The White Man's Justice

I push open the heavily padded swinging doors of the aged federal courtroom in Prescott. The large, high-ceilinged room is filled with prospective jurors.

They fill not only the jury box but all the pews in the courtroom, too. I sense the tension. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Broomfield, gray-haired and alert, leans forward as he conducts his inquiry into the backgrounds of those summoned for jury duty.

An older woman with the sweet face of a chocolate-candy addict stands in the jury box. "Judge, I cry a lot since my open-heart surgery," she says. "So I don't watch anything that's sad on television." Judge Broomfield nods toward the defendants. "Is there something that you are afraid will make you sad if you sit on this jury?"

The woman glances directly at the defendants. They are former Navajo tribal chairman Peter MacDonald and ten other Navajos. They face charges of conspiracy to overthrow the present tribal government and to start a fatal riot.

After reflecting briefly, she says, "No, I don't know any of them."

Another man is uncertain how he will react to testimony by police: "Some cops got in trouble in my town," he says. "The police chief even went to jail for a while.

"So it would lead me to give less credibility to what police say now. I lost a lot of respect for law enforcement."

Judge Broomfield nods.

The judge asks each prospect in the jury box to stand and answer a series of questions. I find two of them fascinating:

"What was the last book you read?"

"Do you have any bumper stickers on your car?"

Many of the jurors do not read books. But one is reading the esoteric Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco and another is reading William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Others are reading novels by Michael Crichton and John Grisham, both who have books on the New York Times' best-seller list. Bumper stickers? Many of the prospective jurors proudly advertise their membership in the National Rifle Association.

Peter MacDonald, for 15 years chairman of the 200,000 Navajos on a reservation the size of West Virginia, is the principal defendant. He is charged with conspiracy to overthrow the tribal government that had stripped him of his powers five months previously.

The trial will revolve around a bloody battle fought on the reservation between MacDonald's followers, called "Peter's Patrol," and tribal police on July 20, 1989.

MacDonald wasn't present when the battle took place, but the government claims to have evidence that he had drawn the battle plan shortly before. Others say he had urged his followers at the last minute not to go to the scene. But they went anyway, and two of his followers died of gunshot wounds in the ensuing clash with tribal police.

MacDonald sits in court each day with his arms folded and a noncommittal expression on his face. It is as though he is posing for one of those sepia-tone portraits of Geronimo you sometimes come across.

But MacDonald doesn't have a blanket over his shoulder. He doesn't wear a headband. Instead he wears a fashionably cut tan summer suit and gold-rimmed aviator glasses. On his feet are a carefully polished pair of tan Gucci loafers. He looks like a Fortune 500 business executive.

For years MacDonald was the best known and most powerful of all Native Americans. He was so highly regarded by Richard Nixon's White House that that administration picked him to speak at the Republican convention in Miami in 1972.

However, in the 20 years since much has gone wrong for MacDonald. Most of it involves politics. He fell afoul of former Senator Barry Goldwater, for one thing. That set off a chain of events that brought down not only Goldwater's wrath but a stream of investigators and informers to the reservation seeking to find enough evidence to destroy MacDonald.

MacDonald points to the fact that there is much on the reservation that the white man finds valuable for use by industry. They have much incentive to destroy any Native American leader who wants to make them pay dearly for tribal resources.

No one can say that MacDonald didn't make it easy for those who wanted to run him to ground. His lifestyle was regal. He chartered jets to go to football games, drove big cars and made open demands for money from people who wanted to do business with the tribe. They began calling him "MacDollar."

So now he is going through his sixth criminal trial in the past two years. This one will last months. Already MacDonald is serving a seven-year sentence imposed by a Navajo tribal court. This brings up the question of why the U.S. government would bother to spend more than $1 million in legal fees to bury him even deeper. No matter what the pressure, MacDonald is not cowed. To most Navajos, he is still the Naa'taanii, the tribal leader, a man filled with wisdom and deserving of reverence and respect.

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Tom Fitzpatrick