Navajo Seeks Support for Tribal Constitution Law student Ivan Gamble has been hiking and biking across the vast Navajo Nation reservation in order to win support for a constitution. He wants to hold a constitutional convention to draft a governing document for the nation's largest Indian tribe.
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Navajo Seeks Support for Tribal Constitution

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Navajo Seeks Support for Tribal Constitution

Navajo Seeks Support for Tribal Constitution

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Twenty-nine-year-old Ivan Gamble have been tracked by a bobcat, dodged rattlesnakes and gotten lost across the Navajo reservation in Arizona, all to push for something most of us take for granted, a constitution. He's part of a larger movement across the country. Dozens of tribes are taking a fresh look at their governments.

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

DANIEL KRAKER: It's day number six of Ivan Gamble's 400-mile ride through the sand and sage of the Navajo reservation, where battered pickup trucks are a much more common sight than mountain bikes. Today, Gamble has been invited to speak to a high school government class in the town of Chinle, just a few miles from where the Navajo surrendered to Kit Carson in the 1800s. Wearing shorts, T-shirt and a ball cap, he's dressed like many of the students he's speaking to.

Mr. IVAN GAMBLE (Law Student): So 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.

KRAKER: 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's made his pitch to literally thousands of people across the res, many of them young people.

Mr. GAMBLE: 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, you know, this is going to affect your future.

KRAKER: Gamble's bigger challenge is to convince the tribe's political leaders, who've long been skeptical of a constitution. Most tribes adopted constitutions in the 1930s. The Navajo declined, Gamble says, and ever since they've been governed by a complex tribal code. There have been two other attempts to draft a constitution, but both failed.

Ray Etcitty is the chief attorney for the Navajo Nation Council.

Mr. RAY ETCITTY (Navajo Nation Council): One of the general arguments from Navajos in years past are that the constitution is not a Navajo concept, it's an Anglo concept.

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

Mr. ETCITTY: The question is whether people want change. If people are concerned about 50 percent unemployment, a lot of things - the biggest thing Navajo needs is money.

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

David Wilkins is a professor of American-Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, who's studied Navajo law and politics.

Dr. DAVID WILKINS (University of Minnesota): If the process is done right, if it's done fairly and if it's done comprehensively, it can radically, you know, motivate an entire population. And so when that happens and 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.

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

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

Professor JOE KALT (Harvard Project on American-Indian Economic Development): Because they face very similar problems. You know, the old colonial power, the Soviet Union, pulled back but left in its wake the Soviet institutions. And so the Eastern Europeans are struggling with the same challenge of, okay, now we have much expanded powers of self-governance. How do we govern ourselves fundamentally? What is our constitution going to look like?

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

Mr. GAMBLE: I see 110 of the best and brightest from Navajo, everybody from the wisest shepherd to, you know, medicine people, doctors, engineers, you know, just a 110 of the best and brightest together and create this for us.

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

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.

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