Shelly: 'I am happy with what I have done this past year'

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, December 27, 2012

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TOP: Ben Shelly

I t's been a mixed year for the 17th leader of the Navajo (20th if you count the fact that three leaders – Henry Chee Dodge, Peter MacDonald and Peterson Zah – held staggered terms).

But any year that a tribal leader can shrug off a recall movement and take the high ground on an issue like settling water issues that have been around for decades can't be called a bad one.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly came into office with one promise - instilling a government that would speak directly to the Navajo people and he said in a telephone interview before Christmas that he has continued to follow this credo in many of the actions he performed during the year.

Probably the most controversial issue he had to face during the year was the water settlement proposals that came out of Congress to settle water issues in the Little Colorado River.

He brought the proposed settlement before the Navajo Nation Council, only to find it rejected outright, in part because of the vocal opposition of anti-settlement groups in the western portion of the reservation.

He's not been happy with the decision, saying that the Navajo people still need to have those water issues settled.

"The Council could have amended the proposal," he said, allowing the matter to be settled. "This would have been good for the Navajo people."

But he said this has been a year when he has made a number of positive steps that have helped Navajos.

"I'm happy with what I have done the past year," he said.

His office is now preparing a list of those accomplishments that he said he plans to promote through the media in the coming days.

He said he feels one of the priorities that he continues to lead is to work with others in the tribal government to bring about reform, to make changes that will bring the government closer to Navajos.

"We are still living under procedures that were set up back in the 1920s and 1930s," he said.

One of the things that he would like to see happen is "to bring tribal employees back together."

At one time there was an organization of tribal employees who worked with tribal leadership to bring about policies that promoted unity and Shelly said that when that group was disbanded, "we lost all of that."

The biggest challenge he and the tribal government faces today, he said, concerns something that is not happening within the borders of the reservation but in high ranking positions in Washington, D.C. where federal leaders, facing pressure to reduce the deficit, are looking at cutting programs that have been beneficial to Navajos.

A lot of his time, he said, has been focused on either trying to convince federal officials of the need to keep funding these programs or coming up with solutions to keep the programs running when the funding has been reduced.

With unemployment rates on the reservation hovering between 50 and 60 percent, he said that the loss of $20 million to $30 million in federal funding could be devastating.

"I am trying to fight that," he said, adding that one of his goals while in office has to bring about financial stability to the tribe.

As for the recall efforts, which gained a lot of press earlier in the year then died down, Shelly said he never gave it much credence because he felt his efforts to promote projects in the Western Agency, which would bring jobs to the reservation, was the right approach.

"I am doing my job and I realize I can't satisfy all of the people all of the time," he said.

He said he still feels sad that his efforts to bring about change for Navajo veterans have not gone as far as he would like.

For the past several years, even when he was a vice president in the Shirley Administration, Shelly has been working to reorganize the tribal veteran programs to bring all of the programs that deal with veteran issues under one new veterans division and under one section in the tribal code.

That hasn't happened and Shelly said part of the problem has been a lack of support from veteran groups who have been pushing their own agendas. "We now have two different veteran acts floating around the Council," he said.

He spent a portion of 2012 addressing the situation with the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, meeting with Utah leaders and others to try and develop a solution for a problem that has been festering for more than a decade.

Who should manage the tens of millions of dollars in the trust fund?

Ever since legislation was passed that gave Utah Navajos 37 and a half percent of all of the oil royalties from their area to use for benefit, the trust fund has been used for some good programs. But it has also come under attack from Utah Navajos for mismanaging millions of dollars and the state has told the tribal leadership it wants no part in managing it anymore.

Shelly said in the next year, he wants to resolve this problem by going to Utah Navajos and asking them whom they want to run the program.

Another major concern of his duties the past year has been the operation of the tribal casinos.

He wasn't happy to see that Fire Rock Navajo Casino is still getting almost all of its profits from Navajos gambling there but he said he is happier to see that the money being made at Northern Edge Navajo Casino is coming from non-Natives.

As for the new Twin Arrows casino near Flagstaff, he said he still hasn't had an opportunity to tour the facility but when he does, one of the things he wants to see is how the casino is ventilating the air to reduce the negative health affects of smoking by patrons at the facility.

Shelly still feels strongly about the need to protect patrons at the casinos from second-hand smoke and although he lost the battle to ban smoking at the casinos, at least until the loans made by the tribe to the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise are paid back, he is still pushing the enterprise to do all it can to reduce the effects of smoking among the patrons.

Another issue he hopes is eventually resolved, he said, is the question that has been around since the reform laws put in effect by the tribe in 1990 – as to who really speaks for the tribe.

He said he continues to hear from Congressional leaders and the White House whenever the Speaker of the tribal Council or Council delegates go to Washington, D.C. to speak to Congressional leaders about issues affecting Navajos.

"Washington leaders are confused when this happens," he said. "They ask where is the president of the tribe? Does he feel the same way? This needs to be addressed in some way because it hurts our efforts."

As he heads into his third year as tribal president, Shelly said he still enjoys being the leader and he still feels strongly that his administration is going in the right direction since it is the direction that Navajos want him to take.

"We will continue to listen to the Navajo people," he said, "and use their guidance to direct our efforts."

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