Hopis vote down proposed constitutional changes

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) February 2011

Hopis have voted down a proposed constitution that would have made sweeping changes to their tribal government.

Tribal members voted 656 to 410 last week against revising the constitution first adopted in 1936. It recognizes the inherent sovereignty of 12 Hopi villages that form the tribal government on the northern Arizona reservation.

The proposal sought to reorganize the government from a unicameral system with most powers resting with the Tribal Council to one with four branches – creating a presidency and vice presidency. The tribe will stick with a popularly elected chairman and vice chairman, who are part of the Tribal Council.

The proposal also removed references to a traditionally ordained chief who certifies representatives to the council in some villages, which some saw as a knock on tradition.

The turnout surpassed the 30 percent requirement to make the election valid. Of 1,496 voters, 1,066 cast a ballot. Voters have three days to challenge the election results through the Interior Department.

Those against the proposed constitution said it undermined the sovereignty of those villages by making them the fourth branch of government. Some villages are more traditional than others, and not all recognize the central government.

“That didn’t necessarily reflect the way we live as Hopi people today,” said Monica Kahe, of Walpi. “They like what we have, and they wanted to preserve what we have.”

Supporters, including the tribal chairman, had argued that the constitution often was misinterpreted and led to shake-ups in the tribal government. The revisions were necessary to clarify roles within the government, Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said last week. Maintaining tradition is the duty of families and villages, not the central government, he said.

“This (proposed) constitution is not only going to deal with today but at least for 50 years down the road,” Shingoitewa said. “And hopefully it will lead us in a way that will bring strong stability, so the Hopi Tribe can survive not only in the cultural and traditional way but in the modern world.”

With the proposal’s defeat, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains its ability to oversee any future attempt at changing the constitution. Hopis adopted the constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act that requires the federal government to oversee such elections.

The proposed constitution stripped the BIA of authority, as well as the ability to invalidate tribal resolutions and ordinances.

“That is something we challenge as a tribe,” Shingoitewa said. “We have the right to govern ourselves.”

Tribal and federal courts rejected requests to halt the election, but the cases challenging the Tribal Council’s approval of a resolution calling for the election still are pending.