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Pressure builds in Hopi dismissals and disputes

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. – Dismissals and a general shakeup appear to be the latest phase in a long-simmering controversy over tribal leadership and village representation on the Hopi Tribal Council.

Although the most recent round of infighting began some time ago, a tribal council meeting May 13 brought matters to a head when the tribe’s long-time attorney, Scott Canty, was dismissed, and Tutuveni, the Hopi tribal newspaper, was reinstated after being shut down last December.

Suspended pending a hearing was Mary Felter, tribal secretary, who had been acting CEO of an interim government created after the resignation of the former tribal chairman and vice chairman, sources said. The status of that government and its actions were also called into question at the recent meeting.

The current tribal government has challenged the standing of some village representatives on the tribal council, and, at the same time, it is still faced with unsettled issues that include the management of vast Black Mesa coal resources, constitutional questions, and politically-tinged court battles.

“The village letters cited several violations of the Hopi Constitution and also stated the village members, as a whole, did not have a voice in how their representatives were chosen; no elections were held and are not in line with the appellate court decision of involving the ‘village as a whole.’” – H.O.P.I. (Hopi Organizational Political Initiative) press release

Potentially explosive fallout may result from the tribal council’s current decision to nullify the interim government that was in power for most of 2009. That government retained control despite an executive order issued by former tribal chairman Ben Nuvamsa as he left office that declared a constitutional crisis and attempted to initiate a special election – which did not take place – to fill vacated chair and vice chair positions.

If the interim government is found to have been illegally constituted, actions it took could be called into question.

Key actions taken in 2009 included support for an Office of Surface Mining-approved permit for Peabody Energy to expand mining on 100 square miles of Hopi and Navajo lands on Black Mesa; negotiations on a 10-year lease reopener with Peabody; diminution of the tribal chairman’s authority as part of a reorganization; and legal intervention against opponents of Peabody’s now-withdrawn expanded permit.

A week before the recent tribal council meeting, an attempted coup reportedly was thwarted by Hopi Rangers and others who shut down an ad hoc meeting of some tribal council members who sought to name a village representative as presiding officer instead of Leroy Shingoitewa, who was elected tribal chairman by Hopi-wide vote last November.

Shingoitewa suspended eight village residents sitting on the tribal council pending a determination by their villages on their status as representatives. The four representatives, each from First Mesa and Mishongnovi Village, representing roughly one-third of the tribal council, declined to step down and sought tribal court intervention.

The Hopi appeals court in February had ruled that 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.” The ruling contradicted the former tribal council’s position that it alone could remove council representatives.

The 1.5 million-acre Hopi Reservation includes three mesas where villages are located: First Mesa, villages of Tewa, Sichomovi, and Walpi (Consolidated Villages) atop the mesa, with Polacca at its base; Second Mesa, villages of Shungopavi, Sipaulovi and Mishongnovi; and Third Mesa, villages of Kykotsmovi, Old Oraibi, Bacavi, and Hotevilla. The mesas project southward from the Black Mesa formation with its large, rich coal deposits.

The way in which village representatives are selected has, some contend, caused difficulty between the Western-oriented tribal council and traditional village leadership, particularly the role of Kik’momngwit (traditional leaders) in the secular political arena.

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, the Hopi appeals court said.

The tribal council also rescinded a resolution that it said had illegally suspended Nuvamsa when he had already resigned as tribal chairman. It suspended the tribe’s treasurer over losses in the tribal investment portfolio, pending a hearing.

Actions taken by the council May 13 could be appealed administratively or through tribal court, and it is believed likely that opponents will challenge the decisions in further infighting.