Charges pending as Navajo president sworn in

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) January 2011

Ben Shelly was sworn in as the newest president of the Navajo Nation last week, delivering a message of change and partnership before a crowd braving near-freezing temperatures.

Shelly succeeds Joe Shirley Jr., who led the tribe for two consecutive four-year terms. Rex Lee Jim, a tribal lawmaker, took office as vice president.

Shelly stood before a rug woven by 10 Navajo women from Chilchinbeto and snow-covered hills in the tribal capital of Window Rock and pledged to work with new lawmakers on education, health, the economy, developing renewable resources and expanding technology.

“We take this most sacred oath as your leaders of the Navajo Nation because we foresee a tomorrow that is good and positive,” he said in a sometimes rambling speech. “You entrusted us to carry your message, and I am honored to walk with you as your president.”

Shelly defeated New Mexico Sen. Lynda Lovejoy in the November election, becoming the first vice president elected to the top position.

Shelly, who had spent 16 years on the Tribal Council, took office as president with criminal charges filed against him in October still unresolved.

He and 77 Navajo lawmakers were charged with offenses including abuse of office, fraud and theft in an investigation of the council’s discretionary spending. Special prosecutor Alan Balaran alleged the defendants illegally received a combined $1.9 million in tribal funds.

Shelly has agreed to repay $8,250 in exchange for having charges of theft, conspiracy and fraud dropped.

A tribal judge dismissed charges against Jim as part of a similar settlement agreement, but another judge was considering the agreement regarding Shelly.

The agreements include only restitution and no jail time or probation. Shelly and Jim maintained they are innocent.

Shelly briefly alluded to correcting wrongs during the inaugural speech, but his focus was on moving ahead. Culture, language and the Navajo way of life have allowed the tribe to evolve and maintain strength while suffering periods of despair, but the future “is in bounds of prosperity,” he said.

“Through innovation and a new way of thinking, respecting Mother Earth and living in harmony, the Navajo people will continue,” Shelly said. “Look to the east, as we call upon the Holy Ones to help guide the (Navajo) Nation into a time of reflection and renewal.”

Among the challenges Shelly will confront is decreased federal funding, a tribal budget deficit and working with a new, smaller 24-member Tribal Council. Navajos voted to cut the council from 88 members to 24 in a special election as a way to reform the tribal government that saw elected leaders battling out differences in court.

Katherine Benally, one of 16 lawmakers who was re-elected to the new council, said she and her colleagues would work with stability and accountability to the people in mind. K’e, a traditional Navajo concept of respect for oneself and others, should be the guiding principle, she said.

“It is the foundation of an unwritten Navajo act that should permeate in our everyday lives and especially in our government,” she said. “Our actions and policies must ensure that balance is always maintained so that all of our people may benefit from basic services.”

Earlier in the day, the 24 lawmakers gathered in council chambers for a traditional ceremony, asking for guidance and protection through prayer.

They convened again later in the chambers and chose Jonathan Nez as the speaker pro tem.

The inauguration events included music performances, prayer, a public luncheon, a ball in nearby Gallup, N.M., and a traditional winter game that Navajos believe animals once played to determine whether humans would live in darkness or in light.