Three years ago, Albert Hale took office as president of the Navajo Nation, promising to end corruption and rancorous internal politics at a reservation the size of West Virginia. Thursday he resigned under fire for personal and political misdeeds, and apologized to the quarter-million people who live in the nation’s largest American Indian reservation.
“I am sorry for my shortcomings and the wrongs I may have committed while in office,” said Hale, addressing the tribe in English and Navajo in a broadcast over the tribal radio station. “I ask for your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the Holy People.”
Hale, a lawyer and one of a new breed of American Indian leaders who move freely from White House meetings to U.N. speeches, was one of the most forceful advocates for the rights of tribes as nations within a nation. He had recently suggested that the Navajo, whose 12 million-acre reservation touches New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, close the roads into the reservation for one day as a demonstration of American Indian sovereignty.
But in the end, he was facing potential criminal charges from a special prosecutor looking into allegations that he misspent tribal money, as well as accusations by his former wife that he had an affair while in office. Under the terms of his resignation, hammered out at a latenight meeting at Navajo headquarters in the town of Window Rock, the investigation into the funds was dropped.
To some people, Hale’s resignation shows that the politics of American Indian Country are no different from any other part of the country, except that everything is magnified by family links and overt spirituality.
“Albert Hale became the point person for spreading the issue of Indian sovereignty throughout the world, and he was quite effective at it,” said Lee Francis, a Laguna Pueblo who is a professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. “His resignation says to us throughout Indian Country that we have got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Hale is the second Navajo leader in the last decade to resign under a cloud. The tribal leader from two terms ago, Peter MacDonald, was convicted in 1992 of bribery and conspiracy charges in tribal court and sentenced to seven years in jail.
The Navajo have twice rejected casino gambling and, under Hale, had been trying to build tribal businesses while taking an assertive stance on sovereignty.
“He was a very good leader on sovereignty,” said Ron Allen, president of the National Congress of American Indians, “on trying to explain to Congress and the president and the rest of the world that we are Indian governments, not just tribes.”
But under Hale, unemployment on the reservation remained near 30 percent, and nearly three out of 10 members still lived in homes without running water or electricity.
“I have seen a lot of suffering,” Hale said after being elected president in 1994. “We have to end that.”
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