Shiprock — With hip-hop music blaring, Malcolm Long was busy working out Thursday in the weight room at Diné College's north campus in Shiprock.

Long, of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., exercises there two or three times a week because his community does not have a gym or a wellness center. The nearest one is about 17 miles away at the Four Corners Regional Health Center in Red Mesa, Ariz.

"It has become part of my life now," the 24-year-old Diné College student said, adding he feels "out of balance" when he does not exercise.

But Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have generated revenue to build more gyms and wellness centers on the reservation.

Denisa Livingston, a community advocate with Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, stands outside the site of a Zumba event her group organized on Thursday in
Denisa Livingston, a community advocate with Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, stands outside the site of a Zumba event her group organized on Thursday in Shiprock. (Megan Farmer/ The Daily Times)

The bills would have eliminated a tax on fruits and vegetables and added one on junk food purchased on the reservation.

In January, the Navajo Nation Council approved legislation to add a 2 percent sales tax to junk food purchased on the reservation and to eliminate the 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. Revenue collected from the junk food tax would have been deposited into a Community Wellness Development Projects Fund and used by chapters to develop recreational areas such as wellness centers, community parks, basketball courts, swimming pools and walking, running and biking trails.

Long said he believes having a wellness center in his hometown would help residents improve their health.

"You'd be surprised how many people actually go to the gym," he said.

The tribe's current sales tax rate is 5 percent for any item purchased on tribal lands. The additional 2 percent sales tax would have expired at the end of 2018, unless extended by the council.

In a memorandum from Shelly to Speaker Johnny Naize and council delegates, the president wrote the tribal government is not prepared to implement and collect taxes on junk food.

Diné College student Malcolm Long does ring dips on Thursday at the Diné College fitness center in Shiprock.
Diné College student Malcolm Long does ring dips on Thursday at the Diné College fitness center in Shiprock. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

Shelly said he is concerned there is no funding to pay for the additional work that would be required of the Office of the Navajo Tax Commission, which is "already underfunded." He added that the proposed tax changes would result in educating retail stores about the changes, amending tribal tax forms and instructions and reprogramming cash registers to identify junk food items.

"The bottom line is that Navajo people will be taxed to pay for community wellness projects to address health concerns that are the trust responsibility of the federal government," he wrote in a press release issued Wednesday.

As for eliminating the tax on fruit and fresh vegetables, it would "hinder" the tax revenue that goes to chapters, the judicial and public facilities fund, scholarships and economic development by "a significant amount," Shelly wrote in his memorandum.

Denisa Livingston, a community advocate with Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, said the group worked for two years on the two pieces of legislation, and they are "disappointed" that they were ultimately vetoed. But, she said, the group is exploring the possibility of reintroducing both bills.

While standing outside a Zumba class the group sponsored Thursday in Shiprock, Livingston said the president highlighted his administration's focus on health and wellness and First Lady Martha Shelly is working to prevent childhood obesity and promote healthy eating. But, she said, "with the bills being vetoed, that questions where they really stand."

Rather than putting the responsibility of implementing healthy initiatives on the federal government, like Shelly wrote in his memorandum, it can be done by the Navajo people, she said.

"According to our Navajo wellness teachings and philosophy, we have to take responsibility for our own actions," Livingston said.

Delegate Danny Simpson sponsored both bills and plans to introduce legislation to override the veto, according to a press release from the Office of the Speaker.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.