Navajo Nation leaders squabble over word ‘leader’

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 3-08

Will the real leader of the Navajo Nation please stand up?

While Joe Shirley Jr. is the president of the Navajo Nation, the spokesman for Tribal Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan suggests that Morgan, too, can be the leader.

In two separate news releases this year, that’s how Joshua Lavar Butler referred to his boss: the leader. Most recently, Morgan was introduced at the New Mexico Legislature as the leader of the tribe.

There’s no disputing that Morgan, Shirley, Vice President Ben Shelly and Navajo Supreme Court Justice Herb Yazzie are leaders of the tribe, but can anyone lay exclusive claim to the title?

“I don’t think there is any provision of Navajo Nation law which provides an exclusive right to any official to be the leader of the Navajo Nation,” said legislative attorney Frank Saenez. “But certainly all of them have very serious and significant responsibilities in the leadership of the Navajo Nation.”

Saenez has advised Butler that he can continue to refer to Morgan as “a leader” or “the leader” of the tribe.

“However, if the president or his press officer feels that it’s appropriate to refer to the president as the leader, I really can’t raise much of a fuss over that either,” he said.

Shirley and Shelly are the only officials elected by a majority of all Navajo voters. Morgan was chosen by a majority vote of the council’s 88 delegates.

Shirley’s spokesman, George Hardeen, says the speaker’s office is only trying to spark some good press coverage in referring to Morgan as “the leader” and “there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Clearly he is a leader of the Navajo Nation, but only the president of the Navajo Nation can speak with a presidential voice, and that’s the voice federal and state leaders want to hear,” Hardeen said. “They want to know what the president thinks.”

Dale Mason, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico’s Gallup branch, said while discussion over who is the Navajo leader appears silly on the surface, it potentially can cause conflict in resolving issues between the president and the council.

“It’s an institutional jealousy and a personal jealousy,” he said. “In a system of checks and balances with multiple branches, you always have conflicts over which branch is predominant at any given time.”

Butler said he meant no disrespect to Shirley in proclaiming his boss the leader of the tribe, but has no plans to stop using the reference.

“I often say that it’s no different than President Bush and Congress,” Butler said. “These two leaders both have significant roles in running the Navajo Nation government.”

But Hardeen notes, “You don’t read in the press that the speaker of the New Mexico or Arizona House of Representatives assumed the high mantle of leadership for their states.”

“Why should it be any different here?” Hardeen said.

Before the Tribal Council was formed in 1923 to approve oil and gas leases, the Navajos did not have a single leader. Peace chiefs, known in Navajo as natani, served as traditional leaders.

A chairman presided over the council until the Navajo government was reorganized in 1989 to form a three-branch government. The tribe now has a chief justice, a Tribal Council speaker and a president, who formerly was known as chairman. Some refer to the speaker as the chairman.