The United States Commission on Civil Rights was rebuffed last week by the largest American Indian tribe, the Navajo, when it met here to listen to allegations of denial of due process to individual Indians and disregard of tribal constitutions. Unlike other tribes, the Navajo government refused to participate or allow its officials to testify. It accused the commission of violating its sovereignty by conducting the hearings. The commission, which began the hearings a year ago in South Dakota, is examining the independence of tribal courts, freedom of the press and expression on Indian reservations, and tribal enforcement of the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. It will prepare a report for Congress and President Reagan, possibly recommending limited federal review of some Indian civil rights lawsuits.
Witnesses told the commission that:
Political interference in tribal courts is apparently widespread.
Indian judges often have little legal training, if any.
Violations of tribal constitutions occur routinely with little redress.
Free expression is often stifled with threats or censorship.
And the Indian Civil Rights Act is not being enforced by tribal courts as ordered in a landmark 1978 ruling by the US Supreme Court.
Leaders of the Navajo - by far the largest tribe in the country, with some 160,000 members - maintain that they don't have to enforce the federal law protecting Indian civil rights because of sovereign authority to implement their own civil rights laws. Neither Navajo attorney general Michael Upshaw nor tribal chairman Peter MacDonald, who began his fourth term in January, attended last week's hearings.
Their absence angered Civil Rights Commission chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., who said the commission would use its power to subpoena the tribal leaders if forced to. ``I think Mr. MacDonald is playing around with a criminal statute,'' Mr. Pendleton said.
Commissioner William Allen pointed out that many tribal governments operate on a ``spoils system'' of rewarding friends and punishing enemies.
The case of Jobeth Mayes, a Zuni Indian from New Mexico, is illustrative. Upon the death of her tribe's governor, the Zuni council elected a new leader from among its ranks in violation of the tribal constitution, which calls for a general election.
Ms. Mayes said that when she and other tribal members collected signatures to recall the council, individuals were threatened with having their welfare checks cut off and housing services denied. When she took the issue to the local Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent, the council members called his supervisor to complain that he was becoming involved in tribal politics in violation of federal regulations.
But though many decry such abuse of power by tribal leaders, most witnesses in last week's hearings said they felt that even limited federal review of Indian civil rights cases would lead to erosion of long-sought recognition of sovereign rights. They said that tribes simply need more time to improve their systems.
The Navajos are the only tribe that has not adopted a constitution. Most tribes did so after Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Several witnesses stated that until the Navajos set out their system along constitutional lines, rights violations without recourse will continue in the Navajo nation.
Daniel Deschinney, a Navajo attorney and associate of MacDonald's, acknowledged that, although the tribe has supposedly independent judicial, legislative, and executive branches, the Navajo government today is controlled primarily by the chairman's office.
``There is no such thing as a three-branch government on the reservation,'' he said. ``There's no due process. There's no equal protection. It has to be taught to the decisionmakers.''