His Navajo name is Hoskasilt, which translates "he who clasps with strength." "Like this," he says, reaching over to lock a pale, urban hand in his small, coppery one. "My grandfather gave it to me." He also has a community name: He Who Wears Turquoise Necklace.
But here, amid the Paper Tribe of the Potomac, where room service will hustle you cheesecake all day long if you wish, where the message button on the wall blinks red incessantly, he goes by his Anglo name, Peter MacDonald. He took that mane 40-odd years ago when he was a scared kid at a government dormitory school and heard somebody singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." Sounded okay by him.
Sometimes, he says, when the Chuska range is afire with evening red, or maybe when he and his daughter have driven into the desert outside Window Rock to find a silence so loud you can hear it clanging down, like doom, the beauty begins to overwhelm him. "You just feel so . . . thankful," he says softly, making fists of frustration.
It is then, too, he can appreciate a fundamental irony: Beauty can be a great mask for ugliness. It is that way in Appalachia, and it is that way on the Navajo nation. People can suffer terribly at the hands of beauty. The fact that 50 percent of his people have no running water, no sewage, no electricity, that most of the roads are dirt, that people live in one-room hogans and raise 10 acres of corn and never see more than $1,000 in a year, should be proof enough, he says.
"That is why we must hang on to what is left, claim what is rightly ours."
Peter MacDonald is the tribal governor of 160,000 Navajos, America's largest and one of its most energy-resource-rich Indian nations. The Navago reservation sprawls over 25,000 square miles in the corners of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico -- from Shiprock in the eastern sector to Forest Lake in the western. Forest Lake has 400 people, no roads, one community building.
"You look around and say, 'Where's the town?'"
The reservation includes parts of Monument Valley where GM has shot car ads and John Wayne has shot celluloid Indians. It is a place of rocks and buttes and mesas, of aspen and ponderosa, of sudden, cold, clear trout streams shaded by cottonwoods.
It is also a place of immense wealth -- a little Saudi Arabia of uranium, coal, oil, gas. That is one reason why Peter MacDonald also serves as chairman of CERT: the Council of Energy Resources Tribes, an organization that doesn't mind at all being likened to a Native American OPEC.
So beauty masks ugliness. So ironies come home to roost. The seeming ash heaps of desert that the Navajos and Northern Cheyenne and Jicarilla Apaches were herded onto 100 and more years ago, sometimes at gunpoint, have turned out to be richer than anybody could have guessed. "I think one of the attributes of the Indian is his staying power," says Peter MacDonald. "You feel there are a lot of tomorrows."
Nobody knows for sure just how much wealth is down there. But some studies estimate that the 25 Western tribes that make up CERT could control a third of all strippalbe coal west of the Mississippi, plus more than half the entire U.S. supply of uranium. The coal deposits alone have been estimated at $1 trillion by the Department of Energy.
The problem is, from the Indian point of view at least, that lease negotiations for coal, oil and mineral rights were turned over years ago to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency for which MacDonald has nothing but contempt. In fact, he has a running joke: "When Custer left for the Little Big Horn, he stopped by the BIA office and said, 'Don't do a thing till I get back.' They're still waiting."
His tribe currently has one BIA-negotiated coal lease with Utah International Co., he says, that pays the same 15-cents-a-ton royalty it did when it was signed 22 years ago. MacDonald says his reservation is exporting on an annual basis enough kilowatt hours to fulfill the state of Arizona's energy requirements for the next 30 years.
"And while we're giving up that, our people live in grinding poverty. Somehow, we don't think that's fair."
Which is where CERT, founded in September, 1975, and Peter MacDonald, come in. Under CERT and MacDonald, Indians hope to renegotiate leases, further tax companies for use of their land (some taxes are already in effect), maybe put up their own plants. MacDonald thinks he could have one such Indian-owned and operated plant "on stream" by the mid-'80s.
"Suddenly, I am a force to be reckoned with."
Consequently, when he's overlooked, it tends to hackle. When Jimmy Carter held his much-heralded energy talks at Camp David, he didn't invite Peter MacDonald. It was a gross "oversight," MacDonald says. "I heard all kinds of ridiculous excuses: 'Oh, we can't bring the Navajos in because we don't have enough helicopters."
He sent a letter to the president. More important perhaps, he began making noises about selling fuel abroad, and hired as his marketing chief Ahmed Kooros, former deputy oil and finance minister of Iran. Suddenly, the administration found time. Secretary of Energy Charles Duncan went to Denver to meet with CERT officers. Last week in Albuquerque, MacDonald met with presidential assistant Jack Watson, even chatted with the president himself. Yesterday, MacDonald was invited over to the White House with the others here for the symposium.
Forbearance, says Peter MacDonald with a gritty little smile.
