Navajo Lawmaker Hopes to Wear Two Hats

State Sen. Leonard Tsosie of New Mexico is also running for a post on the Najavo Tribal Council. If he wins, he plans to challenge a Navajo law that requires him to give up his Senate job to serve the tribe.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. And here is an election ad that maybe you haven't heard yet.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken) Vote for Leonard Tsosie. Thank you.

CHADWICK: That's New Mexico state Senator Leonard Tsosie, and he's running for a seat on the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, the Navajo equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives. It makes laws for the tribe's approximately 300,000 members. But if Mr. Tsosie wins his Navajo race, it could mean giving up his other job - a seat in the New Mexico Legislature.

NPR's Alex Cohen reports.

ALEX COHEN: As a state senator, Leonard Tsosie's earned tremendous respect. He's known throughout New Mexico as a champion of Navajo causes. At a meeting of tribal leaders held last week, people asked to have their picture taken with him. One woman says she wants to involve him in an upcoming event.

Unidentified Woman #1: What is the best way to send you an invitation? By phone, by email, by…

Mr. Leonard Tsosie (Senator, New Mexico): To what? It depends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: I'm not going to tell you.

Mr. TSOSIE: E-mail.

COHEN: Tsosie is big on email and the Internet. He's working on a plan to bring wireless access to the Navajo Nation, so kids can use laptops to learn everything from their native Navajo language to modern chemistry.

Mr. TSOSIE: This is not just for young children. But if it's wireless, a sheepherder can actually send an e-mail back home that says I'm bringing the sheep in in about another hour.

COHEN: In his run for council delegate, Tsosie's told voters he wants to raise the Navajo minimum wage and reduce the size of tribal government. He's one of four candidates running to represent several Navajo chapters in a desolate stretch of northwestern New Mexico, where many people still live without electricity. Leonard Tsosie is strongly favored to win on Tuesday. He placed first in primaries held in August. But if he wins, there's a hitch.

Mr. JAMES ZION (Navajo Scholar): This is the complete statutes of the Navajo Nation and…

COHEN: Navajo scholar James Zion plunks down several heavy legal volumes and flips to Title 2, Section 104, which states that a tribal council delegate cannot serve as an elected official within state or federal government. Zion goes on to read subsection A of the rule.

Mr. ZION: This section shall not apply to service on a school board or elected county office. And so subsection A makes no sense whatsoever. You may quote me. Most of the Navajo Nation Council delegates are on a school board. Several are county commissioners in Arizona, New Mexico or Utah. So why can't you be a member of the state legislature and also a member of the council?

COHEN: To answer that question I traveled to Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation's equivalent of Washington D.C. At a coffee shop there I met Tribal Council delegate Wallace Charley; he's also a New Mexico county commissioner. But that job, he insists, doesn't have nearly the same authority as state senator.

Mr. WALLACE CHARLEY (Navajo Tribal Council Delegate): State legislator can implement a law that might have an impact on the Navajo Nation. Then he comes over here, and what would he do if there's a conflict arises?

Mr. TSOSIE: He says I have a conflict, I don't see a conflict.

COHEN: Leonard Tsosie says, by law, state senators aren't allowed to legislate in affairs that occur on tribal land.

Mr. TSOSIE: The state of New Mexico disclaims, you know, our hands over Indian land tight in our constitution. That's why I say that, you know, I can root for Indian sovereignty.

COHEN: Tsosie says if he wins on Tuesday, he'll fight to change the election codes. Any amendment would require approval from the Navajo Tribal Council. And it's unclear whether they'll do that. Tsosie has a contentious past with them. He once sued the council for approving pay increases without bringing the issue to the voters. If the council denies his request to amend the law, Tsosie will be left with a choice: Serve as a Navajo representative or as a New Mexico representative.

Mr. TSOSIE: I haven't decided yet. I think I'll probably go back to my friends, and also to my wise elders, and say, you know, what do we do here? And so then at that time a decision will be made.

COHEN: Leonard Tsosie will have a little while to reach that decision. Navajo Nation tribal delegates aren't sworn in until early January.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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