Navajo Sovereignty: Understandings and Visions of the Diné People, a new collection of essays by Navajo authors, edited by Professor Lloyd L. Lee, tackles Indigenous sovereignty from a specifically Navajo perspective. The essays vary in tone and depth, but they all hit on or near the bulls-eye: revealing “the ongoing consequences of an imposed Western democratic governmental structure that transformed Navajo governance and leadership.”
The book demonstrates that Navajo society has not succumbed to the imposition of an alien governmental structure. The essays depict “tribal government” as a collaborator with colonial forms, but as Professor Jennifer Denetdale says in her Foreword, the authors “note the multiple ways and layers of how we are Diné and how we practice sovereignty and self-determination [and how] we work to transform governance….”
The authors do not shy from referring to U.S. federal Indian law as “U.S. claims to authority”; describing the “domestic dependent” relationship as “constraint,” rather than “protection”; and celebrating community cultural, organic sovereignty as “spaces of respite and rest from the ongoing effects of colonialism.” The book’s unflinching confrontation with the “colonial box” of federal Indian law combines with unabashed affirmation of Diné Fundamental Laws and philosophical principles, to advocate traditional Navajo governance to meet 21st century challenges.
If you blinked when you read that last sentence, you need to read the book. It will help you accept the boldness of saying traditional Diné principles of life are not only alive, but capable of guiding political action. The most beautiful and inspiring aspects of the book arise from the deployment of Diné terminology to analyze contemporary situations and demonstrate the limitations of Western thinking. For example, conventional Western approaches to “community planning” privilege the development perspectives of designers trained under capitalist extractive principles of land use and “resource” management, as against the supposedly naïve views of Native communities. That approach has brought all of us—not only Indigenous Peoples—ecologically unsustainable over-development.
In contrast, Diné approaches to “planning” focus on the biosphere—all beings—and do not privilege extraction and wealth generation. As Professors Avery Denny and Michael Lerma explain, the “Diné way of looking at resources…through the lens of the four sacred elements” can “surround…decisions regarding distribution or coordination of resources.” Their perspective provides an understanding of global political economy resting on the deep wisdom of Navajo healing ceremonies: Blessingway, Protectionway, Nightway.
Denny and Lerma use Diné origin stories of the Hero Twins—Monster Slayer and Born for Water—to frame lessons for the 21st century Navajo Nation. They say that the roots of Diné existence remain in place in contemporary Navajo governance—like the “chapter house”—but argue that the “space of ambiguity” about the relations between the roots and the current forms of government “is most dangerous.” The “monster” of “foreign aid” operates in this ambiguity, resulting in “Navajo leaders [who] do not need the loyalty of the Navajo constituency to remain as leaders.”
Scholar Larry Emerson carries this exploration further, concluding that “the present form of Diné self-governance must be completely rejected and replaced by a decolonized, Diné culturally and linguistically relevant self-governance model [through] the Diné Hozhóóji naat’ á (peacemaking) methodology….” Recognizing the “self-destructive practices” of Western industrial civilization, Emerson adds that “indigenous traditional teachings and practices [also] offer colonial settlers a peaceful way out of the notion of sovereignty as conquest, power, control, domination, and superiority.”
These statements arise from viewing Diné “original teachings” as available and viable in the present. “Original” means “present from the beginning.” But in the linear Western Bilagaana view, origins are left behind by “progress.” In the spherical Diné view, origins are “primordial,” foundational—like DNA, ever-present. In that sense, returning to original principles does not mean “going back.” It does mean “a strong retelling of our story,” with “prayerful focus…and a respectful, objective, and realistic analysis of our situation.”
Emerson tightens the focus by interviewing Hastiin Dííl Bi Nálí, a Diné Nation Peacemaker, who describes the “irony that many Diné no longer appreciate nor understand Diné ways of knowing,” while “certain non-Indian groups appreciate and advocate” those ways. Emerson traces Diné “negative self-concept” to “historic trauma,” and says Diné peacemaking processes that sustain traditional Diné sovereignty as “walking in beauty” provide “an opportunity to embark on a healing journey” to relieve the trauma. Emerson differentiates this approach from what he calls “water under the bridge” interventions, which “tend to obscure or eclipse historical and political (e.g., colonization) events…that cause soul wounding.”
Justice Raymond D. Austin says, “Although we hear the words sovereign and sovereignty quite frequently throughout Navajo Country, the people who use them do not explain whether these concepts come from a distinctly traditional Navajo epistemology or not.” The question becomes crucial when we realize that “the American version of tribal sovereignty has had severe negative consequences and repercussions….” Austin points to the doctrine of “Christian discovery” and adds, “Perhaps Navajo officials do not know that the idea underlying the [U.S. federal Indian law] guardian-ward relationship is the pretense that Indian peoples are racially inferior to European peoples.”
My encounter with the Navajo Nation, in Shiprock in the late 1960s—as an attorney with Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna Be Agha’diit’ahii—transformed my understanding of law and answered life questions, too. As I learned from reading this book, that era was also transformative for Navajo law, after the Tribal Council enacted a Navajo Tribal Code to codify governmental powers and procedures.
Shortly after I arrived in Shiprock, Judge Virgil Kirk of the Navajo District Court asked me to work on juvenile criminal procedure for use in Navajo courts. He wanted to integrate a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a juvenile defendant has due process rights with traditional Navajo practices. Judge Kirk had a reputation for a keen sense of justice and a sensitivity to inequities in the law. Whether he believed Navajo Courts were legally subject to United States due process rules, it was apparent he felt the importance of those rules. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Congress had just passed the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, mandating application to “Indian tribes” of the basic elements of the Bill of Rights.
My assignment required me to learn how traditional Navajo practices handled juvenile misbehavior. Pursuing this, I became aware my questions were not just about law, but about life: what does it mean to be a human being? The most powerful Navajo lessons were, again and again, kinship and balance. The teachings clearly tilted against hierarchy and zero-sum approaches. The more I learned, the more concerned I became that United States legal procedure would cannibalize Navajo tradition.
After more experience, including litigating cases in state courts for Navajo clients, I came to the point I couldn’t put faith in the Western model of law. I came to the end of my rope of belief. I discovered my legal services role was to wear a white hat in a modern western drama, playing the part of a good guy, but not really making anything change. I was the icing on the cake of U.S. justice, which already provided the laws, the courts, the police, the jails, and now was providing counselors for the Indians.
Navajo Sovereignty: Understandings and Visions of the Diné People says the way forward involves a confident resurgence of indigenous philosophy in the face of colonization: an ongoing confrontation deepened by adherence to original principles.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.