Biking for a Constitution

Chinle, AZ – Ivan Gamble is not your ordinary law student. The 29 year old Navajo has taken the past year off from school to first, hike, and then bike across the country's largest reservation. Along the way he's been tracked by a bobcat, dodged rattlesnakes, gotten lost - all to push for something most of us take for granted a constitution. Gamble's efforts are part of a larger nationwide movement where dozens of tribes are taking a fresh look at their- governments. From KNAU's Indian Country News Burea, Daniel Kraker reports.

It's day number six of Ivan Gamble's 400 mile ride through the sand and sage of the Navajo reservation, where battered pickup trucks are a much more common sight than mountain bikes.

SFX1: sneak up some sound of the hallway, lockers slamming, etc

Today Gamble's been invited to speak to a high school government class in the town of Chinle, just a few miles from where the Navajo surrendered to Kit Carson in the 1800s. Wearing shorts, t-shirt and a ball cap, he's dressed like many of the students he's speaking to.

SFX2: x-fade with some classroom ambi

AX1: The last year we've been working on getting a Navajo constitution created by our own people, because we don't have a constitution right now. And since here you're learning about the three branches of government and how they work, well Navajo, he's talked about checks and balances with you guys I'm sure, and accountability in government, we don't have that right now.

Gamble wants a new constitution to limit the size and reach of the Navajo council, the tribe's legislative branch, and reduce the federal government's oversight of Navajo affairs. Over the past year he's made his pitch to literally thousands of people across the rez, many of them young people.

AX2: This is going to affect your generation as much as anybody else's, the majority of Navajos are under the age of 30, so you guys, this is going to affect your futures.

(fade out classroom ambi ) Gamble's bigger challenge is to convince the tribe's political leaders, who've long been skeptical of a constitution. Most tribes adopted constitutions in the 1930s, after Indian affairs commissioner John Collier pushed through a law called the Indian Reorganization Act. But they were mostly boilerplate documents, written by federal bureaucrats. The Navajo declined, Gamble says, thanks to a tribal council member, minister and lawyer named Jacob Morgan.

AX3: He read the bill and realized it was severely detrimental to the sovereignty and integrity of Navajo land, so Mr. Morgan got in a train in Gallup, went to DC, and met with Mr. Collier without a proper meeting he walked into the guy's office, grabbed the cigar out of his mouth, threw it on the ground, and said that's what I think of your constitution and your IRA government and your attempts at stealing Navajo land.

Ever since the Navajo have been governed by a complex tribal code. There have been two other attempts to draft a constitution, but both failed. Ray Etcitty is the chief attorney for the Navajo Nation council.

AX4: One of the general arguments from Navajos in years past, are that a Constitution is not a Navajo concept, it's an Anglo concept.

Etcitty has been advising Gamble on his efforts. But he's skeptical. He says the Navajo government has stabilized over the years, and is now largely independent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Plus, he says a constitution wouldn't address the most important issues the tribe is facing.

AX5: The question is what do people want changed? If people are concerned about 50% unemployment, the biggest thing Navajo needs is money.

But others say simply the process of writing a constitution can empower a nation. David Wilkins is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota who's studied Navajo law and politics.

AX6: If the process is done right, fairly and comprehensively it can radically motivate an entire population. When those people really see that their voice is reflected in whatever the institutions are that they themselves create. I've longed for the day that the Navajo people would really do this.

Dozens of other tribes have revisited their constitutions over the past two decades. They've focused mainly on building stronger judicial systems, and on better balancing the branches of government. Joe Kalt co-directs the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. He says countries around the world, especially in Eastern Europe, are paying close attention to what American Indian tribes are going through.

AX7: Because they face very similar problems, you know the old colonial power, the Soviet Union, pulled back, but left in its wake the Soviet institutions, and so the eastern Europeans are struggling with the same challenge of, OK, now we have much expanded powers of self-government, how do we govern ourselves fundamentally, what is our constitution going to look like?

To answer that question on the Navajo Nation, Ivan Gamble says he first needs to convince the tribal council to convene a constitutional convention.

I see 110 of the best and brightest from Navajo, everybody from the wisest shepherd, to medicine people, doctors, engineers, we want to get 110 of the best and brightest together and create this for us.

The tribal council is scheduled to vote on the convention in the spring.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker