Ex-Navajo Nation president dies of coronavirus complications

Albert Hale, a former Navajo Nation president and Arizona lawmaker who was known for his commanding presence, sense of humor and advocacy for local government, has died.

Hale tested positive for the coronavirus in early January and was admitted to the hospital where he died Feb. 2, said his daughter, April Hale. He was 70.

"We’re thankful to the staff and care team at Arizona General Hospital for allowing us to say our goodbyes and to tell our father that we loved him, to tell him that we’re proud of all his accomplishments, and we will carry on and honor his legacy," she told The Associated Press.

Hale served as the second president of the Navajo Nation after the tribe restructured its government under three branches to prevent power from being concentrated under a chairman. As a lawyer, he was key to that effort and championed giving Navajo communities or chapters autonomy from the central tribal government and taxing authority.

He helped secure rights for the Navajo Nation from the San Juan River basin in New Mexico. Hale urged all sides to sit down and negotiate, rather than the tribe asserting it owns everything in the river and others contending that Navajos waived the water rights, said former Navajo Attorney General Louis Denetsosie.

"Eventually, it evolved into the first big Navajo water rights settlement," said Denetsosie, who ran a law firm with Hale for a few years.

Hale also was steadfast in promoting tribal sovereignty. He once suggested closing the borders of the vast reservation that stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah in response to what he saw as unjust actions by the state of Arizona.

Many knew him by his nickname, Ahbihay, a mispronunciation of his name by a Navajo grandmother that’s also a pronoun in the Navajo language. It stuck on the Navajo Nation, among elected officials and within his own family. He had a strong handshake, big smile and was rooted in Navajo culture and traditions, family and friends said.

"The thing that used to really impress me the most about him is he was a super sharp dresser, but he was about as traditional as they come," said Patrick Sandoval, who worked with Hale on a number of initiatives including drastically cutting the number of Navajo Nation Council delegates. "He understood culture, language, history, the songs, everything. He knew how to wear a suit and tie also."

A dark moment came in 1998 when Hale resigned from the Navajo presidency rather than face allegations he misused tribal funds. He denied wrongdoing but apologized to the Navajo people.

"I am sorry for my shortcomings and the wrongs that I may have committed while in office," he said at the time.

Hale was as comfortable on the Navajo Nation as he was in the Arizona Legislature, where he served in the Senate from 2004-2011 and in the House from 2011 to 2017.

His former colleagues remembered him as gracious and respectful, and said he served his constituents well.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered flags lowered at state buildings until sunset Wednesday in honor of Hale. On the Navajo Nation, President Jonathan Nez called for flags to be flown at half-staff from Wednesday through Saturday.

Hale was a longtime attorney and first president of the Navajo Nation Bar Association, most recently representing the Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority. Current association president Troy Eid considered him a brother.

Eid said he and his wife believed Hale was improving until they got a text early Tuesday from Hale’s wife, Paula, saying otherwise.

"I can’t begin to summarize his life or the sense of loss," Eid said in a statement. "I loved him and always will. Yet I also know that so many of you are walking this same path with your loved ones, and that this is a mysterious and cruel and unjust disease."

Eid told the AP that he and Hale had been planning a trip to Mongolia, partly because Hale wanted to explore the connections with the Navajo Nation and he only in recent years had free time to travel around the world. That plan was halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Hale was born in 1950 in Ganado on the Navajo Nation. He often described surviving tuberculosis as a child as the best day of his life, Eid said, and told the story of being treated by well-known Navajo health crusader Annie Wauneka. Hale graduated from Fort Wingate High School, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and a law degree from the University of New Mexico.

April Hale said the family is planning a drive-through memorial for their father but the details haven’t been finalized.

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