Communications director defends Shelly's Israel trip

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, December 13, 2012

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T he Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President has received a barrage of angry phone calls from tribal members critical of President Ben Shelly's trip to Israel.

Shelly is currently in Israel, along with his wife and First Lady Martha Shelly, and one of his staff aides, Deswood Tome. The week-long trip is scheduled to end this weekend with Shelly scheduled to be back to the reservation this weekend.

"All of this criticism is coming out of the woodwork," said Erny Zah, Shelly's director of communications.

Many of the complaints center around a feeling that the Navajo Nation is paying for the trip and tribal members are wondering if this is a wise use of the president's office limited travel budget.

The president's office has also received criticism for supposedly allowing Shelly to use tribal funds to go on a vacation with his wife.

None of this is true, said Zah.

In the first place, no tribal funds were spent by either the president, his wife, or Tome on this trip.

This trip has been in the planning stages for almost a year with the costs of the Shellys being paid for by a number of churches in the Four Corners area as well as by churches in other areas.

Zah said he wasn't sure how Tome was paying for his trip - whether it was from church funds or from his own personal funds - but it definitely was not through any tribal funds.

He also stressed that this is not a vacation for Shelly since he will be looking at water systems within Israel because both the Navajo Reservation and Israel face the same kinds of challenges when it come to water usage, both being arid areas.

The trip would be viewed as beneficial to the Navajos, Zah said, if Shelly is able to come back with information on how Israel deals with its water problems and these ideas could be used here to help the tribe better manage its limited water reserves.

Zah said there has also been some criticism from tribal members who feel that Shelly's visit to Israel signifies that the Navajos are siding with Israel in its long-standing disputes with the Palestinians.

That is also not true, said Zah, who added that those people are putting too much into the trip which is mainly being viewed by Shelly and others in his office as a "cultural exchange."

Ironically, while the criticism from tribal members has been overwhelmingly negative about Shelly's visit, phone calls from members of the Jewish faith who have taken the time to call the president's office has been universally positive.

In Zah's opinion, this shows a major difference between the Navajos and the Jewish people.

On one hand, Navajos seem prone to being critical of their leaders in cases like this while the Jewish people tend to stand behind their leaders when it comes to areas where something can be done to promote a better understanding between two different cultures.

But traditionally tribal leaders have had a hard time convincing members of the tribe that visits to foreign countries could be advantageous to the Navajo people.

Most Navajos seem to view this kind of trip as a perk that tribal leaders get that the ordinary tribal member doesn't, much like the trips that members of the Navajo Nation Council for committee meetings in cities that coincidently are hosting events like the National Indian Finals Rodeo or the Gathering of the Nations Powwow.

The first tribal leader to be a globe trotter was Peter MacDonald, who made several trips abroad during the 13 years he served as tribal chairman in the 1970s and 1980s.

His reputation as a world traveler was such that when rumors began circulating during his last years in office that he had decided to stay in China to avoid prosecution, his staff contacted the Navajo Times and asked that the paper send a reporter to interview MacDonald in his office to show that he was actually on the reservation.

And to make sure that this message was made clear to tribal members, they arranged for a photo of MacDonald to be taken in his office with a copy of the front page of that day's Gallup Independent being displayed in a prominent position on his desk.

Albert Hale, another tribal leader who came under attack when he was tribal president, received a lot of criticism when a photo became public of him on a visit to France holding a wine glass.

Shelly has made only one other trip outside the United States and that was early in his administration when he went to Switzerland on a mission for the United States.

Compare that to his predecessor, Joe Shirley, who made a number of trips to Europe and South American countries as part of a program set up by officials for OnSat to get the Navajos positioned as a world leader in the development of Internet capabilities for Third World Countries.

Another factor in all of this is Tome's involvement.

He is the main organizer as well as the main promoter of the trip which makes sense after it is pointed out that while Tome's father was Navajo, his mother was Jewish. Tome has tried to maintain a relationship with his Jewish heritage as well as his Navajo.

When Shelly was thinking of going on the tip, he said in an interview that he felt it was good for the Navajos to be on friendly terms with leaders of other countries.

This makes sense, said Zah, since the Navajos, as the biggest Indian nation in the United States, gets visits from leaders of foreign countries, as well as representatives of various indigenous tribes in those countries, who check to see if any advances here can be carried back to their countries.

"Because of the Internet, the world is becoming a lot smaller," he said, adding that it's becoming more and more important that the Navajo Nation positions itself to be part of this smaller world.

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