Troy Eid

At month’s end I will complete my final term as President of the Navajo Nation Bar Association. Only a handful of non-Navajos like me have been privileged over the past half-century to lead NNBA, which serves the largest Native American tribal justice system in the country. Lessons in how leadership is practiced at Navajo could benefit Colorado at a time when our own political dialogue, and our country’s, seems more fractured than ever.

Not that effective leadership is ever easy, including on the Navajo Nation. To give just one example, the Nation’s courts, which handle upward of 170,000 civil and criminal cases per year, serve nearly 200,000 citizens with a median household income of $26,862. This compares to the overall U.S. median household income of $57,652.

At least one-third of households at Navajo, spread out over a geographical area bigger than West Virginia, lack running water. A quarter of homes are without electricity; 90% lack internet access. Try sheltering in place, as we still do at Navajo, without Zoom — or even a dial tone.

NNBA performs a role akin to a state bar association on steroids. Unlike attorneys in Colorado and other states, all 700 NNBA members are required to serve indigent clients entirely at our own expense whenever asked by the Navajo Supreme Court. NNBA members contribute hundreds or thousands of dollars annually to representing pro-bono clients for free, including paying travel and court costs, in exchange for being licensed to practice law. It is considered part of being a "naa’táa’nii" — the Navajo word for "leader."

Given prior service in federal and state government, I considered myself well-equipped to be a naa’táa’nii when I passed the Navajo bar examination in 2005. I was wrong.

Here are some lessons from the traditional Navajo concept of leadership which might elevate the quality of public discourse and decision-making in Colorado and beyond:

Leadership seeks you, not vice-versa

The concept of ambitious politicians clamoring for popular recognition to advance their careers — with the public interest incidentally coinciding with their own — is alien to traditional Navajo thinking. A naa’táa’nii demonstrates his or her abilities to others through personal learning and self-control, and by respecting proper and well-balanced relationships between other people and the natural world. Only when invited to do so, particularly by elders, does a naa’táa’nii seek the consent of others to lead them.

When Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice emeritus of the Navajo Supreme Court, asked me to stand for election, my reaction was that a Navajo should run NNBA. “That’s Bela’gáa’naa thinking,” he replied, using the Navajo term for a non-Navajo person (literally translated, as a legacy of the Nation’s history with the United States, as “The One Who Fights With You”).

“It isn’t about you, including whether you’re a Navajo or not. It’s about whether your set of experiences and relationships can benefit the Nation. You can help us or not.”

Once a naa’táa’nii consents, you are expected to serve so long as people retain confidence in you — regardless of the personal sacrifices involved.

The global pandemic, which in some of its early stages killed more people per-capita at Navajo than anywhere else in the country, claimed the lives of 16 NNBA members, permanently disabled another half-dozen, and prompted the retirement of 100 more from law practice. Steering our non-profit organization away from insolvency, when the court system's needs were expanding, was complicated by more than two years of quarantines and travel restrictions.

Each person is equal and has the right to be heard

Initially it amazed me that Navajo Nation officials routinely provide an opportunity for all citizens to speak publicly on any matter, in any public meeting, for as long as they desire. It seemed that hours-long group conversations aimed at generating consensus were often a waste of time.

Again I was wrong. Encouraging everyone — including your perceived political opponents — to contribute to formulating public policy in a collective setting, and in real time, can admittedly be frustrating. Yet it is also an opportunity to show respectful relationships among equals.

My mistake was to confuse consensus-making with uniformity of thought. The consensus comes not from everyone agreeing to a given policy outcome or decision, which rarely happens, but in the act of “talking through’ the matter and treating everyone involved as if they were your own relative — as is often literally the case among extended Navajo families and clans.

Restoring proper relationships

The purpose of the Navajo Nation’s courts is for offenders to take personal responsibility; take steps to ensure they no longer disrupt the community; and restore balance among everyone hurt by their actions. The backbone of the judicial system is sentencing based on a traditional process Navajos call peacemaking.

A peacemaker is usually a distinguished elder who is not law-school trained. Peacemakers assemble everyone involved in the controversy and encourage them to speak openly about what happened and why, and what should be done to heal the victim.

By analyzing the problem and talking it through, the peacemaker fashions a way forward that is then presented to the judge and becomes part of the defendant’s sentence. While some offenders are too dangerous to be allowed to return to the community, practical rehabilitation of the offender whenever possible is the peacemaker’s priority.

The Navajo peacemaking process is also used extensively in many non-judicial settings. This includes disputes where elected and appointed political officials have clashed in person or on social media. A naa’táa’nii is expected to master peacemaking or at least know when it might be applied to help restore public confidence.

These and other leadership lessons from the Navajo Nation hold the possibility of improving public discourse here in Colorado. Given the current fractured political climate of our state and country, there is no time to waste. There are naa’táa’nii at Navajo and many other Native American nations who will not refuse our request for help if we ask in a respectful way.

Troy Eid is president of the Navajo Nation Bar Association. He previously served as United States attorney for Colorado, appointed by President George W. Bush, and as chair of the Indian Law and Order Commission under President Barack Obama. Contact him at eidt@gtlaw.com.

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