Former interim Navajo chairman who led in chaotic time dies

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A former Navajo Nation interim chairman who oversaw the tribe during one of its most tumultuous times has died.

Leonard Haskie died Sunday after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Lenore. He was 71.

Tribal lawmakers elected Haskie to serve as interim chairman in 1989 after then-Chairman Peter MacDonald was put on leave over a corruption scandal. Haskie was at the helm when MacDonald vowed to take back the chairmanship, and MacDonald's supporters tried to overthrow the government, inciting a deadly riot in Window Rock.

The tribe, recognizing the chairmanship had too much power, restructured the government and created an executive branch with a president, and a judicial and legislative branch.

Haskie ran for the presidency in 1990. He endured his own legal battle when a federal grand jury indicted him on bribery, misapplication of tribal funds and money laundering. He pleaded guilty to three counts of soliciting or allowing others to solicit bribes for his failed presidential campaign and was sentenced to three years of probation but served less, according to court records.

Despite that, Haskie remained revered as a Navy veteran and tribal leader who instilled the value of Navajo culture, tradition and language in his people, Sanostee Chapter President Jerry Bodie said.

"People had a lot of respect for him and wherever he went, especially here in the community, there was nobody who would turn away from him," Bodie said. "They would greet him still as their leader."

Haskie went on to work for the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district in northwestern New Mexico in 1995 as assistant superintendent of support services and retired earlier this year. District Superintendent Frank Chiapetti said Monday that Haskie's knowledge of politics and education in engineering played in the district's favor as he advocated for funding for new school buildings.

"We couldn't be where we are without him," he said.

Lenore Haskie said the earliest memories of her father were of people dropping by their house while he was a tribal lawmaker in the late 1970s and 1980s, thanking him for supporting community centers and the extension of water and power lines to their homes. She said he played key roles in establishing a tribal trust fund now worth more than $1 billion and amending labor laws that give preference to Navajos.

He stepped back into politics for a couple of months in 2014 and 2015 when he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Navajo Nation Council. Elections always brought out excitement in him, as he tracked who was seeking posts on the Tribal Council and for the presidency, his daughter said.

At home, he made sure each of his four children went to college and stressed the importance of staying connected to immediate and extended family and Navajo culture. Haskie was an only child, orphaned and raised by his grandparents in Sanostee, she said. His greatest joy in life was his eight grandchildren, she said.

He and his wife celebrated 47 years of marriage this year.

"He was a really great leader, great man and loved his family, loved his people," Lenore Haskie said. "He really did. Dedicated all those years to the greater good of the Navajo people."

A memorial service is scheduled Wednesday in Sanostee. A burial service will be held Friday, Bodie said.

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