo Engineering and Construction authority did on a regular basis.

In reading the annual reports issued by the enterprise boards and talking to the leadership during the early 1970s, it was obvious that they were trying to serve two or more masters, all of whom had different ideas on why the enterprises were established.

There were those, like MacDonald, who saw them as revenue generating enterprises that could help fund the tribal government. In fact, this is something that was included in the plan of operations for each enterprise.

But tribal politics seemed to trump these directives. The directors of the enterprises knew that to keep their jobs they would have to work with the members of their board as well as other members of the Council who saw them as a mechanism to give their relatives and friends jobs.

The unemployment rate on the reservation was a staggering 60% – almost 90% in some of the small, remote chapters like Navajo Mountain — and chapter members looked to their Council delegates to find them job opportunities. And the easiest way to do this was to put pressure on the tribal enterprises to find opportunities for them.

This would become a major problem in the early 1980s with the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, which would expand operations annually to meet the growth caused by funds to increase the amount of land that was available for crops.

It became a practice for NAPI to base the number of hires not on need but on the amount of money that was available, which ultimately almost led to bankruptcy until the Council appointed someone who stopped the practice and got rid of unneeded personnel.

Another problem the enterprise directors faced was board members who saw the opportunity to take advantage of their positions to get extra money or benefits over and above their regular payments.

This is why the boards held meetings in places like Las Vegas when the Indian rodeo finals took place or in Albuquerque during Gathering of Nations.

Over the years there were also problems that cropped up with board members using their company credit cards to buy personal items or building up huge debts by taking advances on their board stipends.

While these and other problems were brought up at the meeting, enterprise officials would later say that nothing was done to correct the problems, which actually became worse the longer MacDonald was in office.

The tribe would continue to lose millions that could have gone to fund services to the members of the tribe.

Arizona vs. New Mexico

As popular MacDonald was in Arizona, his vice chairman, Wilson Skeet, was well-known in New Mexico with a long political career in chapter and tribal matters.

There was a peculiarity in tribal politics that started in the 1930s and lasted up to about the start of this century. Once a person made it through the primary election, he would select a politician from the other state as his vice chairman candidate.

I’ve been told many times that tribal members from Arizona and New Mexico are different. They even talk different.

When KGAK was looking for a Navajo for radio announcements, I was told they were looking for a tribal member from New Mexico because they speak slower and are more easily understood on the radio.

This was partly due to the fact that Navajos living in Arizona tended to support candidates from their state while Navajos in New Mexico did the same.

When I first noticed this, I asked someone in the chairman’s office to explain it to me and he said that was because New Mexico Navajos wanted to support someone who was familiar with land issues in their state.

When MacDonald got to the primary in 1970, he chose Wilson Skeet as his running mate because Skeet was from New Mexico and had a lot of support from ranchers in that state. This resulted in MacDonald taking most of the chapters in both Arizona, where he was from, and New Mexico.

By December of 1971, it was evident that Skeet was assigned to land issues in New Mexico. At the time, his big project was land consolidation in the Eastern Navajo Agency. Known as the Checkerboard, the land in McKinley and San Juan counties were divided into tribal, federal and railroad land.

As you can guess, this caused a lot of problems, especially in law enforcement. There were cases, for example, in the Yah-Ta-Hey area, where an assault could begin on federal land and by moving just a couple of yards finish on tribal lands, making it difficult to determine who had jurisdiction.

MacDonald wanted to get rid of as much of the checkerboard patterns as possible and talks began with the federal government and the railroads for land consolidation. Land in one section of the checkerboard could be traded for land elsewhere to consolidate land holdings. He and Skeet were able to do this and got a lot of credit from members of the tribe in New Mexico.

This did not go unnoticed by factions who wanted to end MacDonald’s reign. His opposition thought they had a chance in 1978 if they could reduce his support in New Mexico so they encouraged Skeet to run for chairman. They hoped he would reduce MacDonald’s support in New Mexico enough to allow two other candidates to come in first and second.

At the time, it seemed like a good strategy because there appeared to be two other candidates – Dr. Taylor McKenzie and former chairman Raymond Nakai – who would fight MacDonald for the Arizona vote. By having Skeet challenge for the New Mexico vote, the opposition thought they had a good chance of ending MacDonald’s political career.

McKenzie, however, did not have the support he thought he did, primarily because of a ploy by MacDonald to convince voters that it was more important to have McKenzie, the tribe’s first Navajo doctor, continue to serve as a doctor.

The 1978 race came down to a showdown between MacDonald and Nakai and MacDonald had no problem winning a third term.

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