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Hopi Appellate Court upholds villages’ sovereignty

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. – The big blizzards have left Hopi Land, at least for now, but storms of another kind may be gathering.

A petition being circulated calls for recently elected Hopi tribal officials to “work for the Hopi and Tewa people and not the Hopi Tribal Council,” and refers to a recent opinion by the Hopi Appellate Court that, if enacted, could result in up to one-third of the council being replaced.

“The entire structure of the Hopi Constitution indicates that the authority of the central government of the Hopi Tribe rests on the bedrock of the aboriginal sovereignty of the Hopi and Tewa villages (which) delegated limited power to the central Hopi government.” – Hopi Appellate Court

The appellate court’s Feb. 11 finding would restore power to the eight tribal Hopi and Tewa villages to seat or remove their tribal council representatives, addressing an issue that some assert has caused instability at the interface of the Western-style tribal council and traditional village forms of government.

The opinion based on the Hopi Constitution, custom and tradition differs from the official position of the tribal council, which has maintained it has the exclusive power to remove council representatives.

“The (appellate court’s decision) seriously diminishes the authorities of the Kik’momngwit (traditional leaders), but only in the political arena,” said Ben Nuvamsa, former tribal chairman. “This can be seen as protecting them from central government politics, thus protecting them from the corruption and distractions that political involvement brings. They have sacred duties and do not get involved in political matters.”

Tina May, the Hopi Tribe’s public information officer, quoted Mike Puhuyesva, a Bacavi village council representative, as saying that it was “‘too soon for anybody to comment,” since council members had just learned of the court’s action but that the council would discuss it when it meets in March.

The court’s decision states, “The entire structure of the Hopi Constitution indicates that the authority of the central government of the Hopi Tribe rests on the bedrock of the aboriginal sovereignty of the Hopi and Tewa villages (which) delegated limited power to the central Hopi government.”

Unlike other tribal governments formed under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, “all members of the Tribal Council (of) Representatives, according to the express language of the Constitution, constitute ‘representatives from the various villages,’” and only the tribal chairman and vice chairman are elected at-large, it states.

The decision “constitutes a reaffirmation of pre-existing sovereign power, not a delegation of new authority to the villages,” it states.

“The court’s decision recognizes that power rests with the people and the villages,” said a H.O.P.I. (Hopi Organizational Political Initiative) press release. H.O.P.I. is circulating the petition, which also requests the removal of tribal attorney Scott Canty and a formal complaint to the Arizona State Bar Association on behalf of the Hopi and Tewa people.

The petition and court decision follow many months of internal strife that resulted in the resignations of Nuvamsa and the tribal vice chairman and controversy over the seating and removal of village representatives, one of whom was forcibly escorted from a meeting.

The Hopi Tribal Council at that time had suspended the appeals court, and it could decide again to ignore the appellate court’s decision or could fire the recently appointed justices and replace them.

Enforcing changes in the way villages are represented on the tribal council would be the responsibility of the villages themselves in a possibly time-consuming process that might require defining organizational and procedural guidelines for representation.

The council meets March 1, when the issue is expected to be brought up of eight representatives from First Mesa Villages and Mishongnovi Village allegedly chosen solely by Kik’momngwit and not by the villages as a whole and whose removal may be sought. The seating of three representatives from Sipaulovi who had been removed is also likely to be urged.