Charles "Bud" Tansey

Charles "Bud" Tansey

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Listen to Charles "Bud" Tansey

The man who'd been judge in Carlsbad, James McGee, was on the Supreme Court, and he'd been kind of a father figure to me when I started practicing law—he'd been very good to me.  He and a couple of other lawyers said, "You ought to go up to Farmington.  The oil and gas business is going to break loose up there, and that's going to be a real good place."

And of course when I came up here in 1948, Farmington only had just a little over 3,000 people.  The 1950 census, I believe, gave us 3,700 people.  There was one paved road, the main street through town, but it wasn't paved out to the curb, and that was the only paving that we had here.  Aztec only had about 750 people, and I doubt if Bloomfield had 150.  So it was a very rural community.

There were situations in my practice with some of the justices of the peace that Abe Lincoln would have been completely at home with, had he been with me in that court.  I tried one case, the J.P. had a photography studio downtown.  I don't know that anybody ever had a photograph taken there, but he held his court there.  And he sat in a rocking chair, and my client who was, I don't remember, accused of some misdemeanor, sat in a chair, and I sat in a straight chair.  [He] had a pot-bellied stove, it was hot.  He had about five dogs that jumped all over you and smelled terrible.  And that's the way we tried the case.

It was another J.P. over in Aztec who had his offices upstairs in his apartment.  I defended two boys that were accused of chicken stealing.  It was a preliminary hearing, and we got through with the hearing, and I moved to dismiss after the district attorney had put on his case.  I said, "He hasn't proved that these boys took those chickens at all."  And the J.P. said, "Well, Mr. Tansey, you're probably right, but I think you could ask him [i.e., the defendants (Tr.)] some questions, and we'd find that he was guilty.  So I'm going to rule that he has to go to trial."  (chuckles)

I suspect things were like that in the nineteenth century.  Law was a lot different than it is now.  In the sixty years I've been a lawyer, I honestly believe it's changed as much as it did in the previous 250 years.  It's been a tremendous change, not at all the same.


In the fall of 1950, I went back to Washington, D.C. to the American Bar Association Convention, and I had written a letter to the editor of The Times-Hustler, which was a weekly newspaper here, in regard to water and the Navajos.  And there was, at that time, I felt an obvious grab by the white people—or an attitude by the white people—that they could take all the water and the Navajos didn't really have an interest much in it.  And I wrote this letter to the editor, thinking it would be just a little letter to the editor, and it appeared with a big headline on the front page of that week's paper.

The word got back to Norman Littell, who was general counsel for the Navajos, and he contacted me in Washington and asked me to come in, and interviewed me.  In 1951 I was hired as associate general counsel for the Navajo Tribe, and started doing a lot of work for them.  I was supposed to give them twenty hours a week of my time.  When I first started, that was fine.  I had twenty hours available, I wasn't that busy with my private practice.  Eventually I got to where it was really a burden.  And they had me traveling a lot—I was all over the country with the Navajos, and doing business for the Navajos….

I got started in [water issues], and I had had experience in water law, and I'd had some experience in mining, oil, and gas law down in Carlsbad…. we worked out—the uranium industry was developing, and I worked out resolutions of the Tribal Council under which there could be uranium leases made, and uranium could be developed.

Then one of the other things that I was really involved with was negotiation with the United Indian Traders Association over leases to operate on the Reservation.…

The traders had had trading permits or licenses from the government, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they built their trading posts on the land on the Reservation, which had been assigned to them.  Some of them were fair-sized tracts of land, and some of them weren't very big.  Norman Littell was the first attorney, really, that the Navajo Tribe had, and he felt that the traders should pay the Navajos some money for their leases and operating on the Reservation.  And the traders came into the deal with the position that "we own that land, and we own those buildings, and we don't have to lease them, and we don't have to pay anything."  And the traders were represented by McQuatters and Stephenson, I guess it was, in Flagstaff….

McQuatters did the negotiations, and I did them for the tribe, and we did them mostly at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup.  We'd meet there, that was kind of halfway in between….  And it took us a long time to get—and I know that McQuatters knew enough law to know better.  Even by mistake, if you build a house on my land, it's my house.  Now, you might, under the rules of unjust enrichment, get a little something out of it, but you might not either.  There are cases where the person built a house on somebody else's land and a house becomes a part of the realty when it's built on land.  And it took a long time to convince the traders that all those buildings and everything they had belonged to the Navajo Tribe.  And finally they agreed, well, they guessed so.

So then we worked out leases for twenty-five years, which was the most the law would allow at that time, and I got resolutions drawn up and passed by the tribal council and approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs authorizing the leasing.  And most of the leases I think were probably made about 1954 or 1955.  And things went along fairly smoothly after that—at least between the tribe and the traders on those leases.  But then when the leases started running out after twenty-five years, and the renewal came up, the DNA had come along on the Reservation, representing the Indians.  And the tribe had some people, and I don't remember names anymore, that were a little more aggressive, and it was a real struggle to get leases renewed at any reasonable situation.

Of course by that time I was on the other side of the picture.  I had resigned and I don't think I started working for the Traders, became secretary and general counsel, till 1960 or the early sixties.  I think it was a number of years.  I can relate it to one thing:  I served in the New Mexico legislature in 1957 and 1958, and I know I was not representing the traders at that time.  So it had to come sometime after that.  And I've never known for sure why the traders decided to hire me, but I think Russell Foutz and Ralph Bilby and somebody else came to see me and asked me if I would be willing to be general counsel and secretary for the Traders Association.  And I don't remember what they paid me at the time, but they put me on a retainer. 

And I must have done the work for close to twenty years, and then when I retired—that would probably have been sometime after 1980, after I was sixty-five.  We had another lawyer in the firm, Byron Caton, who's now a district judge, and with the agreement of the Traders, I turned that over to him.  And I guess James Payne took over the legal work.  And really, there was not much that went on at all….


I was just going to say that being attorney and secretary of the Indian Traders Association was one of the most pleasant things that ever happened to me as a lawyer and as a man....  And I look back now and wish that I had kept on doing it longer than I did, but I just got too old and too tired.