Winds of change: The Navajo Nation’s new president pledges to listen to chapters

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NAVAJO NATION PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Incoming Navajo Nation Vice President-Elect Jonathan Nez and President-Elect Russell Begaye speak on KHAC 880 AM in Tse Bonito, N.M., after winning the the opportunity to lead the Diné. They hope to implement change in the Navajo Nation and bring healing to the people after a divisive election process. Courtesy photo

The new president of the Navajo Nation is promising to change the way people are hired for administrative and official positions and to give local citizens more input into development in their areas.

Russell Begaye, a former council delegate from Shiprock chapter, and his running mate, Jonathon Nez, a council delegate from Shonto Chapter, were the victors in the controversial and long-delayed election that garnered press and interest worldwide. They were chosen over former two-term president Joe Shirley, Jr., and his running mate, Dineh Benally, in a special election April 2.1

Results of the election began flowing from the chapters to the election office soon after the polls closed on April 21 at 7 p.m. Early in the evening it was clear that the victory would go to Begaye / Nez. The official tally was 62.5 percent (25,745) for Begaye vs. 37.5 percent (15,439) for Shirley. In total, 37.5 percent of registered voters participated.

By the end of the week Shirley had posted a concession on his website, “Dineh & I believe in the voice of the Navajo people – they have spoken. We support their call for change and offer our prayers for the new leadership that was elected. Let’s continue to move forward together.”

“We now have global interest in the Diné,” said Begaye in a phone conversation with the Free Press. “The election news spread all over the world, people followed the outcome, and that is to our people’s advantage. People are listening and watching what we will do.”

The team capitalized on that by heralding changes in how things will be done one week after the election, on Navajo Sovereignty Day. In a statement, they addressed their administrative vision for a responsible government and new opportunity, spelling out the significance of the celebration while challenging the people to be involved in exercising their sovereign rights.

“I call upon all Navajo citizens to get involved in their communities,” wrote Nez, “to play an active role in advancing changes to improve the nation. There are a myriad of possibilities before us.”

Begaye emphasized self-governance and cooperation with outside entities looking to develop projects on the nation.

“Our government is continuing to emerge and take greater responsibility in ensuring the rights of the Navajo people. We declare that we have always been a sovereign nation and will act accordingly for the benefit of our people and the honor of our ancestors.”

Help wanted

During the transition period before the inauguration, Begaye and Nez are making it clear that they are working together to tap into the talent on the reservation. They are precise about their intent to find citizens able and willing to do the work.

Soon after their victory they circulated a request for applicants to apply for the jobs they will fill in their administration team.

“We’re reaching out to the people to find the best-qualified candidates for the positions. In the past, friends and relatives, supporters were the people appointed to the administration jobs,” Begaye told the Free Press. “But we want the best-qualified people to work for the nation. We’re calling for applications because we know the people are out there and we want the best — whoever and wherever they are.”

The positions include executive-level jobs as division directors, controller, attorney general, EPA administrators, officials in the Washington, D.C., offices, the Hopi Land Commission, and others. Just as Begaye and Nez predicted, the response has been swift and strong, with hundreds of qualified applicants by press time, he explained, and the expectation of many more by the May 4 deadline.

“We’ll sit down together and begin deciding on Tuesday, but this time the decisions will be based on qualification, not who you know or if you worked on our campaign.”

Begaye is confident that there is a wealth of talent, skill and education among the Diné, and that it will be uncovered on a local level, for community development. His administration will be seeking local input, asking what the people want, not telling them what Window Rock’s central government wants for them.

This is especially critical in economic development, he said. Local people know what will work for them and what they want in their communities. “We want their economic dreams to come true. We want to know those dreams, support those dreams – skate park, cafés, softball fields, businesses, walking and running trails. ‘Dream away,’ we say, and tell us what you want.”

His administration is not against development of any kind as long as it involves the impacted people, he said. “We are going to rely on them to decide ways development can increase the health and betterment in their home communities. They are the first level of concern for economic development.”

Begaye said the people must agree before anything can happen. “Local people are involved in planning; they have a voice in what happens.”

Projects that prove problematic are usually the ones that didn’t ask the people first. “Those can create a wrong project in the wrong place.”

The controversial Escalade/Confluence proposal to build a tramway, restaurant, shopping mall and river walk at the Grand Canyon is an example of a bad deal in that way, he said.

