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He's reminiscing about his high school days, when he played trumpet in South Phoenix for a blues band called the Soulsations.
"I was the only Indian guy in the band," says the president of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, "and after playing all night on Saturdays at the Riverside Ballroom, I'd go to Helsing's coffee shop for a cheap breakfast, go home, clean up and direct the church choir.
"All I ever really wanted to be was a musician."
Makil's laugh is distinctly Pima. It's playful. It starts softly and builds. You hear it over and over again on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, that 52,600-acre reservation of cotton fields and freeway bridges, of $300,000 homes and government-built shacks, of landfills and sacred mountains, of holy burial grounds and a Wal-Mart store.
Stretching from Pima Road to the confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers, the reservation shares borders with Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale. Except for small sections that touch the Fort McDowell Indian Community and the Tonto National Forest, it is surrounded by the Valley's urban sprawl.
Which means that to developers, it's an inviting piece of real estate.
But to Makil and approximately 5,500 other registered community members, the reservation is more than high-end real estate. It's their ancestral homeland. And Makil is the gatekeeper.
Makil is headed back to that homeland now. His business lunch at a trendy Scottsdale eatery is over, and he's tooling along Indian School Road in his official Ford Crown Victoria. He cranks up a Van Morrison tape, checks his phone for messages, starts returning calls. Within minutes, he crosses Pima Road, and he's back home. He sighs a little.
"I don't think there's one person who lives in this community who doesn't breathe a sigh of relief when he crosses over onto the reservation," he says.
Forty-four years old, soft-spoken, youthful, with a hip haircut and a stylish wardrobe, Ivan Makil is typical of a new generation of Indian leaders--every bit as tribal, but far less isolationist than their predecessors.
That willingness to deal with other cultures has made Makil more than controversial, both within and outside a reservation that is becoming a major economic force in Arizona.
As one community member says, "People are afraid of change. Ivan has an education, and he's outgoing. He's outspoken, and maybe some people don't like that. He's not the stereotypical Indian leader."
Makil puts it another way.
"Indian leadership is changing. One of the most important changes is that we can talk until we are blue in the face about our past history [with white people], but it doesn't help us move ahead.
"At some point, you have to let it go."
What Makil won't let go of is a good business opportunity. Friends and enemies alike say he is a shrewd businessman. Yet his business deals are part of a complex set of controversies that have brought him high praise and stinging criticism, on and off the reservation.
Makil has been a key negotiator in lucrative business agreements that have put hundreds of millions of dollars in the community's bank accounts.
Among them are the unconstructed Outer Loop freeway, which brought in $247 million and 600 additional acres of land to the community; the $110 million Scottsdale Pavilions shopping center, at Pima and Indian Bend roads, which nets the tribe about $2.5 million a year in sales taxes; and gaming, in a soon-to-be constructed casino in a yet-to-be-revealed spot on the reservation.
Critics on the reservation question whether the deals have been good for the social structure of the community. Those detractors--more conservative, traditional types--say Makil's too outspoken, stands out too much, has too many white friends; that he's manipulative, self-serving, arrogant.
Since he became president in 1990, he's endured three attempts to recall him from office. One was successful, but he was reelected just a few weeks later, prompting talk of yet another recall election.
He's been charged with purposely negotiating the freeway deal to enrich himself; he says that claim is "absolutely untrue." When Makil's wife, Sarah, obtained a restraining order against him in April 1993, alleging that he roughed her up during a quarrel, Makil's on-reservation enemies distributed fliers branding him a wife beater. He publicly apologized to Sarah and the community, but the incident has not helped his political career.
These days, he won't say much about that event. "I wish I could make it better, but I can't. It happened. I made a mistake," he says.
Makil has been as controversial off the reservation as on.
He has championed battles over the ownership of Saddleback Mountain, the control of Pima Road and the alignment of the Outer Loop. The battles have strained the already-brittle relationship between the Pimas and their neighbor to the west, the City of Scottsdale. And they have almost always cost those neighbors huge amounts of money.
Makil acknowledges that he's controversial--and that he's not entirely comfortable being controversial. He is, after all, a tribal person, a Pima.
"You know enough about our people to understand it is not always advisable to go solo," he said several months ago, when an in-depth interview was first suggested.