FLAGSTAFF – Navajo voters have never had much of a say in how their modern government was shaped.
But that could soon change, after a tribal judge cleared the way for a special election on a restructuring that could change the balance of power on the sprawling reservation.
Navajo voters have never had a chance to tweak the government structure that was forced upon them some 85 years ago and reorganized under three branches without their consent. Observers says any change could bring a new sense of legitimacy to a government that long has been seen as remote to average Navajos.
“Maybe they (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’s Gallup branch.
Before the federal government created the Tribal Council in 1923 to sign off on oil and gas leases, Navajos largely governed themselves. Small bands were led by headmen, or “naataanii,” who came together only in times of crises 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 didn’t fight the creation of a centralized government or smaller political units in the early 1920s because the idea wasn’t 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 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 never has asked Navajos to ratify the changes.
The Navajo Nation is the country’s largest Indian reservation at 27,000 square miles extending into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. 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 Wilkins notes that the government still lacks legitimacy because it wasn’t created by Navajos and they haven’t sanctioned its existence.
Voting on measures to cut the Tribal Council by more than half and give the president line-item veto authority “would come close to that,” said Wilkins, professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.
A tribal hearing officer ruled the initiatives could go forward after a legal fight between Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. and Tribal Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan. An election was ordered held within six months, but an appeal is planned.
Reducing the Tribal Council seemingly has captured the interest of Navajos more so than the line-item veto. Shirley says it will fulfill the wishes of Navajos who voted in a 2000 referendum for a council of 24. The change wasn’t enacted because the measure required a majority vote in each of the 110 Navajo chapters.
Shirley said he is 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.
Morgan maintains that fewer delegates means less representation for chapters, particularly those that already share a delegate. Any money saved on delegates’ pay would be needed to hire additional staff and pay for travel to more chapters, said Morgan spokesman Joshua Lavar Butler.
Butler declined to comment on the line-item veto.
Miya Francis believes that reducing the council might force delegates to pay more attention to and advocate for their communities.
“We hardly see our council delegates here within the area,” said the 25-year-old from small reservation town of Lupton, Ariz. “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 Church Rock, N.M., chapter felt otherwise and said her community is well represented in the tribal capital of Window Rock, Ariz. She said reducing the council would only stretch delegates more thin.
“I don’t know if each chapter will be represented well,” she said. “Their needs are all different.”
Mason, the Navajo government instructor, doesn’t see a gain or loss in reducing the council and said that the number of delegates doesn’t determine what level of representation the communities will receive.
“The people’s view (is) that the council is incompetent, that the benefit themselves and not the people,” said Mason, the Navajo government instructor. “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, Mason said.
Livingston believes a line-item veto would give the president too much power.
“If we give him the whole voice, he’s going to say ‘it’s my way or not,’” she said. “That might take place. That’s what I’m afraid of.”