Dispute Over Leaders' Ethics Divides Navajos


Two weeks after Navajo Nation President Albert Hale resigned amid charges of ethical and financial misdeeds, American Indian officials are scrambling to heal a tribe that is divided over how to interpret conduct on the part of its leaders.

Hale, 47, stepped down to avoid facing tribal charges of accepting illegal gifts from companies with tribal contracts--and to prevent a repeat of the deadly riots that followed the ouster of Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald in 1989 on corruption charges.

Hale, a lawyer, insists that accepting gifts is a Navajo custom. Not so, say critics--including the former chief of staff to the president's office, who resigned a week ago saying such practices are "contrary to the way the law is written."

Now the new president, Thomas Atcitty, and possibly other officials are believed to be under investigation for similar alleged misdeeds.

"We're waiting for the other shoe to drop--or a bushel basket of other shoes," said Navajo Nation spokesman Ted Rushton. "The problem here is a lack of clarity in the law. What Hale has done, every other elected official has done."

U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a northern Cheyenne and chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, wouldn't go quite that far. But he did say this crisis underlines the ethical razor's edge that Native American leaders tread.

"What I'm doing is child's play compared to what they do--Indian politics is mean," Campbell said. "You're always on the edge of living within your traditions . . . and falling off into an abyss of illegal activity from a white man's legal standpoint.

"Tribal leaders are expected to accept gifts, and give away what they have because they have access to power and jobs," he said. "Yet if you don't refuse a gift, you break the white man's law. Give a starving relative a job, and you're accused of nepotism. Don't give him that job, and you're guilty of the worst kind of abandonment."

As the dispute heats up, residents in this 25,000-square-mile reservation of red rock canyons and mesas are worrying as always about alcoholism, soaring crime and school dropout rates, chronic unemployment, dwindling federal funds for social and medical programs, eroding cultural traditions and pressure from corporations to develop mineral resources at the expense of sovereignty rights.

But for the time being, tribal officials are focused on a political process complicated by cultural do's and don'ts, as well as potentially volatile blood ties, clan relations, extended families and traditional medicine.

Only six months away from the next election, medicine men here have been busy gazing into crystals, casting spells, conducting exorcisms and praying for goodwill on behalf of political leaders and potential candidates on both sides of the Hale dispute.

Political tumult is not unique to the Navajos. Where once American Indians focused on the federal government's handling of their affairs, they now increasingly are turning their ire against political targets within their reservations.

In 1995, tensions over who controlled the Seneca Nation in western New York resulted in the shooting deaths of three men. The next year, a family feud over the tribal chair of the Paiute in Lovelock, Nev., erupted into charges of death threats, physical assaults and embezzlement. Now, in Oklahoma, months of turmoil and sporadic violence over how to interpret the Cherokee Constitution have paralyzed that government.

Given the pitfalls, Hale--who has publicly apologized for any wrongdoing he committed while serving as the 11th Navajo leader--said that in retrospect, "I must have been crazy when I took that job."

Only three years ago, Hale radiated confidence and ambition after winning a nine-way race on his vow to end corruption in tribal government, protect sovereignty rights and give local communities authority over their own affairs. And on a reservation where unemployment has hovered around 50% for decades, he promised to bring financial health to the tribe's 250,000 members by promoting locally owned small businesses.

Shortly after his election, however, Hale came under investigation for allegedly misusing a tribal credit card. Then--in a culture whose foundation is based on strong family and community life--his then-wife Regina publicly accused him of having an affair with his former press secretary.

A few weeks ago, his proposal to close reservation borders for one day as an exercise of sovereignty was attacked by other Navajo leaders as inflammatory--and by whites who threatened to run so-called sovereignty roadblocks with firearms.

Then came the offer from special prosecutor Chris Smith, hired from outside by the Navajo Nation: Resign in exchange for a promise that criminal charges would not be pursued.

Those charges could have sent Hale to prison for 50 years. He allegedly allowed Xerox Corp., which has significant contractual agreements with the tribe, to pay his $2,250 entry fee for a pro/amateur golf tournament in Phoenix, as well as lodging and meal expenses totaling $4,000.

He also allegedly accepted $1,700 from political appointees to pay his travel expenses to attend the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, used the Navajo Nation jet for personal reasons, allowed Conoco Corp. to buy him dinner and accepted free rooms from a hotel in Albuquerque.

Hale insists that his problems stem from disagreements over how to interpret the tribe's ethical codes, which were tightened in the aftermath of the clash between tribal police and MacDonald's supporters that left two people dead and six officers wounded.

As it stands, all gifts worth more than $100 must be reported to government authorities. Some tribal leaders now are proposing to lift all restrictions against accepting gifts worth up to $1,000.

"All tribal leaders are given tokens of appreciation--from bracelets to rugs--for service by their constituents," said Navajo Nation staff assistant Harris Arthur.

"Whether ethics laws do not accommodate gifts from corporations worth more than $100 seems to be a gray area in some people's minds.

"Just the other day," Arthur recalled, "a staffer came in saying President Atcitty was late for a dinner function. She had two $100 dinner tickets paid for by a particular group."

"I just lost it and yelled, 'Don't you get it? That's why we're in the mess we're in!' " he said. "Imagine. He'd have gone to dinner, given a speech and shaken hands without knowing he'd taken a gift worth more than $200. We have to deal with potential problems like that."

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