Ben Nuvamsa: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Former Chairman of the Hopi Tribe Ben Nuvamsa speaks about his tenure as the elected chief executive of his nation, and how the governance issues he and his nation have experienced in recent years offer important lessons to other Native nations.  

Native Nations
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Nuvamsa, Ben. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 24, 2010. Presentation.

"What I have for you is basically a Reader's Digest version of what happened at Hopi. Manley Begay did a great precursor of the presentation that I'm going to make. I'm going to talk a little bit about the situation I got into, walked into and what happened. And I'm going to show you an example of really what happened. We talk about separation of powers, we talk about balance of powers, we talk about sovereignty and those kinds of things and I'm going to actually tell you really what happened. It's a lesson learned, and I think that's the intent of this session is to teach you how to, tell you how we can learn from this experience. With that...Manley we're 'Nation A,' Hopi Tribe, in Manley's case study. We had all the resources, we had the tribal membership and so on, but there was no strategic direction and so on and a lot of the faults that Manley spoke of for Nation A.

Let me tell a little bit about the situation that I walked into. Our former chairman was removed by the tribal council for I'll just say conduct unbecoming, and so that...he was like eight months into his term and so that required a special election. So I had really actually thought maybe not running that time but maybe the next term, but then I kind of got recruited, kind of like what the chairman here did. I kind of got recruited into it. In fact several emails and phone calls and constant barrage of these requests and I finally decided, 'Okay, let me do it,' so we did. So there was actually the national limelight on Hopi even on the Jay Leno Show. Some of you have seen that possibly, perhaps. And so the people were wanting to rebuild that credibility, the integrity of the Hopi Tribe. Because after all, we were the most traditional tribe in North America, we're supposed to be the peaceful people and all that. And there was great expectations of that new chairman, whoever that might be, to pick up the pieces and get us back on the road. So I thought that maybe with my education, my experience, and the vigor I had to step up to the plate -- not that I was going to be the solution, but I knew it was going to be very, very tough because all the dynamics that are happening in tribal politics. So that was the situation.

There was a great expectation by the Hopi people of getting this new administration, getting back and regaining the status and the integrity of the tribe. As you all know, Indian politics is cutthroat politics, but I really didn't fully grasp that we've always had this problem of the 'us against them' kind of feeling between the tribal council, the villages and the people, but I didn't realize that it was such a big division there. You also need to know that the Hopi Tribe is composed of 12 traditional villages, autonomous villages, and our constitution says they're self governing villages. So typically in any kind of government, you'll have three separate functions; you'll have the executive, the legislative and the judicial. At Hopi, we also have one important component and those are the villages. And so we've always had that conflict between the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act]-type constitution and our traditional governments. And I admire the brother, the sister tribes of New Mexico -- the Pueblos -- and how they're able to merge and incorporate their traditions in with their modern ways and the religion there, but at Hopi it was quite different.

I didn't also realize that the role of the tribal attorney played was just so significant and major that perhaps part of the problems we are encountering right now is because that attorney played a real significant role in basically shaping how the council operates and the advice that the attorney gave to the tribal council. And then there's the role of the outside interests and you keep that in mind because we talk about economic development, there are going to be companies out there, corporations out there -- and I think that as the Chairwoman [Karen Diver] talked about is -- that they're going to want that piece of the action. Well, in the case of Hopi, it was even deeper than that and it is even deeper than that and that is they're trying to regulate how you govern. And I'll talk a little bit about that later, but it was just so influential that it almost seemed to be that our council, some of our council members are kind of like puppets to these corporations and to the attorneys. And we talked, and Manley talked a little bit about that self-rule; you call the shots.

We always had our own separation of powers and balance of powers that we had, because one society would oversee the other. For example, I'm Bear Clan. At Hopi [Hopi language], which is the village leader, usually come or do come from the Bear Clan. And we don't go and appoint ourselves to be the village leader. Somebody else in another society picks that person. The One Horn Society picks that person and there is a process, a ceremony and process that then the person is then ordained, is given certain duties and responsibilities by this One Horn Society. And if that person is not functioning according to what they had prescribed to him, they will bring him down to the kiva and basically have like a performance evaluation, tell him this is how he's supposed to be. And that leader is supposed to be a humble leader. And there's a story that goes the Creator or at least the keeper of this world has this...gave this -- Joan's [Hopi language] said that he gave the people a planting stick and a bag of seeds. That's all that he gave them. What does that mean? Those are really powerful words that you go and you have to live a simple life. You can survive by what I gave you, the know-how. So that's the...and then we have certain other societies at Hopi, the kiva chiefs and so on. Their names are appointed or designated in a traditional process.

