American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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MacDonald, Peter

Peter MacDonald (Navajo, Hoshkaisith Begay, b. 1928) was elected chairman of the Navajo Nation four times before being removed from office by the Tribal Council in 1989 for accepting bribes and then going to a federal prison for helping incite a riot that led to the death of two of his supporters. After becoming tribal chairman in 1971, MacDonald led the Navajo government in taking advantage of the Indian self-determination movement to take over many of the governmental functions previously exercised by the U.S. government's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). He also helped found the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) in 1974 and served as its chair. CERT worked to help tribes benefit more from the exploitation of their natural resources, including mining of coal and uranium.

Hoshkaisith Begay lived a traditional Navajo youth herding sheep. In his autobiography he describes attending the BIA school at Teec Nos Pos in northeastern Arizona where he received the name Peter MacDonald. He later ran away twice from the boarding school at Shiprock, New Mexico, because of the teasing, taunting, and regimentation, becoming a sixth-grade dropout. MacDonald noted that the hostile attitude toward Navajos in the BIA was emotionally devastating. Students were taught that Navajos were "superstitious savages . . . we were forced to go to church without being given an understanding of the Christian religion. We were made to feel that our parents, our grandparents, and everyone who had come before us was inferior. . . . We were constantly told that we were truly inferior to them and that we would always be inferior" (MacDonald, 1993, 49). At age fifteen (having lied about his age earlier to get a job), he was drafted into the Marine Corp where he was trained as a code talker. World War II ended before MacDonald could go into battle, however.

After being honorably discharged in 1946 and working for a short time, in 1948 MacDonald enrolled at Bacone, a Baptist Indian junior college in Oklahoma on the GI Bill. There he earned a general equivalency diploma (GED), then majored in sociology, and took courses in Christianity and Indian history. He went to the University of Oklahoma, working nights in the state mental hospital. The BIA encouraged MacDonald to enter a trade school when his GI Bill funds ran out. Instead, he worked two years to save enough money so that he could return to the University of Oklahoma in 1955, where he earned an electrical engineering degree in 1957.

MacDonald then went to work at Hughes Aircraft, where in a few years he became director of its Polaris missile project. He also received a taste of a corporate executive's upper-class lifestyle. Despite his success at Hughes, MacDonald took a leave in 1963 and was soon appointed director of the Navajo Division of Management, Methods and Procedures. Two years later he was placed in charge of a large War on Poverty program under the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. The Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity ran Head Start programs, community development, alcoholism rehabilitation, and many other programs that directly or indirectly affected almost every Navajo. This experience gave him the name recognition necessary to run for Navajo Nation chairman in 1970, winning by a landslide.

While he successfully negotiated better contracts for the Navajos' energy resources and worked to have Navajos run more of the programs formerly administered by the BIA, MacDonald also became enmeshed in a bitter land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo Nations. His feuding with Arizona's powerful Senator Barry Goldwater hurt the Navajos in this dispute. A strong leader, he sought to pack the tribal court with judges who would rule the way he wanted and to dictate the council's agenda.

Signs of hubris appeared in his second term when, represented by F. Lee Bailey, MacDonald was tried and acquitted of taking bribes. Some of his opponents called him "Mac Dollar." In 1982, MacDonald lost the election, partly because of his lack of success in resolving the Navajo Hopi land dispute. However, he was again elected chairman in 1986. In 1989 he was placed on administrative leave by the tribal council, and a period of political turmoil ensued that led to his going to a federal prison. He was released after being pardoned by President William Clinton in 2001.

Jon Reyhner


Further Reading
Bland, Celia. 1995. Peter MacDonald: Former Chairman of the Navajo Nation. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.; Iverson, Peter. 2002. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; MacDonald, Peter. 1993. The Last Warrior: Peter MacDonald and the Navajo. London: Orion Books.
 

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