Law Magazine Spring 2005 Features
A WARRIOR AMONG US
IN HIS HALF-CENTURY OF WORKING FOR A LIVING, Alexander S. “Sandy” MacNabb ’59 has built a basic job history that could apply to hundreds of Washington lawyers. A New York native who studied at Colgate University, he served in the Navy before enrolling in law school at W&L. He became a federal program administrator and then went into private practice with a District firm.
There is a conventional personal side to him, as well: devout Catholic, parent with wife, Kathleen, of seven children, appointee to the Boy Scout National Council and member of the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill.
You have to look more closely at his curriculum vitae, however, in order to understand the man who wears Western shirts and fist-sized turquoise belt buckles when he meets clients, who was a personal friend of Norman Thomas (the three-time Socialist Party presidential candidate) and still calls himself something of a radical and who professes kinship with an eccentric American Indian spirit named Glooskap.
MacNabb’s paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Mi’kmaq (or Micmac) Indian from Nova Scotia. In a sometimes roundabout way, MacNabb’s one-quarter American Indian heritage— if not Glooskap—has guided every step of his career.
As a bureaucrat, he held a half-dozen positions involving American Indian affairs in the 1960s and 1970s, two of which were assistant commissioner and acting commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and national director of the Indian and Native American programs. His private legal work for American Indian tribes and organizations led to his employment in the 1980s by Native peoples throughout the Pacific basin, including his appointment as legal counsel to the 1983 Constitutional Convention of American Samoa.
One of his cherished possessions in the book-saturated office he keeps at his home in northern Virginia is a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in which the author, the late Dee Brown, inscribed: “For Sandy MacNabb, one of the warriors.”
MacNabb accomplished the feats that won such a crisp salute from the best-selling chronicler of American Indian life when he was a would-be reformer at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the early 1970s. Dee Brown was a journalist at the time and wrote favorably about the reformers. MacNabb and others like him were pushing for self-determination for American Indians, and they also wanted to circumvent the red tape and bureaucracy that were draining off as much as 90 percent of federal program funding before the money made its way from Washington to the reservations. But old-line BIA bureaucrats, including many American Indians, accused the reformers of dismantling— not improving—federal programs.
Radicals in the American Indian Movement opposed the BIA status quo and, when their Trail of Broken Treaties caravan arrived in Washington in 1972, they seized the BIA building for a week. MacNabb was one of the few government administrators the sit-in leaders would talk to, and he helped negotiate the peaceful end to the siege.
He did not go to South Dakota a few months later, when a nastier siege developed on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek as Indian militants squared off against Lakota (Sioux) tribal officials backed by federal authorities. On that same site in 1890, the U.S. Army killed about 300 Sioux, including women and children. The siege in 1973 lasted for 10 weeks and has come to symbolize—and to urge on—American Indian resistance to government indifference or oppression. Nevertheless, the bad publicity of the siege took the wind out of the reformers’ sails. “President Nixon had done a lot for the Indians, or allowed good things to happen, and he was not happy,” MacNabb said. “He asked, ‘Why are they making the (expletive-deleted) trouble?’ ”
Still, MacNabb is proud of what reformers were able to accomplish. Before he left government work in 1979, he won the Labor Department’s Award for Distinguished Achievement by showing he could operate a $350 million Indian CETA program with only 21 employees. That feat stands as an unheard-of circumvention of federal red tape.
“In my government work I was interested in building business structures for Indians and other minorities,” he says. “Law was the tool to do it.” He says government assistance often comes in showy, superficial spurts. “What happens when the tambourine shakers leave town? When they leave town, where is the structure?”
American Indians have strengthened their political and economic positions in recent decades. As proof, MacNabb points to his longtime bureaucratic colleague and friend, Pete Homer Jr., a tall and eloquent Mojave who is now president of the private National Indian Business Association. In a gleaming Washington high rise, MacNabb sits for an interview in Homer’s NIBA suite.
“Much of what we’ve gained is due to the efforts of lawyers such as Sandy,” Homer says. “But we need many more like him.” More often than not, modern-day warriors who fight for Indian self-determination are those rare lawyers who know the unique Indian law and know Indians, Homer says. If he could send a message to the nation’s law schools, he adds, it would be “to send us more lawyers who can do things the way Sandy did them.”
MacNabb had set the tone of the interview by passing over a sheet of paper on which is printed a paragraph of commentary by Felix S. Cohen, who is sometimes called the Blackstone of American Indian law. Cohen was the architect of the Indian Reorganization Act and the Indian Law Survey in the 1930s, and he was a government solicitor MacNabb used as a role model. “Read that, you’ll see,” MacNabb says.
“Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shifts from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith,” Cohen’s commentary reads.
Next from his scrapbook, MacNabb produced a photo of his father, Frank, circa World War II. He is standing beside the cab of a petroleum delivery truck with the company name, “Red Arrow,” painted on the door. That was the translation of his father’s Mi’kmaq name. Half Scottish, and an all-American entrepreneur, the elder MacNabb kept the Indian heritage alive for his family in suburban Long Island.
