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

  • 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.

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