DEATH OF AN ECO WARRIOR

LEROY JACKSON TRANSFORMED HIMSELF FROM A PHOENIX STREET WINO INTO A CHARISMATIC NAVAJO ENVIRONMENTALIST. HIS FRIENDS THINK HE WAS MURDERED FOR HIS EFFORTS.

Once, in a lucid moment, Leroy told Dave he'd like to be an engineer when he got sober. Dave told him he'd better start working on it. Instead, Leroy disappeared completely.

No one heard from him for years, until he was nearly 30, when he wrote his mother a letter from the drunk tank in Salt Lake City, where he had bottomed out. "Leroy said he was in jail there and he was sitting on a cement floor and he started to cry. He said to himself that when he got out of there, he was never coming back again," Jane Popovich remembers. "He was a straight man after that."

Dave recalls that Leroy met a Pawnee Indian named Big Elk who got him into treatment, and he did sober up, though his troubles had not yet lifted completely.

Leroy Jackson's emotional odyssey took him far from his Navajo roots. Though his family knew he had moved to Oakland, California, and married a white woman, they claim to know very little about those years of his life. That holds with Jackson's character; he seldom revealed much about himself, and even as he gathered political clout later in life, his family and some of his closest friends never realized it.

His Oakland marriage fell apart quickly, but not until Jackson had fathered two daughters, whom the wife took with her when she left. One still lives in California and has a child of her own; the other died some years back of a drug overdose while a student at a Phoenix-area Indian school. No one seems to remember her name, and it's hard to tell if that is because she lived estranged from her Navajo family or because Navajos are hesitant to utter the names of the dead.

After his divorce, Leroy, who was now in his early 30s, returned to Salt Lake City, where he worked in construction and volunteered his time as a counselor at a recovery center for Indian alcoholics. Adella met him there in 1976 while she was attending nursing school at the University of Utah.

She was smitten by Leroy. "He was real intelligent. I was attracted to the depth of his character. He never talked about trivial stuff, it was always about something important and about Indian people."

Adella is one of those women whose very presence exudes a sense of purpose. She was trained in Western medicine, but Leroy took strength from her traditional Navajo beliefs and upbringing. Within a year they had a daughter, Michelle.

"We married with a traditional medicine man," Begaye continues. "That was how Leroy was. We didn't go before a priest or a judge. I'd ask, 'When are we going to get the papers?' He'd say, 'Hey, this is your tradition. We've been here a long time before these papers came along.'" She obtained a marriage license only two years ago. Then they debated whether she should change her name. "Why would you change your name to Jackson?" Leroy asked her. "That's some Southern name." He asked her to keep her Navajo surname of Begaye.

After they married, Leroy returned to school to study mechanical engineering. After two years, he was hired away by Arizona Public Service, the power company, and he worked at power plants near Holbrook and Farmington. Adella had moved back to the reservation, so they lived apart during the week. Finally, Leroy tired of that. He quit his job, telling his brother Dave that he was tired of taking orders from other people, and he moved with Adella to her ancestral home in Tsaile, on the western flank of the Chuskas Mountains.

He became a trader, exchanging sheep for pottery and weavings, sweaters and artifacts, which he would then sell for money. He traveled from Santa Fe to Oregon, frequenting the Indian art festivals and finding friends and contacts at galleries that featured Indian artifacts. He developed a warm, handshaking style in his business dealings that left many of his former trading associates describing him as a close personal friend.

Adella had become a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service, stationed at the Indian clinic in Tsaile. Together they raised two more children and lived in a comfortable, middle-class duplex near the clinic. But they kept a traditional Navajo hogan in the forest five miles away, a simple, multisided, one-room log cabin, where they would spend most of the summers.

Leroy fell in love with the mountains, spent hours there meditating or jogging up to 18 miles at a time. He had found his identity in his family, in his work selling Indian artifacts. He found his center in the nature-based religion of traditional Navajos. He was free from drinking, free from the cultural alienation that had plagued his early life. He was a Navajo, at home in the Navajo Nation, and at home with himself.

In October 1990, Leroy and Adella saw blue paint splashed on the big, yellow ponderosa pines along the dirt road to their hogan. The forest they lived in was going to be logged, and the paint indicated which trees were to be cut.

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