PHOENIX - Navajo attorney Albert Hale was sworn in and immediately began serving his first term as Senator for District 2 on Jan. 21, taking the seat vacated by Jack Jackson Sr., who retired in December.
Appointed by the Apache County Board of Supervisors and chosen by a three-member citizen's panel, Hale will serve until this term expires next January. Under Arizona law, Jackson's replacement had to be a resident of the same county, Apache County, and a member of the same political party, Democrat.
District 2 spans a 300-mile width of Arizona from New Mexico to Nevada, including Flagstaff and the counties of Navajo, Apache, Coconino and Mohave. The district is one of the largest in Arizona with a population of about 70,000 people and includes the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai and Havasupai nations.
Hale is the only Navajo among the 30 senators in Arizona's 46th Legislature and sees his senatorial position as an opportunity for fostering better relationships between Native, state and federal governments.
He explained the sovereign relationships Native governments have is largely misunderstood and believes the solution is designing educational programs with a collaborative focus rather than the one-directional set of courses taught today.
"I know more about the Anglo society and my people know more about Anglo people - we speak their language and know more about their culture and their government - than they do about us," Hale said.
Hale, who served as president of the Navajo Nation from 1994 - 1998, said he feels it is important to include information about why Native peoples have special status in terms of relationships with the federal government.
"If we don't educate our children about Native American peoples' history, culture and governments, then we'll never overcome that ignorance; we'll just perpetuate it. If we can put into the curriculum of study, at least the foundation of those concepts, I think we can truly move toward respecting our treaties on a government-to-government basis."
He said he met with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to discuss the various avenues for incorporating Native curricula into schools and she was open to his ideas and offered her staff for assistance.
But his ideas have not always been easily accepted.
His proposal to shut down highways through Arizona and New Mexico, in 1998, to demonstrate Native sovereignty was once labeled as radicalism by then Mescalero Apache President Wendell Chino.
Hale explained he made the suggestion not to create conflict, but to create understanding that Native people still have power to assert authority. He said those statements were made at a time when continued funding from the federal government meant unilateral modification or condemnation of treaty rights.
"I was there to protect, promote and preserve the sovereignty of Indian nations and if that's radical - defending the sovereignty of Indian people - so be it," Hale said.
"I've come to realize that the foundation of American society is private rights, private property and the protection and perpetuation thereof. If you say, for one day you can't cross my property, they will understand it," he said.
Hale has been an attorney for 27 years specializing in federal Indian law and natural resource issues. He also served as Assistant Attorney General for the Navajo Nation, special counsel to the Navajo Nation Council, and is a past president of the Navajo Nation Bar Association.
He wants to move away from what he calls a rhetoric of "I'll respect you, I'll treat you on a government-to-government basis," but said that can't happen without mutual understanding, again through education.
"Right now we try to bring these issues to the forefront and have the federal or state governments to truly respect (our sovereign) rights but they don't, they just give it lip service."
Sovereignty plays a role in his stance on casinos too, which, he said, remains the same as when he was president of Navajo Nation - a decision the Navajo people should make, not federal or state governments. He also believes that alternatives for economic development on Navajo land exist and that casinos are a last resort.
"There's a void there and it's really attractive to look at new casinos and the money they generate," Hale said. "But Navajo has chosen not to (bring casinos onto Navajo land) and we are saying to the federal government, the state government and even to the Navajo government itself - step forward and try to bring about alternative economic development - business development on Navajo Nation."
On issues such as the continued debate over re-naming Piestewa Peak and other state entities, Hale's fervor edged through his words.
"It's an honor for a person to serve, to have given up her life for her country. Our people are the first ones to go into service and the highest percentage of people in the service have Native American backgrounds. What is the problem?" Hale asked, his voice forceful.
"A lot of people are overlooking the significant and vital role the Navajo code talkers had in World War II. For many, many years that was suppressed. Why?"
Hale also believes a day set aside to honor Native leaders or a particular Native person is possible and also an opportunity for education.
"There are numerous Native leaders past and present who deserve such honor. Ira Hayes is from (Arizona). He was part of raising the flag in Iwo Jima. How many people know about that? Maybe there should be a memorial to him somewhere - a peak named after him?" he said wryly.
The new Senator credits a progressive state leadership for recognizing the contributions of all of Arizona's ethnic populations. He also believes the vote is a strong tool.
"Native presence in Arizona government shows what can happen when Native Americans go out and vote as a block," Hale said.
Hale, 53, is also currently chairman of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, established last year to oversee and coordinate the Navajo Nation's water rights litigation and negotiation efforts. His law firm in St. Michaels, Ariz. will continue to serve clients, though Hale will limit his practice.
Hale's office in the Arizona Legislature can be reached at (602) 926-4323; by mail at Arizona State Senate, Capitol Complex, Room 313, 1700 West Washington, Phoenix, AZ 85007-2890, or P.O. Box 4468, Window Rock, Arizona 86515. The Arizona Senate Web site is www.arizonasenate.org.