By Bill Donovan and George Joe
Back in 1989, the Navajo Nation Council decided to switch from a chairmanship — where the Chairman runs all aspects of the government — to a three branch government modeled after the U.S. federal and state governments, with executive, legislative and judicial branches.
There is only one township government on the reservation in Kayenta. The local governments — called chapters — meet biweekly or monthly. Their meeting dates are posted and open to the public. There are 110 chapters on the reservation. Everyone who attends the meeting and is a member of that chapter gets a vote: however, in many cases the votes are just advisory. Most chapters have their monthly meetings within the first two weeks of the month.
Only those chapters who have shown the ability to manage their finances within government guidelines have power to make certain decisions, regarding the running of their communities. Otherwise, the decisions are made at the central government level.
For the past 40 years, the influence of the chapters has been decreasing because the meetings are controlled by older members of the tribe. Very few young Navajos attend the meetings because a majority (~98%) of the debate is in Navajo.
The top official of the Navajo Nation is the president. The current tribal president is Jonathan Nez, and the vice president is Myron Lizer. The President has the power to sign bills into law that have been passed by the Navajo Nation Council. He also has the power to veto. The president also has been given the power to speak for the Navajo people and, as such, he can and does go to federal agencies and Congress at times to speak on behalf of tribal members and ask for more funding for programs. You will often see the president’s and vice president’s names in the media.
The president is also head of the executive branch of the government which comprises more than 85 percent of the tribal employees — some 5000 — and provides the services that make life better for tribal members: police, economic development, operation of tribal parks and social services, to name a few. He oversees a budget of about $90 million in tribal funds and more than $300 million when you take in account programs funded by the federal government but handled by the tribe.
A president is elected every four years and has an eight-year term limitation. The elections are non-partisan. He makes a salary of $55,000 a year or about the same as a teacher on the reservation with 10 years in the school system. His salary has not been changed since 1988. The next election is in November 2018. In May 2018, all the candidates for tribal president must declare their candidacy. You will probably hear a lot of campaigning in summer and fall 2018. Like the U.S. President, the tribal president has an executive staff and political appointees. They will often follow him around, usually wearing suits. You can visit the Office of the President/Vice President during the weekday. In the past, they use to conduct tours for the public.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez (left) and Navajo Vice President Myron Lizer (right) have held office since January 2019. President Nez formerly served as vice president for President Russell Begaye.
The legislative branch is responsible for making the laws and rules under which the tribal government operates. There are 24 members on the council which was diminished a few years ago from 88 members.
Council delegates make $25,000 a year and their salary has not changed since 1988. It requires approval of a majority of the chapters to increase an elected official’s salary. The council, however, has voted to give themselves fees for attending meetings which now gives the average council delegate a salary of more than $60,000 a year.
The council sessions are held primary in English although Navajo is spoken frequently. But since Navajo is only an oral language, the record is in English. The council is required to meet four times a year – January, April, July and October, with a budget session in September. They call special meetings now and then. Anyone, including tourists, can attend a council session. If you want to see tribal leaders in action – this is where to go. The Council has several committees and sub-committees that meet at least once a week and usually inside the Council Chambers. These meetings are open to the public and announced on the Council website at: http://www.navajonationcouncil.org/index.html
The tribal president usually only attends a full Council or subcommittee meeting, when requested. The election for members of the Navajo Council is also this upcoming November. You will see a lot of campaigning happening over the summer and fall 2018.
The Council is usually in conflict with the tribal president, especially during the political season.
The judicial branch runs much like the courts do off the reservation. The lowest level are the district courts, which handle both criminal and civil matters. Appeals go up to the Office of Hearings and Appeals and then to the Navajo Supreme Court.
All judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the council.
The tribal courts are only allowed to handle misdemeanors and have no jurisdiction over non-Indians who come on the reservation. If a non-Indian is arrested, it is done by the local sheriff’s office or by the FBI, depending on whether it is a misdemeanor or a felony. The non-Indian is then tried in state or federal court.
If a tribal member commits a felony, such as rape or murder, the case is tried in federal court. State courts do not have jurisdiction over tribal members who commit a crime on the reservation. You can watch a court proceeding. In Window Rock, ask for the Window Rock District court. Hearings are scheduled by judges at various times. The attorneys are usually non-Indians who have a law license to practice in Navajo courts. A majority of the hearings are conducted in English. There are courts in Dilkon, Tuba City, Kayenta, Chinle, Crownpoint, Shiprock, and Window Rock.
There are times, just like in the U.S. system, the courts get drawn into a political debate. In the last tribal election in 2014, the tribal Supreme Court issued a ruling which eliminated a highly supported political candidate. The elimination of the candidate divided the tribe for months and also played a major role in the subsequent resignation of the Chief Justice.
Photo of the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.
Photo of the inside of the Navajo Council Chambers. This is where tribal legislatures meet on matters impacting the Navajo people.
Sometimes when a crime has been committed and the prosecutor as well as the defendant decide that a fairer sentence could be arrived at outside the criminal civil court system, the matter goes to the tribe’s peacemaking court.
These are usually cases where an individual had become a problem in the community because of alcohol or drug abuse or there is a dispute between two parties that can be settled by mediation rather than through the judicial process.
Navajo traditional law is based on the premise of bringing harmony back to the community and deals a lot with making restitution for non-violent crimes such as robbery. In some cases, the peacemaker — a former judge or someone who is viewed as being wise — can convince someone with a chronic alcohol or drug problem to seek counseling and treatment. The peacemaking process has been universally praised both on and off the reservation for its efforts to curb crime on the reservation. The tribe’s peacemaker court has received recognition from Harvard University and other legal entities.
If you read a lot of stories about the Navajo government, the word “sovereignty” will come up frequently. What it basically means is that the tribal government has the right to determine its own destiny, make its own laws and handle its own affairs, much like a foreign or state government.
The only exceptions are those areas where Congress still maintains the authority. The federal government still has trust responsibility over tribal land which means that the tribe cannot sell any of its land without the approval of Congress. The tribe can buy land but it cannot put this land into trust status without the approval of Congress.
The tribe cannot arrest and try non-Indians. Congress has yet to give tribes that authority but in recent years, Congress has approved turning over authority to the tribe to handle business site approvals and for issuing home site leases.
Tribal sovereignty also means the tribe cannot be sued unless it agrees to be sued, which is the same type of sovereignty that the state and federal governments has.
Photo of a book about the Navajo Peacemaking court.