Navajo Seeks Support for Tribal Constitution

Ivan Gamble has taken the past year off from law school to hike and bike across the Navajo Indian reservation.

Along the way, the 29-year-old Navajo has been tracked by a bobcat, dodged rattlesnakes and gotten lost — all in an effort to push for a constitution.

Gamble's efforts are part of a nationwide movement where dozens of tribes are taking a fresh look at their governments.

It's day number six of Ivan Gamble's 400-mile ride through the sand and sage of the Navajo reservation, where battered pickups are a much more common sight than mountain bikes.

Appealing to Young People

Gamble has been invited to speak to a high school government class in the town of Chinle, Ariz., just a few miles from where the Navajo surrendered to Kit Carson in the 1800s.

Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a ball cap, he's dressed like many of the students he is addressing.

"The last year, we've been working on getting a Navajo constitution created by our own people, because we don't have a constitution right now," Gamble says.

Gamble wants a new constitution to limit the size and reach of the Navajo Council — the tribe's legislative branch — and reduce the federal government's oversight of Navajo affairs.

Over the past year, he has made his pitch to literally thousands of people across the reservation, many of them young people.

"This is going to affect your generation as much as anybody else's. The majority of Navajos are under the age of 30, so, you guys, this is going to affect your futures," he tells the students.

Gamble's bigger challenge is to persuade the tribe's political leaders, who have long been skeptical of a constitution. Most tribes adopted constitutions in the 1930s. The Navajo declined, Gamble says, and ever since, they have been governed by a complex tribal code.

There have been two other attempts to draft a constitution, but both failed.

"One of the general arguments from Navajos in years past are that a constitution is not a Navajo concept, it's an Anglo concept," says Ray Etcitty, chief attorney for the Navajo Nation Council.

Etcitty has been advising Gamble on his efforts, but he is skeptical. He says the Navajo government has stabilized over the years and is now largely independent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Plus, Etcitty says, a constitution wouldn't address the most important issues the tribe is facing.

"The question is, what do people want changed? If people are concerned about 50 percent unemployment, the biggest thing Navajo needs is money," Etcitty says.

But others say the process of writing a constitution can empower a nation.

Non-Navajo Concept

"If the process is done right, fairly and comprehensively, it can radically motivate an entire population," says David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. Wilkins has studied Navajo law and politics.

"When those people really see that their voice is reflected in whatever the institutions are that they themselves create. I've longed for the day that the Navajo people would really do this," Wilkins says.

Dozens of other tribes have revisited their constitutions over the past two decades. They have focused mainly on building stronger judicial systems and on balancing the branches of government.

Joe Kalt, who co-directs the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, says countries around the world — especially in Eastern Europe — are paying close attention to what American Indian tribes are going through because they face similar problems.

"The old colonial power, the Soviet Union, pulled back but left in its wake the Soviet institutions. So, the eastern Europeans are struggling with the same challenge of, 'OK, now we have much expanded powers of self-government. How do we govern ourselves? Fundamentally, what is our constitution going to look like?'"

To answer that question on the Navajo Nation, Gamble says he first needs to persuade the tribal council to convene a constitutional convention.

"I see 110 of the best and brightest from Navajo — everybody from the wisest shepherd to medicine people, doctors, engineers — 110 of the best and brightest together and (we) create this for us."

The tribal council is scheduled to vote on the convention in the spring.

From member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., Daniel Kraker reports.

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