Nelson Mandela may not be welcome to visit the Navajo Reservation because he is a "Communist." On the other hand, the black South African leader may be embraced with open arms as a respected civil rights leader.
It all depends on which of the leading candidates for tribal president is doing the talking.
Acting tribal president Leonard Haskie recently laid down a welcome mat for Mandela, saying he thought the visit would put an international spotlight on Native American problems.
But a major rival for the tribe's top office blasts the idea. State Senator James Henderson charges the invitation is an "insult" to Native Americans who do not want to be associated with a "Communist." "Navajos should speak for Navajos, not Nelson Mandela," he adds.
The tribal council in the next few weeks will decide whether a formal invitation is offered.
The Native American feud started in California on July 2, when Mandela said he may meet with tribal leaders this fall to discuss their problems with the U.S. government. Since then, views have been mixed on whether a Mandela visit would help or hinder Native American causes.
Carl Shaw, a Native American and the chief spokesperson for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., told New Times Native Americans resent the idea of being categorized as another minority group. He said they view Native American problems as "government to government." But at the same time, Shaw said, some Native American leaders feel that Mandela may expose the plight of the Native American.
Mescalero Apache Tribal Chairman Wendell Chino of Roswell, New Mexico--one of the nation's most respected tribal leaders--was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "Before Mr. Mandela can help the Indian tribes, he has to understand their relationship to the United States. It's not as simple as it looks. The situation with Indian peoples is totally different [from the blacks]."
Haskie started the controversy at a local chapter meeting on the Navajo Reservation by saying he would like to take Mandela up on his offer to meet with Native American leaders. Later, when other Navajos objected, the acting president clarified his statement in a press release: "The Navajo Nation would welcome the opportunity to meet with the leader of the African National Congress."
Lenora Begay, Haskie's spokesperson, says there hasn't actually been an invitation issued to Mandela, but a "welcoming." She says having tribal leaders meet with Mandela would be no different from President George Bush or Congress meeting with him. She characterized Henderson's objections as a cheap-shot election tactic.
"A local politician is using it to blast Mr. Haskie, saying Mandela is a Communist and everything else. Henderson would use anything to get a banner and get in the newspapers," Begay said.
A Mandela visit could help "ease tensions" between the Navajos and the feds, she adds, since Native Americans have long complained that the Bush administration is ignoring their problems and recent Supreme Court rulings--especially the restrictions on using peyote in religious ceremonies--are seen as usurping tribal powers.
Henderson doesn't see this situation as black and white. He sees it as red, white and blue.
"On the most patriotic day in the United States, July Fourth, our interim chairman Haskie embraced Nelson Mandela," Henderson tells New Times. "As a wounded veteran of the battlefield, that offended me."
Henderson said Mandela's support of Communist leaders and terrorists such as Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is offensive to him and sees Haskie's invitation as an "insult" to the Navajo people. Henderson called Mandela a "ruthless killer of his own people."
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Henderson also says that Haskie does not have the authority to extend an invitation. "He's just a caretaker. He's not elected. He should consult with the council," Henderson said. "We have a lot of veterans who died fighting communism." Haskie says that meeting with Mandela would not mean the tribe endorses Mandela's philosophy. "Whether Mr. Mandela is a Communist or not is really secondary to the Navajo Nation's objective of improving the lives of Navajos and other Indian peoples," he says.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the South African Consulate office in Beverly Hills questioned what Mandela could accomplish by visiting the Navajos. "There is quite a difference between the situation in South Africa and the Indians here. What can Mr. Mandela do for these people here?" asked the spokesperson, who requested that his name not be used.
He characterized Mandela's offer to meet with Native Americans as a ploy to keep pressure on the U.S. government to continue sanctions against South Africa.
"Undoubtedly, he's using this as a bargaining chip to go to the negotiating table," the spokesperson said. "The issue of sanctions are irrelevant. Mr. Mandela is running around with an agenda that is past tense. Changes in South Africa are irreversible." A tribal gathering of all the chapters' leaders began July 16. Sometime next week, Haskie is expected to ask the council to extend a formal invitation to the African leader. Fourteen candidates are running for tribal president (formerly called tribal chairman.) The primary election is on August 6. The top two vote getters will face each other in the tribe's November 6 general election. --