The IRA constitution was something very, very outside of our normal process and today, even today we are having problems with that. In my experience as chairman, if there's a final analysis of my experience as chairman, it would be, one of them would be the constitution and the form of government that we have, in which we have to incorporate our cultural, tribal values into those principles, in those provisions in our constitution. And I where we're at with what happened is if you don't have this balance, and if you have leaders that are sitting on the council don't have that appreciation and the need to be truly self-governing and to be truly looking out for tribal members and the long-term vision of Hopi, of the tribe, you're going to have an ineffective government. And you're also going to see how it impacts the traditional side, and it has, because the role of the [Hopi language] has been compromised, because he's supposed to be a sacred person, a religious person. Well, he's now...he has now been brought into the political circle and is appointing tribal council members to the council, which is not his responsibility and the constitution does not provide for that. And it's now filtered into the kivas, into the ceremonies and so on, where we now have conflicts and so on. It has broken apart or at least [caused] some conflicts within families and so on. And so that's really unfortunate. But those are the kinds of things that are happening.

Where is Hopi now? I think we're in a transition. We have to look at now what, who we are and where we need to be. We're at a kind of a transition happening or needs to happen from this form of IRA-type constitution that we've been living with since 1936 -- that's when the tribe adopted the constitution -- up [until] today. And look at the experiences that we gained, we've lived through and be able to fix that, so that it can be more meaningful to us in how we can operate, because I think that that's one of the real -- the things that I know that the Udall Foundation talks about and the [Harvard University] Kennedy School of Government which I've worked with before, helped out in certain projects -- is that we need to fix our institutions. We need to really look at what is our institution that we would govern ourselves, our constitutions, our codes and so on? We have to take a look at that and make sure that it's meaningful to us in how we are as a tribe. Not every tribe is the same. Therefore the IRA was this cookie-cutter thing that didn't work. It perhaps served the purposes for the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], but it certainly created a lot of problems for tribes. So it all goes back down to governance and that's what Manley talked about. We have to fix our constitution, our institutions, so that it goes back to how we govern ourselves. What happens at Hopi and the lessons that we learned from this experience is going to define our future, and I think that's what we need to be looking at and how we need to be looking at this unfortunate situation.

The importance of separation of powers -- and I have a case study later on -- but separation of powers is this political doctrine that says that the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of the government are supposed to be kept distinct to prevent abuse of power. So that is why it's so important that as I try to explain to you that in our traditional way there is no, there was no abuse of power because we had our checks and balances, we had this society looking over that society and we had a village chief [Hopi language] that's supposed to be a humble religious man and didn't go out and expound on what he has accomplished and so on, but a very simple man. That was his role. I guess I'll get to the case study at the end.

Basically we have learned -- if there's any one accomplishment in my administration -- we have basically learned that there is some deep, deep problems in our government and that we can learn from that and that we can shape our future from those lessons learned. In a typical democracy, the central institutions for interpreting and creating laws that are the three branches of the government, the impartial judiciary -- and you'll see what happened at Hopi -- a democratic legislature -- those are real good things, right? -- and an accountable executive. Those are kind of the principles that we have with the separation of powers and there should be a system of checks and balances, but you will see that all that went by the wayside.

The other thing is that it's so important on the rule of law that the rule of law is there. It is the most basic, in its most basic sense, the rule of law is a system that attempts to protect the rights of the citizens from arbitrary and abusive use of governmental power. I brought lawsuits after lawsuit against the tribal council. I won every case. On appeal also, I won those. But you know what, so what? They didn't care. So that's why it's really important that the rule of law needs to be complied with, because it's supposed to apply to everybody. No one is above the law.

The role of the tribal courts; it is so important. That to me is the most fundamental or the core of our sovereignty is to be able to have a court system that can interpret your laws and settle these controversies because if you have a tribal court system that is so corrupt and compromised, you're not... just basically your sovereignty is going to be wasted. And so fortunately at Hopi we had a great court system and that's continuing on. I think back in 350 B.C., Aristotle said, 'The rule of law is better than the rule of any individual,' and that's true. It's really important that you have a good court system that makes the right decisions or interprets your tribal laws the right way and make sure that the tribal council, everybody in your tribal government, complies with it. And I think that that's, to me, is the most important thing. And even though we have those decisions our people are still not complying with it. I just want to also quote that President [Barack] Obama said back when he had just gotten elected, he said, 'Transparency and the rule of law will be the touch tones of this administration.'

The other things that I think that I probably should have really honed, boned up on, is parliamentary procedures. It is so important. When you're chairman, when you're presiding over a council meeting -- you can picture this -- 22 council members all hate you, most of them hate you. And there's tribal members out there, they're probably supporting you, but they basically, they can't really say much. And these people are going to have what I call parliamentary trickery. They have an agenda and they're going to do whatever they can to trick you, parliamentary trickery. And so it is important, and you are in charge, you are in charge, know your rules. You have meeting rules, study them. Robert's Rules are only guides, but there are some good things in there that you can use. Robert's Rules are meant to protect the minority. You saw what happened on CNN just a few days ago. All these parliamentary procedures, effective use of them, and the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer right there just controlling the process as it goes through. I wish every tribal council meeting could be conducted that way so that we have some fairness. It is so...I don't know how many of you have presided over council meetings, but you have to look at body language. That person is doing some signs or they may just really hate what you said or they're sending notes or maybe nowadays texting back and forth. But you have to be so aware of all of those. So parliamentary procedures is so really important.

