Shiprock fair gets last-minute loan to operate

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, Sept. 29, 2011

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Amid last minute disarray, Northern Navajo Nation Fair organizers assured that the 100th anniversary of the event should happen without any major glitches, thanks largely to a $150,000 loan from President Ben Shelly's office.

Fair officials made their announcement at a press conference Tuesday held on the fairgrounds.

Russell Begaye, chairman of the Northern Navajo Nation Fair Board of Directors, said the organizers had asked for $200,000.

Since last year's fair cost an estimated $150,000, the president's office opted to loan this year's board $150,000, he said.

In addition, to quell conflict between the fair director and the board that threatened to throw the event into chaos, the tribal government dispatched two seasoned organizers from the Navajo Nation Fair to help with the Shiprock fair - Manuelito Wheeler, who directed this year's fair in Window Rock, and Norma Bowman, who served at the fair manager.

The pair brings experience and guidance to a first-year fair board, Begaye said, adding that he hopes they will also help bring stability to the board and the fair's 29 coordinators.

For weeks, community members have been concerned about the fair. Earlier this month, Northern Navajo fair director Lloyd Smith was arrested after a fair board meeting, which only added to speculation that fair planning and finances were seriously off-track.

Rumors arose that some fair events, or even the fair itself, were going to be cancelled. Making matters worse, the former fair board's long neglect of maintenance and repair issues led to a recent health report stating that some parts of the fairgrounds are unsafe.

"My priority is to get the fair to happen for the community," Wheeler said.

He said he and Bowman's role is advisory and that 80 to 90 percent of the work has been completed by nearly 30 committee coordinators.

Wheeler added that he wants the board finances to be more transparent and said financial records will be available after the fair.

However, those records might not include some payments that have been made to the fair board in cash. Begaye said the new fair board created a no-cash policy in May, adding, "We made a policy that no cash or personal checks are to be accepted. "We stated that in every (fair board) meeting."

But some coordinators continued to accept cash for fee payments. Wheeler put a stop to that.

"We halted all financial transactions and set up a system only accepting money orders," Wheeler said.

Begaye added that a financial team plans ensure that all the money generated from the fair goes to one place.

One resident asked the organizers why they didn't make it known that the committee had a policy of not accepting cash for payment.

Begaye said they've made the announcement on the radio.

Another resident asked why a complete schedule of events hasn't been made public.

"How can you put out information if you don't have any information," Wheeler responded.

The committee released a schedule of events Tuesday morning stating that the fair would open Wednesday morning with a sunrise prayer.

The organizers also addressed a New Mexico Department of Human Health and Services survey that had 49 findings and recommendations on conditions at the fairgrounds.

With 34 issues deemed "critical," the survey stated that warped boards, exposed electrical wires and outlets, protruding nails, obstructed exits, and uneven walkways all pose safety risks and recommended that they be fixed.

"These are issues not uncommon to fairgrounds," Wheeler said, adding that some of the same problems have been found at the tribal fairgrounds in Window Rock.

"This ain't the Bellagio in Las Vegas," he said. "These are real issues in the real world. It's not uncommon and we are taking care of them."

Though organizers said the fair is ready to start, Begaye acknowledged that the new board was slow off the starting mark, saying it needs to start organizing next year's fair the day after this one ends.

The fair board didn't start working on this year's fair until May and Begaye said inexperience played a role in some of the delays.

With the recent addition of Wheeler and Bowman, some Shiprock residents were concerned that the fair might lose its focus on the ceremonial and seasonal importance, and seem more like the annual fair in Window Rock.

Wheeler said not to worry. "We don't look at it as Window Rock (versus) Shiprock. We look at it as all Navajo people here," he said.

Gloria Emerson, 73, of Shiprock, said she hopes the meeting clears up rumors about the financial status of the fair and that its ceremonial significance is maintained.

She said the focus of the fair should be the Yei Bi Chei ceremony, traditionally marking the end of the summer ceremonies throughout the Navajo Nation, and the harvest of crops in the area.

"We need to give thanks for the harvest. That's what the fair should stand for," Emerson said.

Dan Smith, fair entertainment coordinator, agreed with Emerson's statement that the Yei Bi Chei ceremony is the pinnacle of the fair.

"That is the main thing," he said. "That brings this fair together. Everything else is secondary."

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