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Hopi Tribe without a leader

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. – “I don’t know who’s in charge. That’s what people are asking. I tell them to go to the tribal administration,” said Trina Poocha, supervisor at the Hopi Cultural Center and Restaurant.

Travelers driving through the reservation often stop at the restaurant for a bite to eat. The tribe’s political crisis came to a head New Year’s Eve when the resignations of Chairman Ben Nuvamsa and Vice Chairman Todd Honyaoma Sr. took effect.

The resignations follow a series of clashes between the chairman and vice chairman and traditional leaders, alleged illegal tribal council meetings and actions, lawsuits and firings of the chief prosecutor and appellate court justices in a span of nearly two years.

There are more than 13,000 Hopi tribal members with a reservation land base of 1.5 million acres in northeastern Arizona.

So who is in charge? That seems to be the big question among tribal members.

Before leaving office Nuvamsa distributed an executive order declaring a constitutional crisis and emergency in the Hopi tribal government. Copies were sent to Governor Janet Napolitano and Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne.

Nuvamsa named an interim successor. “Arnold Taylor is now the highest ranking official as head of the Natural Resources Department. He has a Master’s Degree. He’s apolitical. I think he can carry it out. I spoke to him New Year’s Eve. He thanked me for having confidence in him. He’s going to need a lot of help,” he said in a phone interview.

Likewise the tribal council passed a resolution spelling out what is to take place with no chairman or vice chairman. Taylor apparently is not mentioned. Some wonder if Tribal Secretary Mary Felter will assume duties as chief administrative officer. Others say it would be unconstitutional if she does.

“She sounds like she’s in charge,” said Valjean Joshevema Jr., who went to the tribal headquarters and met with Felter Jan. 5. Joshevema is a member of the Black Mesa Trust, a grassroots, nonprofit organization founded by traditional Hopi farmers and elders to save their aquifer from the Peabody Coal Company. Recently the Office of Surface Mining granted a life of mine permit to Peabody. The group was scheduled to meet with lawyers last week to determine its next move.

“We’re stuck in the middle as people. Our organization as well,” said Joshevema of the current crisis. He said with the current state of affairs there is no way for the federal government to deal with the tribe on a government-to-government basis. He also argued there cannot be a functioning tribal council without a chairman and vice chairman. Joshevema said Felter disagreed.

Among the directives in his executive order, Nuvamsa made sure Felter is not elevated to the top job. They have been on opposing ends of tribal council disputes. Nuvamsa also reinstated Chief Prosecutor Dorma Sahneyah and the three Appellate Court Justices who were suspended.

Honyouma has said most of Nuvamsa’s authority was stripped last September, so some question whether the executive order can be enforced.

On Jan. 6, Wendell Honani, BIA superintendent for the Hopi agency, could not say whom he will recognize as head of state for the tribe. “I have seen the executive order but I can’t comment because I still don’t have the tribal council resolution. I have to look at the documents first and go from there. I may be able to comment later this week,” he said.

Felter did not respond to phone interview requests.

The Hopi Tribe is unique in how it functions under dual forms of government. The tribal council abides by a constitution. The 12 Hopi villages combine traditional with western governing policies. Each has a village Kikmongwi or chief and most villages select representatives to serve on the tribal council. These distinct forms of government are at odds with each other.

The current situation has shaken many Hopis.

“It’s chaos. It’s sad to see it. We’re supposed to be a peaceful people,” Poocha said.

“I never thought I’d see this day,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma sitting in his home in Third Mesa. He is the tribe’s director of cultural preservation who has served under nine tribal chairmen.

He points to a similar dark period in Hopi history occurring in the early 1900s when the ceremonial system collapsed and clans were divided. Hopis were evicted from the big village of Old Oraibi. Three new villages were created.

“My grandmother and grandfather talked about it. There was so much turmoil. I can (now) imagine what they were going through,” he said. Like many here, he’s torn about the role traditional leaders should play in what he calls a secular government. “Every village has always exercised self governance. I feel the pressure of our traditional leaders (who have) to deal with both a constitutional, secular government and traditional government.”

Hopi cultural advisor Jerry Honawa said Hopi ancestors predicted what’s happening now. Near Oraibi, there is a clay-colored boulder with petroglyphs. It’s known as the Prophecy Rock. The drawings show figures and other designs along two side-by-side paths. One path shows a continuous straight line going around the large rock. The other path starts with a straight line but ends in a zigzag pattern.

“This was drawn five or six great uncles ago,” Honawa said. He estimates foretellers created it in the 1600s and believes the zigzag lines represent disharmony.

While people wonder what’s going to happen next, Honawa said the drawings offer hope. “We either continue in this turmoil or we get back on the right path (with the straight line).”

Kuwanwisiwma agreed. “It has to start with the kids. They may be the leaders we’re searching for. They are among the most pure living among us. We must ask their spiritual essence to guide us,” he said as his grandchildren played nearby.

Vernon Masayesva, who served as tribal chairman between 1990 and 1994, says a public forum is a good place to start. “I think people will come up with some good ideas.”

“The only way this can be resolved is to unite, put things aside, forgive each other. We need to go in the right direction, go forward,” Poocha said.

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