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

Page 5

Reformer Ed Becenti, who's trained in computer repair, emails his observations on council meetings to a long mailing list via frequent "Rezztone" blasts. He also thinks that the delegates are misusing the revered doctrines. "Once they get into office, they go into this power thing, like they're somebody special and they can do whatever they want. And they use the Navajo language to do what they do. They softened us to stealing people's money by using words like k'e. It's just an escape from their mistakes."

His friend Norman Brown (they met during the early 1970s heyday of the American Indian Movement) also assails "the 88," as he calls the previous Council. "The 88 was a continuous party, and now we're $25 million in the hole," Brown told me, referring to the tribe's current deficit out of a total general fund budget of about $170 million for 2012. The head of the Navajo Office of Management and Budget blames Council overspending for the deficit, according to the Navajo Times. General fund revenues come mostly from oil, gas, coal and taxes. The external budget, which is generated from outside revenues, is much heftier (in 2009 it was $408 million) and comes mostly from federal, state and private grants.

"We are at a real critical phase," said Brown, a filmmaker who lives in Gallup, N.M. "And I don't think this government in its present form has the ability to solve these problems."

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, a member of the 88 who voted against the notorious commemorative gold rings, was re-elected to the new Council -- "the 24." He sponsored the April legislation to further reform it, which passed after four days of wrangling. It will create a "committee of the whole," where all delegates debate legislation before it comes to the chamber floor in a way more akin to traditional, consensus-building forms of Navajo decision-making. Further restructuring of government is necessary, but decisions about that must be left to the Diné, Tsosie said. He and other delegates, including Russell Begaye, are working toward that. "We don't have three hogans," or three branches of government; "we have one," said Tsosie.

The reform movement also seeks to draft a Navajo Constitution, to write down the Navajos' founding principles so that everyone is on the same page. Ivan Gamble, a writer who dropped out of law school and returned to his home in Lechee, Ariz., in 2005, is a leader of that effort. Where Tsosie is reserved in the traditional Navajo way, Gamble, 33, has an in-your-face style. He has enthusiastically pushed for a constitution for six years, using both Facebook and footwork, walking across the reservation to make his pitch. "I carried a petition asking for a constitution and got 9,000 signatures. I talked at schools. The young people pick it right up. I don't think our generation is big on protesting but they will certainly talk about it online, and it spreads even faster that way," Gamble told me one afternoon in Window Rock. Three former Navajo Nation presidents are founding members of Gamble's constitutional committee.

"Constitutions weren't a Western discovery," Gamble said. "The Iroquois developed the first written constitution. As a matter of fact, that American version that 56 white dudes wrote? A lot of its defining characteristics come from the Iroquois." For one thing, the Iroquois Constitution -- called the Great Law of Peace, and drafted by the tribe in what is now upstate New York, sometime between 1000 and 1400 -- guaranteed freedom of religion, something Gamble wants to enshrine in a Navajo Constitution as well. As Navajo Fundamental Law makes its way into current laws and regulations, some protections are needed, because the Navajo Nation is religiously diverse and includes followers of various Christian denominations, as well as Mormons and members of the Native American Church. "We have the definitions and the problems of a nation now," Gamble said, "and one of the defining characteristics of a nation is a constitution."

What would a truly Navajo government look like? Gamble won't say; that's also up to the Diné to decide, he believes. He thinks that each of the 110 chapters should select a representative to attend a constitutional convention. They would meet for a week, debating and honing ideas, then break for a week and return to their chapters to discuss all that had been proposed. The back-and-forth would continue for 60 days. Then they'd be sequestered for a week to prepare a unified document. "Everybody then votes on it -- the entire Navajo Nation," he said.

As Navajo reformers work to answer the age-old question Thomas Jefferson wrestled with -- "What kind of nation?" -- Special Prosecutor Balaran remains in the trenches. In May, Chief Justice Yazzie gave him permission to withdraw the outstanding criminal complaints against all but a few of the previous council's delegates and refile them as civil complaints so that the cases could move more expeditiously. And in the Navajo way, the goal of the civil litigation would be restitution of the missing dollars rather than punishment.

Then, on July 28, Balaran dropped another bombshell. He filed the sweeping lawsuit in Navajo District Court as promised, but added still more names, including all the delegates in the previous Council of 88 and the current attorney general, Harrison Tsosie. Balaran charged that a total of $36 million had been handled improperly, and each delegate had "unlawfully" diverted about $250,000 to "families, friends, other delegates and their friends." This time, Leonard Tsosie was also caught in the net. The lawsuit called for "the immediate removal from office of those Defendants still occupying positions of authority." Tsosie didn't return phone calls asking for comment; in a press conference, he and several others refused to resign.

Balaran's lawsuit charged former President Shirley with breach of his fiduciary duty for, among other things, "sanctioning the passage of dozens of unlawful budget appropriations that resulted in the unlawful conversion of tens of millions of dollars of Navajo Nation funds" and for failing to stop the Council's discretionary spending spree. In an ironic twist, Balaran also charged that the man who had hired him, former Attorney General Louis Denetsosie (who resigned in January), had withheld evidence related to Shirley's business dealings and then hid the fact that he hired an outside law firm to defend Shirley against the special prosecutor's investigation. Denetsosie told the Navajo Times that "there is no merit whatsoever" to the claims against him.

In all, Balaran's lawsuit targeted 142 people, including 50 "John Does" to be named later. It described a "wholesale pattern and practice of corruption conceived and coordinated by the branches and agencies of the Nation" -- a violation, said the Brooklyn-born outsider, of Fundamental Law.

Becenti's Rezztone email about the big lawsuit encouraged Navajos to meet with the special prosecutor to report other violations. In a voice uniquely his, Becenti wrote: "We are also wanting to (produce) a COUNTER RADIO statement to wot da (delegates) are ranting about ... but we hav to raise at least $1,800 to do dis. I do acknowledge dat there are some GREAT council delegates right now who are not involved in dis mess ... but dey need to step-up to da plate on behalf of the grassroots folks who elected dem in da first place."

Even with the turmoil over the big lawsuit, on Aug. 1 the Council voted unanimously to remove the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs from the process of approving mineral leases -- another step on the path to Navajo sovereignty. "Navajo people need to form a government using Navajo culture, sense of place, and spirituality," Ray Austin told me. "We need to have a 'cultural match.' I believe there should be a foundational, written governing instrument. Call it a constitution, governing Diné laws, The Great Law, whatever, but it should outline the government and its powers."

Russell Begaye is enthusiastic about the future of the Navajo Nation but sobered by the challenges. "Right now, we are just shuffling things around, but we need to get serious about structuring a government that will really work," he said. "If people are interested in helping to build a nation, one that really fits our culture, now is the time."

This story was funded in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is an Arizona-bred, San Francisco-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including Discover, The New York Times, Mother Jones and the radio program This American Life. She has been writing about Navajo politics and environmental issues since 2000.

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