This installment of The Tribes In The Media is an AP article on the modern history of the Navajo Nation's government structure and the opportunity for Navajos to vote on restructuring their government.
In a First, Navajos to Vote on Their Power Structure
July 4, 2009
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajo voters have never had much of a say in how their modern government was shaped. But that may soon change, after a tribal judge cleared the way for a special election on a restructuring that could alter the balance of power on the sprawling reservation.
The government structure was forced upon Navajo voters 86 years ago and was reorganized under three branches without their consent.
Maybe Navajos “will have a greater sense of ownership in the government than they now have,” said Dale Mason, who teaches Navajo government at the University of New Mexico, Gallup.
In 1923, the federal government created the Tribal Council to sign off on oil and gas leases. Before that, Navajos largely governed themselves. Small bands were led by headmen, or naataanii, who came together only in times of crisis to solve problems that extended beyond their communities.
Even if such a meeting, called a naachid, resulted in a decision to act, no Navajo was bound to comply.
With the discovery of oil on the reservation in 1922, the federal government needed an entity to deal with for leasing matters. It appointed three Navajos to a business council, but soon realized that the group needed to be more representative and expanded it to include delegates from across the reservation.
Navajos did not fight the creation of a centralized government or smaller political units in the early 1920s because the idea was not new to them, said David Wilkins, author of “The Navajo Political Experience.”
“It’s just putting a name to what has always been in existence, even if it wasn’t always known to a larger society,” said Mr. Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.
When the federal government took a boilerplate constitution to tribes across the country in the mid-1930s, it gave Navajos an opportunity to vote on their government structure. Many tribes accepted the document, but Navajos rejected it. Later efforts to establish a constitution also failed.
More than 50 years later, the council reorganized the tribal government under three branches but has never asked Navajos to ratify the changes.
The Navajo Nation is the country’s largest Indian reservation at 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Its population of 300,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation.
Over the years, the size of the Tribal Council grew to 88 members. Navajos now elect their leaders, but Mr. Wilkins points out that the government still lacks legitimacy because it was not created by Navajos and they have not sanctioned its existence.
Voting on the measures, which would cut the Tribal Council membership by more than half and give the president line-item veto authority, “would come close to that,” Mr. Wilkins said.
A tribal hearing officer ruled that the initiatives could go forward after a legal fight between the Navajo president, Joe Shirley Jr., and the Tribal Council speaker, Lawrence Morgan. An election was ordered held within six months, but an appeal is planned.
Reducing the Tribal Council has seemingly captured the interest of Navajos more so than the line-item veto. Mr. Shirley said it would fulfill the wishes of Navajos who voted in a 2000 referendum for a council of 24. The change was not enacted because the measure required a majority vote in each of the 110 Navajo chapters.
Mr. Shirley said he was hopeful a line-item veto would curtail spending by delegates, who have voted to give themselves gold rings, and drain tribal funds meant for capital improvements and for tribal employee raises.
Mr. Morgan maintains that fewer delegates would mean less representation for chapters, particularly those that already share a delegate. Any money saved on delegates’ pay would be needed to hire additional staff members and pay for travel to more chapters, said Joshua Lavar Butler, a spokesman for Mr. Morgan.
Mr. Butler declined to comment on the line-item veto.
Miya Francis, 25, who is from the small reservation town of Lupton, Ariz., said she believed that reducing the council might force delegates to pay more attention to their communities and advocate for them.
“We hardly see our council delegates here within the area,” Ms. Francis said. “The only time we see them is when it comes to having regular and chapter meetings, and the only reason they come here is because they get paid for it.”
Julie A. Livingston, a Navajo voter in the Church Rock, N.M., chapter, said her community was well represented in the tribal capital of Window Rock, Ariz. Ms. Livingston said reducing the council would only stretch delegates thinner.
“I don’t know if each chapter will be represented well,” she said. “Their needs are all different.”
Mr. Mason, the Navajo government instructor, said that he did not see a gain or loss in reducing the council and that the number of delegates did not determine what level of representation the communities would receive.
The people’s view, Mr. Mason said, is “that the council is incompetent, that they benefit themselves and not the people; that’s where the point of conflict is.”
The legislative branch arguably is the most powerful of the three branches, and the passage of the initiatives might tip the balance of power to the president, Mr. Mason said.
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