“The corporation from the outside divided the people because they did not consult with them from the beginning. Is this what they want? I want them to have the first say, first to get the good paying jobs and benefit their communities, profit from development.”

Another way to extend the benefit to the people is to negotiate on their behalf to utilize the natural resources on their land. Begaye explained that the Navajo Coal Mine, as an example, near Shiprock, is a concern and an opportunity. The low quality of the coal was a known factor when the Navajo Nation acquired the mine last January from BHP Billiton, but the markets can change in just 12 months. “We are calling for a study of the coal quality in area No. 5. That part will be mined in the future and we need to weigh our concerns against the real existing market for the low-quality coal.”

At the same time, he added, it is very important to develop wind and solar and other alternative-energy resources now, today. “Even the natural gas we have can replace coal in power plants.”

Power production also presents opportunity for the people of the nation. “Many Diné live without power, but we can bring the power to our people. They will benefit from the energy we produce and ship to other markets in cities and urban areas. The transmission lines that move the power run through remote locations and we will need to get that power to the people. Transfer stations are key to that issue.”

Teamwork

Begaye does not intend to stand alone in the spotlight as president. His vice president will serve jointly with him. They will be a team. “Sometimes, particularly in the old model, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing,” Begaye said.

“I want Vice President-Elect Nez sitting beside me making decisions together with a number of the people as a core team. We will serve as a model for teamwork, which is something we need in our nation.”

He described how the Diné have learned to see themselves as alone and limited in the influence they may have on the economy and the direction the nation will take in the future.

“You ask about my dream? We really need to learn to commit ourselves to working together. When

I go out there, everybody seems to be working solo. Even chapters are not working together.

“I’d like to see us do away with duplication and the invisible barriers, the idea that non-collaboration is okay. It isn’t. I want us to be intentional, go out of our way to work with each other, people to people, chapter to chapter and department to department. If we can learn that way of operating and managing, then our current resources, human and natural, will really stretch our dollars, our energy and capacity and put it to work serving the Diné.”

The inauguration is scheduled for May 12 in Window Rock, Arizona.

The election had been clouded in controversy throughout the process.

On Monday, April 20, the day before the special presidential election, the Navajo Nation’s supreme court held a final hearing to examine a Window Rock District Court decision three days earlier to “stay” the April 21 vote, yet again. The court cleared the path for the election to finally commence when it issued a permanent writ of superintending control against the Window Rock District Court. The written statement explained that the “district court egregiously abused its discretion in essentially reviewing the decisions of this court [that the election be held on April 21 and funded by the Navajo government] and substituting its judgments for that of the court.”

The next morning the polls opened at 6 a.m. across all 110 chapters of the Navajo Nation, five and a half months after the opportunity to vote for president and vice president on the November general election ballot was postponed due to the disqualification of Christopher Clark Deschene, second-place winner in the August 2014 primary election.

Deschene appeared to have won the right to run against Shirley. But his fluency in Navajo, a requirement for the presidency, was challenged.

Ultimately, Deschene was disqualified.

The Election Code states that upon disqualification of a candidate after the primary, the next-highest candidate will be placed on the general-election ballot. Russell Begaye was next in line.

But a tumultuous five-month battle over voter rights and candidate qualifications followed Deschene’s rejection. Window Rock was barraged with court hearings, appeals and petitions and the debate over the native-language fluency requirement.

Finally, on Feb. 20, the Supreme Court ordered the election administration to hold the general election between Shirley and Begaye “as soon as possible and without further delay.” Three days later Edison Wauneka, director of the election administration, announced that the election would be April 21.

The following eight-week campaign was peppered with continuing legal skirmishes over language fluency and its relationship to culture and governance.

Young Diné tribal members grappled with the relevance of the Navajo language today and suggested that a fluency requirement diminishes fair representation. The growing protests resulted in a call for a vote of the people on the issue. That, too, became a political football as all three branches of government argued over when the referendum should take place and how it would be funded. In the end it was determined that the $317,000 cost of the referendum will be paid with money from the Undesignated Unreserved Fund.

In his final State of the Navajo Nation address, April 20, incumbent President Ben Shelly said the referendum will allow the people to decide if a president needs to be fluent in Navajo. The referendum is scheduled for June 9.

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