When Spanish colonizers roaming the Southwest encountered the Navajo in the 17th century, they did not find a tribe ruled by a centralized authority. Navajos had allegiances to immediate family and clan and neighbors, more than to the tribe as a whole. The headmen among the disparate groups didn't rule by lineage or election. They came to power because they were wise, or skilled at hunting, or had ceremonial knowledge. And they could lose that power quickly if they fell out of favor, according to Peter Iverson's landmark 1983 book, The Navajo Nation. Back then, it was easy to throw the bums out.
But when oil was discovered on the reservation in 1922, decentralized decision-making made it harder for outside interests to access those resources. So the federal commissioner of Indian Affairs (the precursor to the Bureau of Indian Affairs), without Navajo consultation, established procedures to create the first versions of the Navajo Tribal Council. At times, early on, the feds selected delegates based on their level of assimilation, Westernized education and belief that the traditional Navajo way blocked progress. Even when delegates were elected by Navajos, they could be removed for cause by the secretary of Interior -- pretty much guaranteeing they would go along with whatever the feds wanted. At the first Council meeting in 1923, reports David Wilkins in his 2003 book, The Navajo Political Experience, the 24 delegates "unanimously approved a resolution -- drafted in Washington -- which gave (the commissioner) the authority to sign all oil and gas leases 'on behalf of the Navajo Indians.' "
From the 1920s to the 1980s, the tribal government made a series of questionable deals with companies seeking coal as well as oil and gas. Yet there were also attempts to establish political checks and balances. Beginning in 1938, Navajo voters selected a chairman and vice chairman to preside over the Council, and in the 1950s, the Council established a court system. A Tribal Code -- laws modeled after federal codes -- soon followed. A Navajo Constitution was proposed on three separate occasions but not adopted; voters were confused about how it would impact Navajo life, and one effort failed simply because the Council never put the draft constitution before voters for ratification.
The Council, which increased to 88 delegates as a result of the reservation's population growth and reapportionment, drafted and approved the tribal budget and passed laws. But power began to shift in the 1970s, when the Council gave a charismatic, ambitious chairman, Peter MacDonald, the authority to appoint members to standing committees. (Imagine if the U.S. president could appoint members of key congressional committees.) MacDonald became "the most powerful Indian in America," in the words of the Associated Press, over the course of his four nonconsecutive terms. As master of his nation's legislative priorities, he asserted tribal sovereignty against federal authority. He also launched economic development schemes to try to ease the reservation's widespread poverty, and further tipped the balance of political power in his favor, with moves such as temporarily shuttering the Navajo Times, which had been a frequent MacDonald critic.
But then MacDonald overreached: He convinced the Council to buy the 491,000-acre Big Boquillas Ranch, near the Grand Canyon, for $33.4 million. A reporter was tipped off that he'd received kickbacks and bribes in connection with the deal. The U.S. Senate began hearings in 1988, and a fractious tribal Council voted to place him on involuntary administrative leave. He refused to give up power, and tensions erupted into a melee at tribal headquarters: A crowd of his supporters roughed up some outnumbered policemen, and two of the crowd were killed by police bullets. (MacDonald was ultimately convicted in both tribal and federal court for election-law violations, bribery and corruption; he served eight years in prison before being pardoned by President Clinton.)
To check the virtually unlimited power MacDonald had amassed as chairman, the delegates amended Title 2 of the Navajo Nation Code in 1989. They replaced the offices of chairman and vice chairman with a less powerful president and vice president. The new president would not run the legislative branch. That role was given to the speaker of the Council, who is chosen by fellow delegates.
These amendments were seen as a stopgap measure to guide the tribe out of chaos and hold the nation together until the Diné could decide for themselves what kind of government they wanted. Until the 2009 special election, however, they didn't have the chance.
Meanwhile, there were increasing indications that the Council delegates had begun to abuse their power and spend lavishly, including controversial trips to Las Vegas and Hawaii justified as tribal business. In 2007, a vast majority of delegates voted for a special amendment, tacked on to a measure funding summer youth employment, to allocate $50,000 to buy gold rings for all the delegates, to commemorate their service.