It is the same old story: broken promises. In 1867, a Kiowa chief named White Bear said this to a cavalry officer: "I do not want to settle down in the houses you would build for us. I love to roam over the wild prairie. There I am free and happy." Nine years later, White Bear committed suicide in a prison hospital.
Says Peter MacDonald: "In our early history, we had to deal with the cavalry, the blue coats, the long knives.Today, there is a judicial cavalry, a legislative cavalry, an indusrial cavalry. The battle is indoors. But it is just as bloody."
He is good at this kind of rhetoric. You get the idea he has used it on many Eastern audiences.
For an energy baron, his life style doesn't seem terribly lavish. He hasn't come to Washington with a swirling entourage. He has come alone. Yes, there are those three tribal planes at his disposal that his opponents like to make so much of. And his house in Arizona is guarded. But his listed salary is $42,000, hardly an oil sheik's. And when he comes to Washington, he is known to shun Lion D'Or for the Golden Ox."I like beef," he says.
The 50-year old governor says this sitting in slants of dying light in the Embassy Row Hotel. He has came to town for an energy symposium sponsored by Harvard University and the Alliance to Save Energy. It is late afternoon. He has just arrived, first-class, from Albuquerque on TWA. (He prefers commercial flights for longer hauls.) Outside the window, Metrobuses fume people homeward.
He studies the silent noise, pollution, on the other side of the glass. "I lived in L.A. for 6 1/2 years, I was an engineer at Hughes Aircraft. I lived in the middle of the place. I drove the freeways. It was a tremendous adjustment.But I had some basic training, which gave me self-reliance."
Part of that basic training was running two miles every morning as a youngster before breakfast. Originally he had been chosen to follow his grandfather, a medicine man. But then, at seven, his family "sacrificed" him -- sent him off 30 miles to a government school. He had never before seen a white man. "I have no idea to this day why they picked me," he says. He still is the only one in his family with any education. That's one reason he came back to the reservation -- to help others up the rungs.
If he were home now, he would be in his velveteen shirt, his squash blossom turquoise necklace, his jeans and boots. But when in Rome . . . Peter MacDonald has on a crisp blue woolen blazer with gold buttons, a silk tie, wire glasses that tint dark in the light. His coal-black hair swerves over his ears.
His voice, though, belongs to somebody not of the East. It is soft, slow, full of pauses. It sound, somehow, like a man walking on tall grasses. "I have never known him to raise his voice," says David Harrison, an Osage, Harvard-trained Indian who works for BIA. I've sat across the table from him, and he can be tough, determined, even aggressive. But he doesn't raise his voice."
Peter MacDonald, for all his soft-spoken ways, is a man of controversy. He was once indicted for fraud and tax evasion over a complex expense account scandal. Edward Bennett Williams was his first attorney; F. Lee Bailey ended up representing him. The trial resulted in a hung jury, and charges were dropped. MacDonald says it was all politically motivated. He hints that Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) was behind it. Goldwater vigorously denies.
In 1972, says MacDonald, he personally initiated a mass voter-registration drive on the reservation. The driver ended by electing two Navajos to the Arizona house, one to the senate. At the same time, Goldwater lost one county.
"Then we hear a cannon fired from Washington. Sen. Goldwater says something is wrong. Navajos don't vote." There were charges that, in return for signing up to vote, the Indians were getting beer chits.
The response from Goldwater's office is that "this situation was brought to our attention by a number of complainants on the reservation itself." Later, says MacDonald, Goldwater began to insist that his own election to the governorship was a fraud, that it was all rigged. A spokesman for the senator's office says: "Again, we had complaints that he had his own goon squad running around the reservation demanding people vote for him."
The things fling back and forth. Says Goldwater: "Oh, I guess Peter and I get along okay, after all these years. He calls himself a Republican, though he's a pretty strange one. I feel I know the Navajo like few white men alive. I've dropped food and hay to them in snowstorms. Ask Peter about that."
Says MacDonald, "Actually, you and I are bound up in the same future. It couldn't be otherwise, even if we wanted it. It is true there were lax immigration laws and shaky border patrols when your ancestors came over. Well, we will not grieve about that.Indians must put aside their old bitterness. We cannot afford to prey on you, nor you on us."
It sounds a little like something a great hawk-faced warrior who has laid down a tomahawk might say. He knows it. He grins, he is gazing out the window. The sun isn't about to shine on the forest pine here. The magpies won't "cheg cheg cheg" tonight. He won't be able to look up and see a trillion stars blinking back at him from a silky, Arizona sky.
"I've been coming up here since the early '60s. I sort of know my way around. I flag taxis, I have to do business like everyone else. What it does for me is make me grateful I have a place to go to where I know I'm in the hands of a Maker."
Pause. "You know, all of America isn't just like New York and Chicago."