Navajo Monster Slayers: a tribe struggles to fight corruption

  • Navajo Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Herb Yazzie, who has relied on traditional Navajo philosophy in overturning Navajo Nation Council laws.

    Diego James Robles
  • Navajo Council watchdogs Norman Patrick Brown, left, and Ed Becenti, outside the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock, Arizona.

    Diego James Robles
  • Scenes from the mural that covers the wall of the Navajo Council Chamber.

    Diego James Robles
  • Most of the plush chairs in the Navajo Council Chamber are empty, since a 2009 ballot initiative reduced the number of delegates from 88 to 24.

    Diego James Robles
  • Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald in early 1989, just weeks before he was suspended in the face of federal and tribal charges for various offenses. He later served eight years in federal prison.

    Associated press
  • Houses in the Two Grey Hills area of the Navajo Reservation, represented by Council Delegate David Tom.

    Diego James Robles
  • Council Delegate David Tom, shown here at the Navajo Tribal Council meeting in July. Tom has been charged with diverting nearly $280,000 of tribal funds to himself and his family.

    Diego James Robles
  • Council Delegate Russell Begaye, in Shiprock, which was a vibrant commercial center when he was growing up there. Now, he says, people have to leave the reservation to shop.

    Diego James Robles
  • Former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley was targeted by a prosecutor's lawsuit in July, which alleged that he failed to carry out his fiduciary duty to the tribe.

    U.S. House of Representatives
  • Current President Ben Shelly

    USDA
  • Vice President Rex Lee Jim was elected last November, despite being under investigation for theft of tribal funds. He later settled and repaid funds to the tribe.

    Rex Lee for Navajo Nation President
  • An officer stands guard as Special Prosecuter Alan Balaran (blue shirt) and investigators from the tribal attorney general's office conduct a search-and-seizure warrant in May at the Office of the Management and Budget and Controller in Window Rock.

    Leigh T. Jimmie, Navajo Times
 

Window Rock, Arizona

The Navajo Nation Council Chamber is a rounded bit of beauty inspired by the traditional Navajo hogan. It's set against a natural arch of sandstone that gives Window Rock its name, a wide and frequently dramatic sky, and temporary government-office barracks that have been at their task several decades too long. The odd cow or horse sometimes wanders loose nearby, foraging for grass.

On a windy day last April, at a meeting of the 22nd Navajo Nation Council, the building was a refuge from swirling cottonwood debris and blasts of red dust. Inside, a storm of a different nature was brewing. Dipping in and out of English and Navajo, the Council delegates -- legislators for the largest tribe in the West -- were in heated debate. From the public gallery, I couldn't hear the official interpreter well enough to understand the particulars; my earpiece kept shorting out. But the overall theme - a conflict over the shape and character of the Navajo government -- was clear, right down to the chamber's seats.

Most of the delegates' plush black-leather chairs were empty -- a powerful reminder that a majority of Diné, or "The People," as the Navajo call themselves, want change. This Council, elected last November, was the first to reflect a successful 2009 ballot initiative to consolidate chapters, or legislative districts, and drastically reduce the governing body's size from 88 delegates to 24. A delegate's proposal to further reorganize Council duties and powers had ignited the current debate.

There is no Navajo C-SPAN, and the tribally owned Navajo Times publishes just once a week, so people who want the blow-by-blow have to attend the sessions, held for one week four times a year. And it's not easy. The Navajo Nation sprawls across 27,000 square miles of northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah, and travel is complicated by poor roads, expensive gas and a lack of public transportation.

Two Navajo activists sat next to me. Norman Patrick Brown, 51, wore turquoise earrings; his long hair was pulled back and secured by the red bandanna around his forehead. With his wrestler's physique, he seemed ready for a takedown. He translated the proceedings in a whisper and editorialized: "The old guard is still in the majority and we're watching them very closely."

"I learned accountability when I was young, listening to my elders, herding sheep," said 56-year-old Ed Becenti softly. His salt-and-pepper hair was thick and short, and he looked fit in his running shoes and jeans. "We had 75 head, and at the end of the day we did a full count. If one was missing, my grandmother would get a flashlight and wouldn't come back until she found that sheep."

If sheep were dollars, 36 million of them would be missing on the Navajo Nation today. Becenti and Brown and their allies -- including a tough special prosecutor from Washington, D.C. -- want to know what became of that money. The previous Council allegedly tapped a "slush fund" -- discretionary funds intended for the reservation's neediest people -- to benefit their own families and friends, while the Navajo president and others looked the other way. The questions, and the push for reform, reach into both the president's office and the judicial branch, and include renewed calls to create a Navajo Constitution to guide the relatively young government.

Above the thinned ranks in the council chamber, a long mural painted in 1935 encircles everyone. It portrays the history of the Navajo, beginning with images of women grinding corn. Then rugs are woven, sheep herded, crops watered, horses fed. In several battle scenes, Navajo warriors wield bows and arrows against white men with guns. The Long Walk of 1864, when the U.S. Army forced many Navajos to walk to Fort Sumner, N.M., is painted along the south wall. Hundreds died, yet many survived and returned to their homeland -- a triumph that's also celebrated. The story in the mural reminds everyone that the Navajo Nation is a sovereign entity -- with its own dramatic history, creation stories, and distinctive ideas about government and justice.

If democracy is the United States' guiding principle, the Navajos' is hózhó. There is no exact English translation, but "balance" and "harmony" come close. This ideal permeates how Navajo laws are made and justice meted out -- not eye-for-an-eye punishment, but restitution and the restoration of harmonious relationships. Hózhó requires constant stocktaking, the thoughtful weighing of one's own behavior and that of the tribe. Anything that causes imbalance, disharmony or discord is naayee, the Navajo word for "monster." Changing Woman, who created humans, had two sons who are central to the Navajo pantheon because they were the first monster slayers.

An updated mural showing current events would depict a battle as ferocious as any in history. This time around, though, both the naayee and their slayers are Navajo. And the timing is striking: The Navajos are reshaping their own dysfunctional government even as Washington, D.C., seizes up in ineffectual gridlock. The reform effort proceeds in fits and starts, but it's the biggest upheaval here since 1989, when the Navajo government tore itself into pieces and a political riot left two people dead. At its heart, it's about the desire to finally create an effective, modern democracy that emphasizes traditional Navajo values. It's a battle for balance -- for hózhó.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...