The Government Knows What a Good Indian Is

This scene I am not likely to forget.

Peter MacDonald, at one time the most honored and powerful Indian in North America, was being sentenced in a federal courtroom in downtown Phoenix.

Everything that takes place in the federal building has an ominous ring to it. No television cameras are allowed in the courtroom or in the building. No tape recorders are allowed.

Federal judges are so remote that few people even know their names. They are the most powerful officials in the country, and they need answer to no one. When a person is summoned to appear in federal court, he is generally at the mercy of the prosecutors.

This is how it has been for MacDonald for the past several years. But his ordeal was almost over.

Having spent the previous few days in solitary confinement in a tiny, uncomfortable cell in this same building, MacDonald seemed disoriented. For months, he had been slowly rotting away in an ancient Indian jail on the Navajo Reservation.

MacDonald has been under attack by the U.S. government for years. Once proud, fierce and witty, his spirit finally seems broken.

"Standing here, asking for mercy," he began, "it is difficult to express the sorrow and remorse for what my family has had to go through these last three years.

"My people know it is not my nature to harm anyone. They know me best, because I have traveled among them for 30 years. They knew me when I was growing up hungry as a sheepherder." The bright-yellow windbreaker MacDonald wore seemed in stark contrast to his spirits. MacDonald's head was bowed and his shoulders drooped as he stood before the bench. It was hard to remember his accomplishments. He was an engineering graduate from the University of Oklahoma, and he was once held up as a model for all young Indian men. Now the government which had raised him up had destroyed him.

Every seat in U.S. District Court Judge Earl Carroll's courtroom was occupied. Most of these spectators were elderly Navajos who had driven hours in their pickup trucks from the reservation to be here to show support for their former tribal chairman. One aged Indian woman had expressed her feelings to Judge Carroll only moments before.

"He has already been punished enough," she said. "Please send him back to the reservation to be with his people."

"Let us put this chapter behind us," another senior tribal member told Judge Carroll. "We are the supposed victims. We should know whether he has done something harmful to us."

So much has been written about the crimes of Peter MacDonald that it would take thousands of words to explain them.

But there is a simple explanation. Nobody comes out of this series of events with clean hands.

As long as MacDonald played the game with the Republican administration in Washington, D.C., he was its darling. Every advantage he took of his position as tribal chairman was viewed as laudable and legal. As long as MacDonald played ball, he was viewed as the head of a sovereign nation, so it was part of Indian custom to accept gifts. And, indeed, it is.

But once MacDonald disagreed with Washington, Indian custom no longer mattered. He was transformed into a criminal who had to be hunted down and made an example of.

At one time, it was just as acceptable for MacDonald to take money from contractors as it was for U.S. Senators John McCain and Dennis DeConcini to take money from Charles Keating.

It was as legal for MacDonald to profit from real estate deals as it was for Senator DeConcini to take the insider information he got from Washington and become the seventh richest man in the Senate.

Only after MacDonald became a thorn in the side of the powerful in Washington were the vast powers of congressional committees and the Justice Department turned upon him. From that point, every breath MacDonald took became a crime. When the government sets out to destroy you, nothing can stop it. But it wasn't easy to bring MacDonald down. It took three years and six trials. Finally, the government did a frighteningly thorough job of it.

"We have a saying," MacDonald said to Judge Carroll, "that those with five fingers should be treated with respect." MacDonald recalled all the unnecessary indignities that had been visited upon him. What makes these things all the more appalling is that MacDonald himself has always been courtly, humorous and nonthreatening. He told of being dragged around in chains and handcuffs, about being shoved into a shower with his hands cuffed behind his back.

"There is so much bewilderment from my people," he said. "I was the chairman. Now I have been put on display like an animal and treated like a subhuman."

MacDonald spoke slowly and distinctly. His voice, however, carried throughout the courtroom. It could be heard even by those government lawyers who stood lining the back wall. The words he spoke will be carried back to the reservation and told over and over.

"Every part of my body is in pain, Your Honor," MacDonald said. "We have lost our home, our dignity, our car. I'm 64 years old. I'm not in good health. Any substantial prison term and I don't have a chance of survival. For me this has been like the Long March of 1864. Every day is a nightmare."

As MacDonald spoke, his daughter sat in the front row of the court, weeping, with her head resting on her mother's shoulder. MacDonald's wife was weeping, too.

Many of the Indian men wept openly.

Judge Carroll leaned forward to listen. He is reputed to be a judge who hands down fierce sentences. But this time, he appeared sympathetic.

"I ask you to look upon me with an eye of compassion," MacDonald said. "I don't want to waste away somewhere far away from my people. I wish I could go back to my reservation."

MacDonald walked slowly to the defense table and sat down. He did not look around the courtroom. If he had done so, he might have sensed the flow of sympathy moving toward him.

The prosecutor rose to speak. He admitted he was still in awe of MacDonald's accomplishments as a tribal leader. But he asked not only that MacDonald be sent to prison but that the sentence be lengthened. Government lawyers never get it.

Judge Carroll spoke. What he said was surprising.

"Being a judge is a lonely business," he said. "I've thrashed around about what to do. I've done so for several weeks."

Judge Carroll recalled the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when a small boy told his ballplaying hero, "Say it ain't so, Joe."

And then Judge Carroll did something that was unthinkable for the prosecution.

He ordered Peter MacDonald to serve a sentence concurrent with the one he is now serving in the Navajo jail.

"Mr. MacDonald was brought here by the U.S. marshals. The U.S. marshals will bring him back to the reservation."

MacDonald would go back to jail. But at least he would still be on his reservation.