In Navajo politics, the traditional tribal society had no official ranking system from a socioeconomic standpoint. Obligations to the people were determined by residence, kinship, talent, and skill. Men and women each had lifelong duties that were family-orientated, both to their parents and to what many would call their “in-laws.”
The head of each household was the father. The father in the oldest household of a group was the headman of the group. Women held a status that was equal to men.
Except for the family relationships and structures that helped to allocate labor, there was no traditional political organization in Navajo politics.
Reservation Life Changed Navajo Politics
During the preservation period for the Navajo people, leading into reservation life, the political structures of the tribe began to change. The tribe was divided into smaller, more localized tribes that were treated as an independent people instead of one great Navajo nation. Each of these smaller tribes had an individual who was a figurehead leader with no real political power.
As the reservation structures became formalized, community leaders began to emerge for these smaller groups. Many of these leaders were the medicine men, finding a new role as an arbitrator when disputes would arise between the small groups.
Based on this structure, Navajo politics then shifted toward a parliamentary structure beginning in 1923. The small groups came back together as a whole nation, following the political structures of Europe and the United States, to create cohesiveness.
How Navajo Politics Work
In the Navajo Tribe, there is a chairman and a vice-chairman. The entire reservation elects these two positions based on a popular ballot vote. Each serves a 4-year term in office.
The chairman and vice-chairman are supported by a Tribal Council, which is composed of elected delegates from each local chapter – the small groups that used to be treated as individual “tribes.”
An Executive Committee is also part of the leadership. Members of the committee are elected by the delegates which form the Tribal Council.
To elect the delegates, each chapter nominates officers or runs a local election based on the political needs of the community.
Navajo politics is designed to keep the tribe operating in a self-governing way while still being cohesive with the U.S. government. This unique structure accomplishes both goals.