FLAGSTAFF – An ongoing political battle pitting the president of the vast Navajo Nation against the majority of the tribal council has left ordinary Navajos concerned that the politicians have become too engrossed in petty fights to do the work they were elected to do.
The Navajo Nation Council stripped President Joe Shirley Jr. of all his administrative powers in late October over so-far unsubstantiated allegations of ethical and criminal wrongdoing. The elected president’s supporters say the action came in retaliation for his push to reduce the tribe’s council from 88 to 24 members and secure a line-item veto on appropriations legislation.
Critics on the council say Shirley is carrying out a personal vendetta and unfairly targeting them.
More than a year after Shirley first raised the smaller-council issue, voters on the 27,000 square mile reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah will decide the issue later this month in a special election.
The back-and-forth between the legislative and executive branches has created a sense of instability in what is still a relatively new form of government on the country’s largest American Indian reservation.
“We don’t have leadership,” said Wally Brown, a Navajo silversmith from Coppermine, N.M. “We have a bunch of people who seem to be focused on their individual agendas, and their individual agendas get in the way of things we really need to have Navajo Nation-wide.”
Brown said he’s worried the council is pushing the tribe toward bankruptcy because of the money they are spending on their pet projects. The tribal auditing office announced this week that it was initiating a comprehensive review of all discretionary spending by the council and the president’s office.
In the 19 months since Shirley announced a petition drive for his two initiatives, he and council Speaker Lawrence Morgan embarked on separate campaigns to persuade Navajo voters in the election and to discredit each other.
Some Navajos say the political squabble is out of keeping with the basic tribal cultural beliefs of mutual respect, harmony and compromise.
The waters calmed briefly when Morgan and Shirley announced an agreement in August 2008 to reduce the council. But lawmakers never followed through, and the rift reignited.
Talk of the initiatives and their potential effects has dominated the opinion pages of the tribal newspaper. One writer likened the politicians to the coyote, which is depicted in traditional Navajo stories as a greedy, selfish animal who uses trickery to get what he wants.
Council delegates and Shirley have bought radio time and taken out newspaper advertisements to advocate for their positions. Separate Web sites offer conflicting “facts” about the effects of having fewer lawmakers.
To Shirley, the fight has been an effort to curtail what he calls excessive spending by the council and fulfill the wishes of Navajos who voted in a 2000 referendum for a reduced Tribal Council.
Some delegates see Shirley’s push as an attack on the rights of their communities to have representation.
The matter reached the Navajo Supreme Court earlier this year, where the justices chastised an attorney for the tribal election office after he questioned their ability to remain unbiased in the case. The court ruled the election could move forward, and it is set for Dec. 15.
In the council’s boldest move, 48 delegates voted to place Shirley – who was elected to a second term in 2006 by a vote of 34,813 to 30,214 – on leave. The tribe’s attorney general is seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into alleged legal violations against Shirley and others involving tribal contracts with two businesses.
David Wilkins, author of “The Navajo Political Experience,” sees the actions as a growing pain of any young government. The three-branch government system on the Navajo Nation is less than 20 years old.
As the Navajo Nation moved from a chairman to a president in leadership, the council’s power has only grown and delegates are reluctant to relinquish any of that power, he said.
“They really are in the throws of a serious intergovernmental conflict right here,” he said.
Joan Chissie, a criminal law student in Glendale who grew up in the Navajo community of Coalmine Canyon, said it shouldn’t be difficult for tribal politicians to act professionally and ethically, and be accountable for their actions.
“They are not able to communicate because nobody wants to listen,” she said. “They’re going to continue to have this power struggle until they decide, ‘We’re going to grow up. It’s time to do what I’m supposed to be doing.'”