Hopi Appellate Court issues interim answer to certified question regarding village autonomy

Hopi Tribal Chairman Ben Nuvamsa (NHO file photo).

Hopi Tribal Chairman Ben Nuvamsa (NHO file photo).

KYKOTSMOVI - On April 4, the Hopi Appellate Court issued an interim answer to a certified question of law that had been submitted to the Court by the Hopi Village of Bacavi.

At issue is whether or not Hopi Villages, "regardless of their form of government, have the authority to remove or decertify their duly-certified Tribal Council Representatives.

The majority answer in the split decision stated in part that, "The Court finds that the Constitution delegates the exclusive power to remove duly-certified Tribal Council representatives to the Tribal Council." The Court also declared that, "In contrast to this specific enumeration of the Tribal Council's authority to remove a representative, the Constitution is silent as to a village's authority to remove a Tribal Council representative."

The Hopi Constitution clearly recognizes the authority of the Kikmongwis (traditional village leaders) to certify representatives to Council and preserves the absolute authority of the villages, regardless of their form of government to determine how they are governed, how they select their representatives, and how they will fill vacancies in their representation when vacancies occur.

However, according to the Court's interim answer, "Absent from these explicit recognitions or reservations of village and/or Kikmongwi powers is the power to remove certified representatives to the Tribal Council ... Instead we find explicit text setting out the detailed causes and process for the Tribal Council to remove its own members."

"If this decision stands and remains the opinion of the Court in its final answer," said Chairman Benjamin Nuvamsa, "it will land a devastating and permanent blow on the long-established precedent of the Hopi Villages' right to govern themselves ... and to determine for themselves in their own manner who will represent them in Tribal Council."

Nuvamsa continued, "Since its creation in 1936, the Tribal Council has honored the right of the Hopi Villages to certify their representatives AND to de-certify them. The de-certification of a Tribal Council representative is, in effect, a removal, because the Constitution does not allow the Tribal Council to recognize members that are not certified by their village."

The Court suggested that because the Constitution is "explicit" with regard to this matter, it would require a Constitutional amendment to "memorialize" a power to the villages that paralleled that provided to the Tribal Council and expressed concern that "reallocating the removal powers between the Council and villages must consider the potential effects village removal authority would have on the long-term stability of the law-making capacity of the Council."

Nuvamsa added, "Tribal Council has always honored the villages when they decertified or removed their representatives. The villages have always exercised this inherent right and it has not threatened or affected the 'long-term stability of the law-making capacity of the Council.' They have not abused this power."

"In fact," said Nuvamsa, "if this decision is affirmed in the Final Answer, one of the beneficiaries will be Clifford Qotsaquahu who, when he was governor of Bacavi, himself removed one of the village's representatives from the Tribal Council. Now he is arguing that the village has no right or authority to remove him."

"There is danger that this will set new precedent for limiting village autonomy and seriously diminishing the rights of the people," concluded Chairman Nuvamsa. "We need to move quickly to convince the Court to change its opinion in the final answer."

Details on additional developments were not available at press time.

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