Arrogance and fear

By Duane A. Beyal
Navajo Times

Sept. 10, 2009

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During the glory days of Navajo politics, before a vicious kind of discourse seeped into today's rhetoric, my mother advised me to always shake the hand of my opponents.

The old way of debate was respectful and dignified. Leaders and citizens explained their positions and the people decided. You could agree or disagree but when the talks were over you shook hands, maybe sat down together for a good meal.

When you see people who disagree with you on the sidewalk, in the store, the offices or the post office, you shook their hand and greeted them.

Always do this, my mother said, and to me her words meant to remember that we are human beings and we should always be courteous and respect others.

Many of us are concerned and disturbed at the loss of dignity in the rhetoric of our leaders. Like the BIA bureaucracy our government duplicates, the divisive illness that afflicts Washington and the United States is mirrored here.

But our weapon, our protection, has always been who we are and the land we live on between the sacred mountains. The teachings of the elders, like my mother's, are meant to preserve this strength.

So it is disappointing that in our pursuit of our job to inform the Navajo people, a council delegate, just prior to the Navajo Nation Council's budget session on Tuesday, lost control.

Delegate Leonard Teller (Lukachukai/Tsaile/Wheatfields), in response to reporter Marley Shebala's questions about how he had spent discretionary funds, grabbed her recorder and yelled, "Get out!" with rage in his eyes and face.

Last week, on Thursday before a meeting of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, Speaker Lawrence Morgan barked about the press after Shebala had asked him and other delegates to comment on how these funds, another name for which is "slush funds," were used.

It is disappointing but revealing that the speaker would blast the press before calling an executive session in order to kick our reporter and photographer out of the room.

An hour or two after the speaker's outburst last week, a letter from Chief Legislative Counsel Frank Seanez arrived at our office warning us of violations of the Privacy Act, penalties and fines, even citing the law that says non-Navajos may be excluded from the reservation even though our reporter and photographer are both Diné.

What caused this knee-jerk reaction? Our effort to find out how our leaders spend the Navajo people's money, specifically the discretionary fund, which is money the president, speaker and council delegates hand out to whomever they judge is deserving or needful of their generosity.

We have tried each year to get this information because it is public money purportedly being used for the public good. You would think our leaders would want to brag about how they are helping their constituents. Instead, the speaker's and president's offices have slammed the door on our questions.

For this reason, we nominated the speaker's and president's offices for the Arizona Press Club's Brick Wall Award, bestowed each year on the governmental agency that does the best job of thwarting the flow of public information. (A speaker's office representative came by to claim their brick but the president's brick is still in our office. Makes a good bookend.)

Then someone left documents at our office showing a list of people who received payments from the discretionary fund from council delegates. We noted that several with ties to delegates received not one but several payments.

Our reporter did her job of asking the speaker and delegates to explain how they spent this money. This led to their reactions of rage, the veiled threats from their lawyer, the physical confrontation with our reporter and the speaker's anger at the press.

We tried to give them the opportunity to explain their actions and instead they are angry that the information leaked out. Why are they so angry? What is there to hide? What is there to fear?

The proper course for our leaders - President Joe Shirley Jr. included - is to make public the record of how and to whom these funds were disbursed to show the people that citizens do benefit, needs are met, emergencies are addressed, and the use of the money is proper and justified.

Our ancestors and leaders from the 20th century and before endured so much so that we today have the chance to build a better life and nation.

Arrogance, secrecy and abuse of authority should not be the product of that proud history.

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