Salazar, Echo Hawk get an earful from delegates

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Aug. 27, 2009

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(Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)

After a brief tour of Fort Defiance and Window Rock, U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, left, and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar held a press conference with President Joe Shirley Jr. at Veterans Memorial Park on Aug. 20 in Window Rock.

U.S Assistant Interior Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, Pawnee, asked a group of Navajo Nation lawmakers for their concerns Aug. 20 and for the next 90 minutes, they answered.

Echo Hawk, along with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Interior Solicitor Hillary Tompkins, Navajo, were in Window Rock to meet with President Joe Shirley Jr.


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But they made an unexpected stop at the council chamber where the Intergovernmental Relations Committee was meeting. Following is a summary of the issues aired by IGR members, who each head one of the 11 standing committees of the Navajo Nation Council.

Sampson Begay (Jeddito/Low Mountain/Steamboat, chairman of the Transportation and Community Development Committee, spoke about the BIA's "unlawful" use of federal funding for reservation roads.

The Navajo Nation and 14 tribes put together a "group package" to oppose the BIA's interpretation of the funding mechanism, which has allowed county, state and federal governments access to the money, Begay said.

He stated that for tribes, the Indian Reservation Roads Fund is the sole source of financial assistance, while county, state and federal governments have other funding resources.

Begay urged the three officials to support the proposed Indian Reservation Roads Restoration Act, which would define reservation roads and remove county, state and federal roads from IRR funding.

Of the Navajo Reservation's 15,000 miles of roads, only 3,000 are paved, he added.

Raymond Joe (Blue Gap/Tachee/Whippoorwill), vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee, discussed the acute need for federal construction dollars for Navajo jails.

"These facilities were built in the 1950s and (designed) for only 50 (inmates)," he said.

Joe noted that the lack of jail space has created a revolving door for offenders.

"The police can't do their job," he said, "and the criminal justice system cannot function correctly."

Joe said the Public Safety Committee has submitted a funding package under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and is hoping for stimulus money from the Obama administration.

He said another issue facing tribal law enforcement is the BIA's failure to comply with its contract with the tribe to have tribal police commissioned as federal officers.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Kee Allen Begay Jr. (Many Farms/Rough Rock) said Navajo courts, especially the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, are also in dire need of construction funding.

He also recommended moving the BIA out of Interior and into a more suitable department.

"There's a better way for the tribe to be looked at as human beings rather than as natural resources," he explained.

On the topic of natural resources, Resources Committee member Norman John II (Twin Lakes) called for the Obama appointees to support the Desert Rock coal-fired power plant proposed on Navajo land. He asked them to meet with Diné Power Authority and Desert Rock Energy Project managers as soon as possible.

Resources Committee Chairman George Arthur (Nenahnezad/San Juan/T'iistsoh Sikaad) called on Interior to support the tribe's position regarding Lake Powell and Navajo air tours over the Grand Canyon, where the tribe shares jurisdiction with the National Park Service.

Last December the council voted to withdraw the tribe from a 1970 agreement with the Park Service and other agencies regarding development around Lake Powell. Shirley did not sign the measure but allowed it to take effect by default.

Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan (Iyanbito/Pinedale), who sponsored the move, said the agreement posed an obstacle to the tribe's plans to develop its section of shoreline. At the time, Morgan was in talks with Texas billionaire Red McCombs on a proposal to construct a large resort complex on 50,000 acres just south of Lake Powell.

Tribal officials also worry that Park Service restrictions could impact a Navajo proposal to start air tours and raft trips in the Grand Canyon.

Katherine Benally (Dennehotso), vice chair of the Economic Development Committee, said the tribe wants to increase the term for business site leases from 25 to 99 years, and asked Salazar and Echo Hawk to push the Navajo Area BIA to approve the change.

Benally said major companies cannot secure bank loans for economic ventures on the reservation because banks view 25 years as too short a time for an investment.

She also made a plug for them to look into, and hopefully reverse, the BIA's veto of construction funding for her community's school.

Young Jeff Tom (Mariano Lake/Smith Lake), Human Services Committee vice chairman, was very critical of the BIA, saying it has delayed hiring an agency superintendent for Eastern Navajo for years.

Tom emphasized that with so much of Eastern Navajo in the Checkerboard, it's critical to have a BIA leader who knows the area and its unique issues.

He also said "top officials" within the BIA recently blocked the Fort Wingate school board's appointment of a Navajo as school principal, adding that it's "always" like that when the Navajo community recommends a qualified Navajo for a vacant BIA position.

Tom was touching on an issue that Tompkins, as the top Interior lawyer, will be facing soon. A class action lawsuit filed July 31 in Albuquerque claims that the BIA practices systematic discrimination against Navajo employees, citing complaints by two officials in Eastern Navajo.

Education Committee Chairman Andy Ayze (Chinle) pleaded with the Obama officials to "help us provide for our children," saying that over 65,000 Navajo students are enrolled in college and the tribe lacks the money to provide financial aid for them all, though most qualify for it. He urged Salazar to help secure additional federal dollars for scholarships.

LoRenzo Bates (Upper Fruitland), chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, told the three officials they will hear common issues and concerns as they travel through Indian Country.

"I hope that as you listen, you come up with solutions rather than just sitting and listening," he said.

Bates spoke directly about the need for Obama to take effective action on problems in Indian Country, saying continued support in Indian Country - which ran wide and deep for Obama in 2008 - depends on his accomplishments on behalf of Native Americans.

In an interview after the meeting, Speaker Morgan said he wanted the visiting Obama officials to address the Intergovernmental Relations Committee because it brings together the leaders of all the council committees.

"And I believe that any national representatives from the District of Columbia should address representatives of the council," added Morgan, who as speaker presides over the IGR.

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