MacNabb enrolled at Colgate when he was16 and promptly ran into a whites-only barrier when he tried to join a fraternity. It later allowed him in. He did not feel so much discriminated against as simply “a little different.” Fifteen years later, his father made a deathbed request. “He told me to do what I could to help the Indians. I don’t think it was guilt he felt. It was more that he was uncomfortable. He had been too involved in his business to help,” MacNabb says. “The Indian connection has translated into public service for me.”
At times, that public service has been directed toward all of the nation’s minorities, not just American Indians. Soon after he finished law school, he became an assistant to Theodore Berry, the African- American former mayor of Cincinnati who was Lyndon Johnson’s director of Community Action Programs. MacNabb developed jobs programs for American Indians and other minorities during this time, and worked closely with civil rights leaders in the South. One was Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers, the NAACP activist in Mississippi who was assassinated in 1963. Another influential mentor was Sargent Shriver, best known for his roles as the first director of the Peace Corps and the Office of Economic Opportunity.
During the years when most lawyers are enjoying retirement, the 75-year-old MacNabb has been president of the Evergreen Organization, a non-profit corporation that assists American Indians and other native peoples in economic development and preservation of heritage. He has also provided legal counsel to a now multi-state alcohol and drug rehabilitation program that began at an abandoned Indian boarding school in Oklahoma. He travels often on business to Oklahoma, California, Georgia and Florida.
He is a member of the Health Law Section of the Florida Bar Association, whose chair is James M. Barclay of the firm Ruden McClosky in Tallahassee. “Sandy’s contributions to the law governing native peoples have been innovative and are storied among his colleagues,” Barclay says. “His involvement in a variety of matters at the state and federal levels on behalf of native peoples has always kept their best interests foremost and at the forefront.”
MacNabb, who is also active with the Health Law Section of the National Congress of American Indians, scoffs at the idea of slowing down. “When I think of retirement, I think of double-knit maroon pants with a white patent leather belt. Some people want to be old—less is expected of them.” Nevertheless, he says, he has had to come to grips with needing “six, sometimes eight” hours of sleep a night, significantly more than the four and a half he allowed himself when he was younger. And he worries a little that his present travel schedule is too hectic. “I was in Atlanta the other day and I got a call on my cell phone from my daughter. She said, ‘Where are you?’ And, you know, I couldn’t tell her. Take from that what you will,” he says, displaying his trademark wit.
He has become friends with the comic actress Kirstie Alley, who has been the celebrity spokesperson for alcohol and drug rehabilitation projects he has worked on. She is the one person he knows who can fire off oneliners faster than he can.
“Sandy has a great sense of humor. He can tell a joke in three languages,” says Patrick L. Henry ’59, a New York State Supreme Court judge who has known MacNabb since childhood. (MacNabb quips that he actually can converse in six languages, if you count Samoan.) It was Patrick Henry’s father, Lindsay ’25, a Long Island prosecutor, who influenced both young men to enroll in law school at W&L. MacNabb also credits another W&L graduate, F. William Ling ’53A, ’60, with helping him get government employment in Washington early in their careers.
“When Sandy is on a roll, everybody is laughing,” adds William J. Lemon ’55A, ’59, of Roanoke, who has been a law class agent along with MacNabb. One does not need to spend much time with him, Lemon says, to “learn he is a very intelligent person and at the same time a stand-up comic.”
Henry is quick to point out that the humor does not get in the way of MacNabb’s ability to “keep his eye on the ball, to concentrate on a subject intently.” He said MacNabb is a loyal friend. “Knowing him has been a treat. He is a man of impeccable character. He is morally and intellectually honest.”
MacNabb almost dropped out of law school after his first year because he could not settle on a career path. He was already in his late 20s at the time, having served for four years in naval intelligence during the Korean War. He had also been a district attorney’s investigator, assisted with an archeological survey of an American Indian battleground in upstate New York, flirted with a career as a crooner, become proficient in three foreign languages and dabbled in journalism as a writer and photographer.
Service as a cryptologist with the Navy Security Group during the Korean War interrupted his time at Colgate. When he graduated in 1956 with a degree in political science, he also had nearly enough credit hours to support majors in geology, English and Spanish. But none of those subject areas were on his mind in 1957, when he wrote to the late Clayton Williams, law dean at the time, expressing doubts about continuing as a law student.
“I was thinking about anthropology. From my summer on the archeology survey, I knew I did not want archeology. It was too much like digging holes in the ground,” he says. “But I had become interested in cultural anthropology.” Several months of independent study under the guidance of a Colgate anthropologist had won him provisional acceptance into a graduate program in cultural anthropology at the University of Arizona. Law school in Lexington had won out over graduate school in Tucson, but as a rising 2L he was thinking he should have gone to Arizona. The anthropology and the American West seemed more suited to a young man interested in American Indians.
Dean Williams was too skilled a negotiator, however. He made a persuasive argument in favor of law and made an equally persuasive promise to sweeten MacNabb’s scholarship grant. “I stayed, and I don’t regret it,” he says. Williams had helped him to see law as a tool, and with every zig and zag his work has taken, he has found new reasons to be thankful for the advice.
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