Skip to main content

Hopi crisis reaching boiling point

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. – On this Sunday afternoon dozens of cars lined the dirt road to the Veterans Center for the annual Christmas parade featuring Indian Santas and young tribal royalty. Those participating in the small parade threw candy and traditional blue corn treats to smiling spectators. The smiles are in contrast to what’s been described as a sad time in Hopi history, a reference to the web of political wrangling, which began a-year-and-a-half ago.

The state of affairs within the Hopi government is so bad, Chairman Ben Nuvamsa asked the BIA a month ago to step in. “There is a point when they should step in, when the safety and welfare of the people is being threatened. I believe they should step in now,” said Nuvamsa in a phone interview. BIA officials apparently stated they would wait until the dust settles. “(My response was) so are you going to step in only when people get hurt? I hope it doesn’t happen but I believe we’re getting to that point.”

Nuvamsa was in Denver meeting with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining regarding a controversial life-of-mine permit for the Peabody Western Coal Co. Meanwhile, a few miles away from the parade, traditional leaders from various villages gather to discuss their next move including ousting the Chairman from office.

There are more than 13,000 Hopi tribal members with a reservation land base of 1.5 million acres in northeastern Arizona. Chairman Nuvamsa and Vice Chairman Todd Honyouma have been on opposing ends of tribal council disputes with half the council supporting Nuvamsa. Last week the standoff came to a head at a tribal council meeting when a reported 150 people showed up demanding a resolution to the stalemate.

Some say the tribe’s troubles could be resolved with the adoption of a new constitution. Others aren’t so sure.

In a nutshell, here’s some of what’s happened since early 2007 in this deeply divided community: Chairman Nuvamsa and his staff were locked out of his office for nearly two months after his residency was questioned and recently the tribal council stripped most of his power, the Vice Chairman Honyouma resigned but was re-instated and is again stepping down, both have faced and continue to face criminal complaints, there have been allegations of illegal tribal council meetings and unconstitutional actions, council representatives have been de-certified and re-seated, the tribe’s Chief Prosecutor and Appellate Court justices were let go and that’s just scraping the surface.

“My position is they (tribal council) held illegal meetings and they suspended the judges. It’s unconstitutional to remove them. There is no Appellate Court as of today. You see what’s going on? We have a coup going on,” said Nuvamsa.

One might assume Honyouma is at the helm of an alleged coup but as of Dec. 31 he will no longer be in office. At last week’s council meeting, Honyouma endured five hours of public scolding. He hopes his recent resignation will help bring unity. “I want to put my family first and my health also. My family is under a lot of pressure. I want to put the people first. I’ve been accused of everything and if I’m the cause, I want to do the right thing. I want the people to live in peace and harmony. They are my constituency,” said Honyouma in a phone interview.

What separates Hopi from most tribes is the way it functions under dual forms of government. The tribal council abides by a western form of government and constitution. The 12 Hopi villages combine traditional with western governing policies by retaining a village Kikmongwi or traditional leader but also selects representatives to serve on the tribal council. These distinct forms of government are at odds with each other.

Spokesmen for a handful of the traditional leaders met for interviews near the underground kiva (ceremonial room) where the leaders had gathered. On Sept. 15 they successfully pushed for the tribal council to suspend most of the Chairman’s authority. They’ve requested a hearing for his removal. Chairman Nuvamsa claims the meetings were held illegally and therefore, any actions voted on by the council are null and void.

According to the constitution, traditional leaders are to only certify election results of their council representatives but in recent years, traditional leaders have appointed council representatives.

Marilyn Tewa, elected representative for the Mishongnovi village, who was de-certified but re-seated on the council says traditional leaders need to assume their role as was determined in ancient times. She cupped her hands together to describe how traditional leaders are to take care of the people by tending to their spiritual and religious needs. Tewa believes it’s time to separate the two governments as entities of church and state.

Spokesmen for traditional leaders blame Chairman Nuvamsa for the discord created between the old and new forms of government. They say in the Hopi way of life, there can be no separation of church and state. Traditional leaders continue to play a role in domestic matters.

“Traditional leaders were dragged into it (tribal council politics) because the chairman showed disrespect. That’s the way I see it,” said A.T. Sinquah, spokesman for the 1st Mesa Consolidated Villages.

The problem began when Shirley Adams, an ordained traditional leader, certified three elected representatives from 1st Mesa to serve on the tribal council but whether Adams had the right to do so is in question.

According to Sinquah, Adams is ordained but is not 1st Mesa’s traditional leader and thus cannot certify council representatives. Regardless, Nuvamsa accepted Adams’ role and his certification stirring up resentment among the Kikmongwis. Other representatives have since been seated by appointment.

Those who support Nuvamsa say removing him is not the answer. They’re pushing for a new constitution. Committees have attempted to amend the current constitution since 2002 with public input.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s not right. Chairman Nuvamsa is trying to get to the bottom of it. We all are,” said Alph Sekakuku, council representative for Sipaulovi village. He’d like the matter voted on by referendum.

Honyouma said a new constitution isn’t the answer. “It gives the chairman all the authority.”

“(A new constitution) will wipe us out. It will do away with our traditional form of government that’s been here thousands of years,” Sinquah said.

Nuvamsa said the Hopi people will always pay respect to the traditional leaders for what they are supposed to do, which does not include getting involved in tribal politics. “The revision (of the constitution) may not be perfect. We’ve seen all the weaknesses and holes. It’s pretty clear we need to fill them,” he said.

Sekakuku agrees. “The council is being accused of throwing away the traditional form of government. No, we’re only upholding the democratic process.”

The preamble of the tribe’s current constitution states its purpose is “to provide a way of working together for peace and agreement between the villages, and of preserving the good things of Hopi life, and to provide a way of organizing to deal with modern problems.” Clearly, that’s not happening.

The candy and traditional blue corn treats being thrown during the parade represent the old and the new on the reservation. As the parade continues, tribal politics are temporarily set aside but it’s not far from the minds of those who live here.

Scroll to Continue

Read More