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

Times Staff Writer

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."

Addressing the Navajo Tribal Council before being placed on paid leave, MacDonald summed up his troubles with characteristic cool:

"Every elected leader," he said, "goes through ups and downs of popularity."

MacDonald is no stranger to the ups or the downs.

Born on the reservation to a traditional family of sheep ranchers, MacDonald "didn't even see his first white" until the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent him away to school and gave him an Anglo name at the age of 6 or 7, according to his wife, Wanda.

During World War II, MacDonald joined the Marine Corps at 15 by lying about his age, his wife recalled. The boy became one of the legendary Navajo "code-talkers" who outwitted the enemy by relaying sensitive military information in their indecipherable native tongue.

Trained as Medicine Man

After two years in the Pacific, MacDonald came home and trained to be a medicine man before the "outside world" beckoned again. He earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Oklahoma and worked for Hughes Aircraft before accepting an invitation to work for the tribe.

He divorced his first wife and married his secretary 26 years ago. MacDonald encouraged all five of his children to leave the reservation to get a decent education and work experience.

By the time he won the coveted chairmanship for the first time in 1970, MacDonald, a Republican, was a firm advocate of economic development. If the Navajos were to survive, the "outside world" would have to come in.

It would be a long haul. The vast reservation had gotten its first supermarket just a year earlier. The first small shopping center would take 16 years to complete.

Today, while old women still peddle exquisite willow baskets and woven rugs, the tribe also dabbles in unconventional ventures, such as a shittake mushroom factory. There are even plans for a multimillion-dollar resort in cooperation with designer Oleg Cassini.

But life on the reservation has not improved much. Per capita income is around 40% of the national average. Luring business has proved difficult, in part, because basic services are so poor. There are nearly 8,200 miles of road, but nearly 6,000 are dirt or unimproved.

Critics have often accused MacDonald of favoritism and featherbedding, but just how much can be attributed to culture and how much to cunning remains a topic of fierce debate.

"MacDonald is a very traditional person," said Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Democrat and part Cheyenne who has known the Navajo leader for several years.

"There is a strong traditional belief that you are obligated to take care of your family," Campbell said, "and if you are in a position of authority, that means giving jobs to relatives."

"In the white world, that would be called nepotism, or cronyism. In the Indian world, you are expected to do that."

It wasn't until MacDonald's second term that trouble really hit.

Indicted in 1977 on fraud and tax evasion charges, MacDonald got off with the help of attorney F. Lee Bailey. The jury failed to reach a verdict and charges were dismissed.

Fosters National Image

MacDonald handily won the 1978 election and continued to foster a national image as a controversial but dynamic Indian leader. The tribe last year signed a $1.5-million contract with a Washington, D.C. public relations and lobbying group partly owned by a non-Indian friend of MacDonald.

"Big Mac's" taste for publicity proved so insatiable that his chief spokesman quit in disgust last fall, complaining that MacDonald was grandstanding.

MacDonald's career derailed when he sought an unprecedented fourth term in 1982 and lost to Zah, a Democratic attorney whose blue jeans and battered pickup signaled a dramatic change from the limousine and three-piece suit era of MacDonald.

"I personally believe he was very angry at the Navajo people for showing their needs had changed, and he never forgave them," Zah said.

Zah found "not a scrap of paper" on his new desk. Tribal police had to retrieve documents from MacDonald, who claimed they were all personal, Zah said.

MacDonald moved to Phoenix, then reclaimed office in 1986 by a razor-thin margin.

Now, MacDonald claims Zah and his supporters orchestrated the current brouhaha.

Charges Not Filed

Although no charges have been filed, a federal grand jury in Phoenix has subpoenaed boxes of documents, contracts, bids and proposals concerning tribal business deals during MacDonald's latest term.

Zah considers revenge Peter MacDonald's motivating force. "He decided he was going to come back at any expense," Zah said. "His whole tactic was, 'I'm going to get back in there and once I do, I'm going to grab everything that's not nailed down, and that's what the Navajo people get.' "

Wanda MacDonald describes her husband as a "warm and fuzzy" man who likes to take his mongrel puppy to bed at night and "would never take any bribes or do anything illegal."

She likes to tell Peter MacDonald that he was born to lead his people.

"He'll just kind of smile and shrug his shoulders."

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