NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BOND LAWYERS
There is one bit of larceny that I have long regretted my failure to commit.
Voice from the Past
Under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, in a political subdivision of which
fifteen percent of the inhabitants could not read and write English, notices of election and
ballots were required to be printed in the minority language, unless it was a historically
unwritten language. This provision was aimed primarily at people who spoke Spanish as a
native tongue, and might be expected to read and write in that language. But the law clearly
applied to other languages as well, including those of various tribes of American Indians.
These were all lumped together although many resembled each other no more than Finnish
It happened that the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had recently annexed a small portion of
Will Rogers County, and in that annexed portion, which was one of the poorest
neighborhoods of the City, more than fifteen percent of the populace did not read and write
English, or Spanish, or any other European language. They spoke various Indian languages,
primarily Osage and Cherokee, and did not read or write in any language. There was no
written Osage language, but the Cherokees did indeed have a written language that they
adoped in 1821 after Sequoyah created it. To call it historically unwritten would be to cut
history off before that. So it was generally agreed that Cherokee was not "historically
The speakers of only Cherokee in the territory involved did not number fifteen percent
of the population, but that was not significant under the law. The Assistant City Attorney
with whom I worked advised me that since the arrival of the Cherokees in that part of
Oklahoma they had for generations been required to go to schools where only English was
spoken, and it was only the people who had not gone to school who could not read and write
English. They could not read nor write Cherokee, either, but that made no difference under
the law. Among some groups of people of Cherokee descent, it was considered an insult to
address a person in that language because doing so implied that he was too stupid to have
learned English. That also made no difference under the law. The fact that the official
records of the Cherokee Nation had been kept in English for many years also made no
difference under the law. The notices of election and ballots had to be printed in the
minority language, and even though there may have been more people of Osage descent than
of Cherokee, the former language was historically unwritten and Cherokee was not.
The city officials had no trouble finding people who spoke Cherokee, but none of
them knew how to read and write it. If they read and wrote at all, they did so in English.
But that made no difference under the law. In time they found an academic (perhaps at the
University of Tulsa) who was able to translate the notice of election and the ballot into
written Cherokee. Before the election on a bond issue that I was asked to approve, such
notices were duly posted and a supply of ballots in Cherokee was made available at the
polling places in the area involved. A copy of each, duly certified, appeared in the transcript
of proceedings that I examined. The notice of election was a beauty! About a foot wide and
two feet high, in red and blue ink on white paper, it consisted of exotic characters that might
as well have been Sanskrit for all I could tell. But it was an impressive document, and I
really wanted to lift it from the transcript and have it framed and displayed on my office wall.
But I was too conscientious, and left it in the transcript where it belonged when I delivered
the transcript to the purchaser of the bonds. Only after it was too late did I consider the
possibilities of asking for a duplicate notice, or of inserting in the transcript a statement that
anyone who wanted to see the notice could find it on my office wall.
As applied to bond elections where people of other tribal affiliation were involved, the
application of the minority language requirements of the Voting Rights Act had other
unforeseen consequences. My partner Phil Holm worked on a bond issue for San Juan
County, Utah, or one of its political subdivisions. Here the minority language was Navajo.
The alphabet was not the problem, the words were. Navajo had no words to express the
meaning of the maturity of a bond, as the topic was not one with which the Navajos had
experience. In time, after much discussion and thought, the translators came up with a
solution: the final maturity of the bond issue was expressed by analogy to a woman who
gives birth after a twenty-year gestation period.
Another experience Phil had with the Navajos was with a bond issue for their
community college. First of all, the Tribal Code had no provision for issuing bonds. Phil
wrote appropriate language to authorize such bonds, and the Navajo Tribal Council adopted it.
However, state courts had no jurisdiction to enforce any such law, nor the bonds issued
under it. Phil's opinion on the bonds recited that they were enforceable only in the Tribal
Court of the Navajo Nation. The federal government (the Housing and Home Finance
Agency or HUD) was the buyer of the bonds, and was willing to accept this language in the
opinion. But the Navajos also had to promise to abide by the federal government's anti-
discrimination policy. They were not concerned about any people of African, Asian, or
European descent who might choose to attend their college, but they had grave doubts about
the desirability of letting Hopis in. Eventually they agreed to abide by the policy, at least
partly in consideration of the unlikelihood that any Hopis would want to attend their college.
Manly W. Mumford