Hopi Tribe split by power struggle

Kykotsmovi, AZ – The Hopi reservation in remote northeast Arizona is a quiet place, far removed from the bustle of what's referred to there as "mainstream society." But just beneath the placid surface, the Hopi tribe is embroiled in political turmoil. A power struggle has ground the tribal government to a standstill. Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports.

The Hopi have always been a peaceful people. There's even a popular t-shirt with the slogan "Don't Worry, Be Hopi." But now, tribal member Cedric Kavina says there's not only a war waging within the tribe, but within his own family as well.

"We have mothers and daughters not talking, brothers and sisters not talking, and they're angry, it's not just your regular sibling rivalry, they're out for blood with each other."

Kavina is a retired physician who lives in Phoenix. He laughs about it, but he says what's happening in his homeland is deadly serious. He's driven four hours back to the Hopi reservation to protest what he views as the taking over of his people's government.

"This is supposed to be a representative government, and it's not. This is a dictatorship, and as United States citizens, we have the right to go and destroy that government and set up a new one."

Nearly two years ago the Hopi elected a new chairman, Ben Nuvamsa. Ever since, the vice chairman and a slight majority of the tribal council have tried to oust him. For reasons I'll get into in a bit. But the Hopi election board and courts have consistently ruled in the chairman's favor. Now, the council has suspended Nuvamsa, fired the election board and chief prosecutor, and disbanded the appellate court. Bill Havens is an assistant to the suspended chairman.

"It's a pattern that if you watch in other countries, what do you do when you don't want to be held accountable for your actions? You dismantle the court system, you take over the prosecuting system, you systematically eliminate people that aren't in your camp."

Nuvamsa supporters like Havens call it an illegal power grab; but so do his opponents.

"The things he's saying are the exact things we're saying back to him."

Dale Sinqua is a tribal councilman from First Mesa, where adobe houses cling to the rock hundreds of feet above the sand and sage. He says Nuvamsa has recognized council members who were not approved by their village religious leaders. The Hopi constitution gives those traditional leaders the power to certify each village's representatives.

"That's really the issue. If he's able to do that, then he's able to override the traditional leaders. If he does that, then our traditional leaders lose power to run the village. In doing so he does away with the traditional system. In doing away with the traditional system, he does away with the ceremonies that we hold sacred to us."

Sinqua pauses, wipes away tears from his dark brown cheeks. The retired army vet also says he's standing up for the silent majority, people who won't stand up and protest.

"Some will say that's because of their traditional belief. They would say Hopis believe you shouldn't confront in that way. And I've been reminded by them. That I need to consider that."

But others say traditional religious leaders, known as kikmongwes, play a more symbolic role in politics. Peter Whiteley is a curator with the American Museum of Natural History in New York who lived with the Hopi and has studied their culture for decades.

"The kikmongwe was the father of the people, he shouldn't be troubled with everyday political issues, he's supposed to be keeping his mind and his thoughts on preserving the best of conditions for the people and for the world in general."

Whiteley says after decades of the Bureau of Indian Affairs trying to stamp out Hopi religion and language, many villages don't even have kikmongwes anymore. As a result, over the past several months the tribal council has been fighting over which village leaders have the power to certify council members at stake is control of the council, and control over major decisions, like what position the tribe should take on the controversial issue of coal mining on Black Mesa.

Earlier this month, in the latest back and forth on the council, suspended tribal chairman Ben Nuvamsa swore in three representatives.

"I, Alf Secakuku, do solemnly swear, that I will support the constitution and bylaws of the Hopi tribe "

These are council members who were just recently removed by the vice chairman's allies on the council. Later that day, before Nuvamsa sat down for lunch, he got a call from his attorney. Word had leaked that the vice chairman had ordered his arrest. Marilyn Tewa was sitting next to him.

"He had to leave. And I had to cry. And his food was left untouched. What kind of people have we become, you always feed somebody before you let them go, at least a drink of water. That to me says a lot."

Tewa and others say things have gotten so bad they want the Bureau of Indian Affairs to intervene. But unlike years past, the BIA so far has refused to get involved in internal tribal politics.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker, on the Hopi reservation.