Guest Column | Finding a structure based on
Jul 11, 2022 |
Guest Essay |
By Herb Yazzie
lately been participating in informal community discussions on governmental
and land-use reform, both of which no doubt go hand in hand.
Why has a Diné governmental structure
not yet been found that grows out of Diné life and that would be of practical
use to our realities?
we not found a land governance system that reflects our familial Diné land
years, Diné leaders have attempted to take our people beyond colonized
thinking, by asserting that we have our own value system on which to base all
governmental action. In 2002, Diné bi beenahaz’áanii (Fundamental Law) was
established, through which we asserted that we will think this way, the Diné
Retired Navajo Chief Justice Herb Yazzie
asserted that our government will be founded on Diné bi nahat’á.
how we will live and govern as a people continue to be in the hands of
lawyers who thrust upon us pieces of laws that, when viewed together, is
shapeless, unduly complex, and unnurturing, not unlike destructive nayée.
restrained by lawyers from even expressing a comprehensive vision of what our
government, Diné bi nat’áá, our lands and our way of life will look like. The
temporary structure now in place in Window Rock is copied from Washington.
and permit system of land, that the tribe has adopted, was imposed on us by
those who did not expect reservations to be permanent.
Navajo Nation Code was copied from surrounding states. None of these create a
coherent whole that allows us to pursue our familial, our cooperative way of
life, that gives the Navajo Nation a reason to exist.
piece, Window Rock has pursued enactment after enactment with no plan that
envisions how our government and land systems must look like, and how they
must operate for our descendants to remain on the Navajo Nation and exercise
their ingenuity and stewardship. Envisioning has been put aside for someone
else to get done.
knows that the lack of a vision has deepened our colonization and made things
worse for all Diné. A unified vision – for what the Navajo Nation will look
like for our children and future generations – is the only way to decolonize
vision for why we exist, and how we will exist for generations, these are
critical. This vision has to be expressed in Diné bizaad and in the English
without a comprehensive tribal vision puts inordinate power into the hands of
lawyers who advise our elected leaders and our courts. When we are unable to
plan our own reality, the lawyers are the ones who tell communities what can
and cannot be done within the existing framework of laws that come from
same lawyers would admit that the power currently exercised by them, can and
should be in the hands of our communities, so long as we can agree on a
foundational vision that serves as the basis of all laws. Such a foundational
vision would be the basis for reform of all present tribal laws and the
creation of future laws.
vision would be an expression of our sovereign authority as a Nation. We
would then work with Wááshindoon to waive or remove multiple federal law
restrictions that the federal government has long underfunded and which the
federal government itself knows are unworkable for permanent tribal
federal Indian policy has encouraged such a tribal vision for each tribe
since the early 1990s, especially in the area of integrated resource
management. We, ourselves, have not risen to the challenge. We have not acted
upon our communities’ desire for reform.
election, we criticize people who run for office. “You mention reform, where
is it?” is always the question in our recent history. The return to
fundamental law has become formalities without substance.
candidates talk about preserving our traditions, language and our way of
life, but they and we have never undertaken the hard task of developing the
vision, and launching a new government based on the vision.
our leaders for not correcting this or that law. We condemn the lawyers for
setting limits on what can be changed for our benefit. We fault our
three-branch tribal government for being dictated to by the lawyers. Yet, the
true fault is us.
need to envision our Nation’s land-based structure, our government structure,
and our legacy for future generations.
It is well
past a critical time to reach our consensus.
no doubt that lawyers have been in charge of us, to the extent that we do not
recognize our way of life in our own tribal laws. In almost every instance,
the lawyers are unfamiliar with Diné customary daily life – our ceremonies,
our relational arrangements, our stewardship role.
knowledge of our arrangements, lawyers who draft our laws and advise our
leaders cannot uphold us. Meanwhile, our leaders rely on their “expertise.”
an insight, that I have, from my 50 years of being advised by lawyers who
impress upon us the need for compliance with laws. There are many who believe
their job is to press human beings into existing boxes. Overall, lawyers lack
imagination. They fulfill their contractual duties.
lawyers do not realize is the extent to which they control and limit us
without asking us in a manner that would help decolonize our thinking. The
limitations imposed by various interpretations of laws prevent our
communities from even daring to express how the preservation of our way of
life, our government, and our land use should be done.
How we are
governed and how we use our land are the most fundamental and specific
visions we need to make ourselves, subject to no artificial limitation. The
three-branch Anglo form of government that is now in place in Window Rock was
never intended to last as long as it has (more than 30 years).
temporary land-use system of individually-held land leases and permits was
never intended to be the method of governing ancestral land use among
example of unintended results is the designation of Local Governance Act
chapters as “political subdivisions,” a term slipped into the LGA by lawyers,
that is, borrowed from off-reservation uses. This term has resulted in the
chapters not being able to directly be given ARPA money due to their being
structurally separate from Window Rock, yet at the same time, are deemed
lower levels of government subject to Window Rock controls.
not the original intention of community leaders, who recognize that local governance
preceded the creation of the Window Rock government. A model closer to the
local autonomy intent would be the “tribal enterprise,” or “home rule,” some
kind of indigenous variation of these that we must develop, which operates
need to think and create for ourselves, exercise our inherent
self-governance, is a local autonomous model that can be entirely of our own
some basic areas of agreement that can be built on.
We want to preserve the
Navajo Nation for future generations in a manner that makes sense and gives
pride for us to exist as a Nation.
We want to support the distinct and
principled self-sufficiency of the Diné family.
We want to
support Diné youth who increasingly seek to establish some kind of
“cooperative” that integrates land use, business, and homesteading in a way
that makes human sense.
local autonomy and responsibility for local matters, including disputes,
daily life, and conservation matters. We want stability, livelihoods, in a
manner that our youth may have ingenuity, and raise their own children as
relationships with land that reflect Diné life as practiced or as Diné life
may be restored. We want a land system that does not create conflicts between
us and even within families.
We want a
governmental system that belongs to us and which looks like real life to us.
We want to fully participate in the management of our lives and our land. We
want the land base of the Navajo Nation to be preserved.
this notion that any government must be supported by the people. In order to
get that support, people have to feel that they help create or develop that
Nation. It’s our government. We complain about lack of people’s involvement,
apathy, lack of initiative. To me, that comes from a feeling that this is not
Nation presidents and Council delegates always use this word, táá hó
ajít’éego, which they explain means “you have to be self-sufficient.” This is
even emphasized in Diné wellness models taught at the Indian Health Service,
in which it seems to be emphasized to our people that they must rely on their
Window Rock takes no measures to establish a government and system in which
self-sufficiency is truly supported. Window Rock should understand the other
interpretation of táá hó ajít’éego, which is, “it’s up to you to make good
take it upon ourselves to now verbalize and document our foundational vision.
Good things will follow.
Now let us
come together to envision the specific systems, structures and patterns. It
is not yet too late.
Herb Yazzie is a retired
chief justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.