Diné Fundamental Law should guide government

Chili Yazzie
Shiprock - Northern Navajo Nation
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The Shiprock Chapter lawsuit against the Navajo Nation Council and Speaker Bates has been dismissed by the Shiprock District Court without prejudice. The suit was filed in early February calling into question the processing of the legislation that approved the proposed Utah Navajo Water Settlement. We alleged that there were two violations of law. The Blue Book and the Diné Fundamental Law concur that “all legislation approved by the Council are subject to Presidential review” and that the “President is the face of the Nation and is the designated authority to interface with outside Sovereigns.” The Utah water deal resolution signed only by Speaker LoRenzo Bates was sent to the state of Utah without the president’s review or participation.

After the Shiprock District Court accepted the case, the Legislative Counsel filed eight separate motions to dismiss, we went back and forth for three months arguing on court procedure and technicalities. The Legislative Counsel prevailed on the argument that we, I and the Shiprock Chapter membership, could not proceed pro se (to represent ourselves without an attorney). I argued that we have the right to speak for ourselves, we know best how to say what is on our mind and in our hearts and that we have exercised this right from time immemorial. I argued that we have a right to redress of our government (to complain about the official actions of the leadership) directly as Diné citizens without a lawyer. These arguments were not accepted by the court.

I do not fault the District Court for its decision as it must abide by the prescribed rules of court procedure. The conclusion is, we do not have the right to talk for ourselves as a group in the Navajo Court of Law and we collectively do not have standing in court unless we have a lawyer talking for us.

The Navajo Nation’s lawyers are obligated to use every rule, procedure, every trick in the book to protect their clients, in this case the Navajo Nation Council and they did so, very tenaciously. The end result is the two simple allegations we started with disappeared into the quagmire (mud pit) of court procedure, technicalities and legalese. And the other intent of bringing the details of the water deal into the bright sunlight, was also squashed. We think some of our water rights may have been bargained away; water our children will need in the future.

Through this exercise, the Department of Justice threatened to criminally prosecute me for “practicing law without a license,” the Legislative Counsel belligerently threatened to toss me in jail when we were serving the court ordered summons to appear to the Council and my position as legislative district assistant to my council delegate was threatened. I would have been happy to get prosecuted by DOJ and/or go to jail, but I would not have been happy to be the victim of retaliation by getting fired, all because my constituents and I exercised our rights to question the actions of our leaders.

The court process is adversarial, people will be negative to each other, tempers will flare, one side will win and one side will lose. A regret I have is the positive and good K’é relationship I had with my court “adversaries” may have been damaged, even so, I would be glad to shake hands and continue being on good terms.

This is all part of the bigger concern, which is that our government is un-Diné. History describes the formation of the formal Navajo government in 1923, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs dictated the structure and process of government. With the establishment of the so-called Navajo government, the BIA appointed a Business Council to approve oil leases. There are two points here, one being that the structure and process of Navajo government was imposed upon us by a foreign entity and two, the primary intent to institute a formal central government was to approve an oil lease, not to take care of the people.

The Navajo government is a copy of the federal government and thus our governmental process, tribal employees and leaders mimic the “outside” governments, (yes we don’t have much choice, we are stuck with this system and our leadership seem content with it). This government structure and process based on foreign thought and ideology is so separate from our Diné world that it does not recognize and honor Diné Lifeways based concepts and realities.

The court of law component of this governmental structure allows a process where lawyers use every trick to prevent the objective and responsible discussion of issues that we Diné citizens point to as misdoings by the leadership. A process that makes us the bad guys while the alleged law breakers are protected and vigorously defended by the system.

There is an injustice here. This condition of injustice does not allow us as Diné citizens to question the perceived irresponsibility of the leadership with full and timely opportunity. We are always on the outside looking in, being near powerless to adequately question legislation or initiatives that we think are questionable. The system does not allow us to think and act from our Diné perspective, so in order to register our concerns, we have to conform to the dictates of a foreign thinking and demean our Dinéness to be compliant with this non-Diné process to seek the justice we deserve and require.