The Navajo Nation signals it's ready for more reforms

by Ivan Gamble

When it comes to political reform on the Navajo Nation, one should never, ever, expect anything to change fast. Recently, voters agreed to reduce membership on the Navajo Nation Council from an unwieldy 88 members to 24, while also giving the president line-item veto authority. The reforms were passed overwhelmingly -- once again.

The same reforms were passed in 2002, but were thrown out by the incumbent council on a technicality. That technicality didn't apply this time, but the vote will almost certainly be challenged before the Navajo Supreme Court. I'm confident the court will continue to uphold its tradition of respecting Dine bi beenahaz'aanii, our fundamental law that holds that the will of the people is sovereign.

Since I've been working hard for the last three years to persuade people that we need to hold a constitutional convention for the Navajo Nation, I know firsthand how hard it is to change the status quo. A constitution would be written over a four-month period where all Dine citizens could participate through their chapter meetings -- egalitarian town-hall settings where each member is a citizen legislator.  A final document would be presented to the electorate for ratification.

But a constitutional convention requires the support of most of the 110 chapters. While we were able to secure the support of 44 of 88 members of the Navajo Council, we were never able to secure the necessary 59 to override those that did not want to let go of the status quo.

Surprisingly, the Navajo Nation has no constitution at all. Our current system of government system was modeled after the committee structure developed by Standard Oil when it was chaired by John S. Rockefeller. Its streamlined process allowed for quick leasing approval for exploiting natural resources found on the reservation. A proposed constitution was drafted in the 1950s, but it was nipped in the bud by the secretary of the Interior, who felt the document gave the tribe too much power. Instead of approving it, the Interior secretary named as members of the constitutional convention the members of a plus-sized Navajo Council. A constitution was shelved. In 1989, a violent government collapse resulted in a "temporary" three-branch imitation of the U.S. model until a more culturally appropriate model could be implemented. Instead, the Navajo Council named itself as the governing body of the nation without input from the people. That model has not changed until now.

The recent government reform ideas -- such as decreasing the council size -- put forward by Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. mark the first time in Dine history that the voters have had a say in what their government should look like. In the meantime, the council has fumbled such important actions as buying the Snowbowl ski resort and saving the San Francisco Peaks from development, or following through with legislation to develop green jobs on the reservation. Voters have also read of large-scale abuse of office by some members of the Navajo Council.  All of this led many voters to finally think twice about preserving the tired old ways.

Someone once said there are only two possible political campaigns: "Four more years" or "We need change."  When the council recently chose to place the Navajo president on leave –– without respect for due process and using undisclosed "evidence" –– its timing could not have been worse. Public sentiment that had not yet solidified swayed toward the president and sealed the fate of this election.

No one knows exactly how everything will play out with these changes, but with the rapid rise in communication technology it is now easier to follow the actions of legislative bodies. Perhaps the Navajo Nation needs to implement a C-SPAN-like online channel to follow the Legislature. It should also create an independent investigative body that would focus on ethics.

While the changes just made are not yet a constitution or have the long-term sustainability of such a unifying document, they do signal that the people are ready for more reform. In supporting the president and his efforts at governmental reform, the people showed that their patience is short and their need for openness and rational government continues to grow.

Ivan Gamble is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in LerChee/Lake Powell on the Navajo Nation.

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