Seventeen individuals believe they have what it takes to be the next president of the Navajo Nation. An additional 122 people are vying for 24 open seats on the Navajo Nation Council.
While candidates campaign in their home communities and face off at public forums across the 27,000-square-mile reservation, a grassroots group of Navajo citizens is seeking a quieter change to the tribal government. Volunteers hoping to usher in widespread government reform are distributing a 12-page “Blueprint for a better Navajo Nation.”
“We need to stop doing things the same old way, and we need to change and adapt to the modern world,” Ron Wood, author of the blueprint, wrote in an open letter to Navajo citizens. “One of the many strengths of the Diné people has been our ability over the centuries to adapt to our changing environment. The time is now to make changes so that the Navajo Nation and our youth of tomorrow can prosper in this new century.”
Wood, a former tribal employee, worked with other savvy citizens to produce the document, which he said has been handed to most of the presidential hopefuls and is being distributed electronically to as many other candidates as possible.
Voters in November will select a president, council delegates and representatives for the Board of Election Supervisors and Board of Education, but Wood claims change needs to start long before ballots are printed.
“I’m just hoping to increase the dialogue on some of these issues,” he said during a phone interview. “I want to make people think about what we can do for the future.”
The blueprint, dated April 25, calls for reform in 12 specific areas, from local community governments all the way up to the three-branch tribal government. Some of the suggestions are drastic – like quadrupling the president’s salary – while others simply state longstanding needs like improving roads and boosting economic opportunity.
The bottom line, Wood said, is that governmental systems established almost a century ago are no longer getting the job done. With the right people in office with the right vision for the future, the Nation could see real changes in a decade or less, he said. That’s why he wants to see the blueprint have a prominent place at the candidate debates in the coming months.
“Change would depend on a president and council that were receptive to change,” he said. “I would think if that combination came together, it would take two or three cycles – eight or 12 years – and many of these changes could be possible.”
No matter what reform looks like, it’s been a long time coming, said Milton Bluehouse, who served as Navajo president from 1998 to 1999. From approving routine measures to establishing government-to-government agreements with state and federal entities, the future of the tribe’s government depends on developing solid principles, he said.
“I think the elements are there now, but I don’t see harmony,” Bluehouse said. “Younger people are beginning to question and look at history in terms of stability today and years to come.”
Here’s a look at the specific steps outlined by the blueprint:
Chapter reform – The chapter house form of government was established in the 1920s, before paved roads, electricity or radios arrived on the reservation. All 110 chapters still host monthly meetings to hear updates and do business, but most struggle to get the quorum of 25 community members needed to pass resolutions.
The blueprint calls for smaller chapters to be combined to share funding and workloads and for chapter business to be streamlined.
Legislative branch – Council sessions should be streamlined and time management improved. Payments to delegates for meeting attendance should be eliminated and term limits should be imposed.
Executive branch – The president’s salary should be increased from $55,000 to at least $200,000.
“For an organization the size of the Navajo Nation, which is comparable to a nearby state, the president should be earning as much as a governor,” Wood said. “The president’s salary should be among the highest of the tribe.”
The executive administration, which consists of 11 divisions, should be streamlined into no more than six.
Education – The tribe’s education board should serve much like a state’s education department. Minimum requirements for local school board members must be raised and underpopulated schools should be consolidated.
Health care – Programs must be streamlined to take full advantage of staff and funding. A data system should be developed to include basic health data from all organizations providing health services on the reservation.
Public safety and judicial branch – Wood recommends dialogue about legalizing alcohol on the reservation. The profit could help fund police units, cross-deputization with other agencies and judicial services, he said.
Livestock and range management – Feral livestock must be removed from the reservation and better compliance with grazing laws and permits must occur to help ensure that land is not being overgrazed or damaged. Livestock owners should pay taxes to the tribe for use of the land and resources.
Transportation – A reservation-wide transportation plan should be developed, and roads should be improved based on priority, with lower-cost materials like gravel being used in the more remote areas.
Housing – Construction must be accelerated to avoid losing federal housing dollars. As many as 34,000 houses should be built in the next 10 years.
Approval procedures – Leases for Navajo-owned businesses on the reservation should be approved within 14 days and uncontested home site leases should be approved within 45 days.
Economics – Starting a business on tribal land should be no more difficult than it is off the reservation. More Navajo dollars need to stay on the reservation.
Without economic opportunity, the young generation will leave the reservation and not return, Wood said.
“If we can generate a viable economy, some of our children will come home,” he said. “They will contribute to making progress into the future.”
Ethics in government – Elected officials should be held accountable for serving honestly. A plan should be implemented to ensure greater transparency in government.