The art of conducting meetings, understanding group dynamics; you look at where they come from, what village they come from. At Hopi, everybody's related or maybe in Indian Country everybody's related. I'm Bear Clan and in our culture I'm a parent or father to everybody, even you. You're my children. So you have to keep those in perspective. Anticipate what the other side's going to do. Learn how to be able to strategize. Okay, this person has this objective or this person has this agenda and so on. Talk to them, say what you're proposing is going to be good for them and then maybe try to convince them. What I usually do is I have little meetings before the upcoming council meetings and try and get support. Have a legislative strategy, have a legislative agenda and that way you're not all over the place. You talk about strategic planning, that's part of it. And the chairman just said here, was it planning to plan or lack of planning is planning for failure.

I'm going to jump to some of the other things. Some of the lessons learned from this is that there is significant influence from the outside. You have to know who you're dealing with, hope America is out there. You've got your natural resources, you've got your oil, you've got gas, coal, water, land, now solar, and everybody's going to want that and they'll do whatever they can to get that, even through the state legislature or federal legislation and that's what we have at Hopi. Water rights -- it is so important to be able to have your water rights and be able to say, 'This is mine,' because it's going to be leverage you're going to use in negotiations. At Hopi, some of you know about the Peabody Coal, our vast coal resources. Our neighbors from Navajo, probably the country's richest coal deposits -- the highest quality, the low sulfur coal, very little what they call 'the cover.' So it's easily accessible for open-pit mining. Well, we are at the...we hold the cards to energy production in Arizona, California and Nevada. And so the State of Arizona plays a big role, the state governor plays a big role, Salt River Project plays a big role, the owners of the Navajo generating station play a big role including...that goes into California. The federal government, Office of Surface Mining, Minerals Mining and Bureau of Reclamation, the State of California, State of Nevada and the Navajo Nation. Know who you're dealing with and it always goes back to...some of you heard about this term economic sovereignty. What does that mean to you? It goes back to what Manley says, be able to call the shots. Talk about and protect that sovereignty but be able to say, 'This is my resource, this is my water, this is my coal, I'm going to make the decisions.' Don't let somebody else make those decisions for you.

We just recently won a major lawsuit against the Office of Surface Mining. Not as the tribe, we as the citizens. After I left office, we filed suit against the Office of Surface Mining for this life-of-mine permit that they were going to give Peabody Coal Company. The life-of-mine permit, because they were burning about 8.5 million tons of coal up in Navajo generating station, and the coal deposits were close to 800 million tons or a little over that, so that means Peabody would have access to our coal for over 100 years. That basically says to us, 'You're not going to have any kind of diversified economy, you're not going to be able to set and regulate the prices, you're not going to be able to determine how that coal is going to be mined and what's going to be manufactured from that,' and all of that. Well, Navajo was able to tax and back in 2005 figures were able to collect $20 million a year from Peabody Coal, the State of Arizona did the same, but Hopi did not. They didn't have an ordinance so we were getting no dollars. Part of economic sovereignty is going to be able to say, tax.

The other things is everything is a process, you have to go through the process and make sure that...sometimes you have to walk away from some of the battles. Choose your battles, but never lose sight of the big war that you're going to be fighting and the big picture. Be futuristic, look at the longer, some people say seven generations. Be visionary and think holistically, think and look at the big picture. And be very strategic, because if you're not strategic, a lot of things are going to or you're going to be doing things independently on your own. Take charge, you're the top elected official, but also exercise your responsibility, your authority responsibly and in the Indian way have respect, [Hopi language], for everybody.

One of the things that I think really, the teachings I had in my upbringing is what really kind of helped me survive is having a really solid foundation as a Hopi person. But my work is not done; it will continue. One more comment before I quit. In the Hopi way, our knowledge, our philosophy about a leader, a [Hopi language], is his path is like a sharp blade of a knife and you walk that real fine line; it's really sharp. If you veer one way, you're going to get hurt, you're going to get cut; if you veer the other way, the same thing. So as you're walking down that fine line, that path, you look back and make sure that your children are still following you, your people are still following you. If they are still following you, you're on the right path. But if you look back and your children are fighting and they're not there, then you have to assess yourself. 'What is wrong? Do I need to correct myself? Do I need to do certain things, or do I need to step down?' That is the teachings we have in Hopi and it goes back to management and leader, and that is you cannot -- the chairman here just talked about that -- you cannot take sides. You have to look at the big picture. So that concludes my statement, and if you want to take a look at my case study, come here at lunch time and I'll have more time to talk to you about it. [Hopi language]."

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