Conference officials and tribal members told The Daily Times during its investigation that the number likely is higher as more than 1,000 attendees from various tribes and organizations registered on site, but the breakdown of those numbers is not yet available. However, the 362 Navajo who registered in advance all paid the $400 preregistration fee.
Tribe officials refused to release many details about who beyond top administrators traveled and at what cost, but similar travel made to the Hawaii conference by other non-tribal districts in the region, which sent up to eight representatives, cost at least $1,400 per person. At that rate, the 362 Navajo representatives would have accounted for at least $506,800 in travel costs.
Further, similar conferences the past three years conducted by the same organization but in the closer-by cities of Denver and Phoenix, along with another in Anchorage, were all much less attended than this year's gathering in Hawaii, with several school districts in the Four Corners area sending no one to those conferences.
Although some of the Navajo travelers to Hawaii may have paid their own costs, various sources informed The Daily Times that most are believed to be tribal representatives from the Navajo school districts throughout the reservation and the Navajo government.
The only other ethnic group anywhere close to the same number of preregistered attendees was the host Hawaiian delegation with 545, or only 183 more than the Navajo influx.
Repeated attempts to discuss the unusually high number of travelers with Navajo President Joe Shirley were denied.
His spokesman informed The Daily Times that Shirley was at home and would not accept the newspaper's calls.
Repeated attempts and voice messages left for Navajo education officials also were unsuccessful. Most of those reached refused to comment on the record.
The Navajo Nation is the largest sovereign nation within the United States, sprawling over hundreds of miles in the Four Corners region in northeast Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and a small portion of southeastern Utah bordering the Ute tribe in southwestern Colorado. Many of its residents living in the more remote portions of the expansive reservation still contend with dusty dirt roads, poor if any utilities, water and pollution issues, and troublesome economic conditions.
The 2000 U.S. Census reported that 37 percent of Navajo live below the poverty line, compared to 12 percent of the general population.
Yet, whether because of poor coordination, abuse of funds for a junket, or a sincere belief that this large of a delegation was necessary to make needed improvements, Navajo leaders in the education and government ranks helped spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the trip to Hawaii.
The 2007 convention of the National Indian Education Association was hosted in Honolulu and attracted a large number of attendees compared to more recent conferences. Other than the local Hawaiians and the huge Navajo delegation, no other tribe preregistered more than 72 people.
The large Cherokee Nation, by comparison, preregistered only 45. The Oglala Sioux signed up 48; the Seminole tribe only 17.
The National Indian Education Association works to bring ideas and people together to help provide better educational opportunities for American Indian students and schools. However, when Navajo officials were asked why a much smaller number of representatives could not have attended and returned to share what they learned, as opposed to sending so many at such a cost, answers were hard to obtain.
Likewise for why so many Navajo government officials outside of education who attended, including President Shirley himself and his wife.
Kim Narcisso, accounting consultant for the association, was in charge of preregistration and said it amazed him how many people made the long trip for the convention.
"Because it was Hawaii, we got good attendance. But frankly, I was surprised to see so many people go," he said.
The location of the conference seemed to be a big draw for the convention. Last year when it was held in Alaska, there were 1,900 paid attendees. This year for Hawaii, 3,200 people attended.
In 2005, roughly the same number who went to Alaska went to the convention in Denver.
Narcisso was unable to provide reliable numbers as to how many of the convention's members in prior years hailed from the Navajo Nation.
"We never had a membership coordinator before this year," he said. "If there is (data), I'm not aware of it."
The four-day convention was Oct. 25-28 at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.
A trip to Hawaii for a multiple-day stay in a resort hotel does not come cheap. The Central Consolidated School District, headquartered in Shiprock on the New Mexico side of the reservation, sent eight school officials — six Indian Education Committee members and two others — to the same convention. It cost the district an estimated $15,000 in federal funding.
Who paid the bill?
Where the money came from to pay for so many people a visit to the tropical destination is unclear. Although some teachers and administrators may have paid their own way, many are known to have traveled on either Navajo Nation money or special federal funds intended for American Indian student programs. Regardless, the money left the reservation.
The Daily Times made dozens of requests through various Navajo education and government officials for records of their spending, but those requests were either denied or ignored. Navajo sovereignty allows it greater privacy regarding laws that require public access and accountability.
The newspaper is in the process of filing Freedom of Information requests with the U.S. government in hopes of tracking federal dollars that the tribe might have used for the trip, and it is considering hiring attorneys to help seek the information.
The Office of the Speaker for the Navajo Nation Council, one of the Nation's highest offices, is defending its decision to send 18 delegates of the 21st Navajo Nation Council to the beachside convention.
"The Council delegates attended the convention to represent the Navajo Nation through their committee oversight function. As legislators of the Nation, they needed to be involved and they did a wonderful job," said Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan in a prepared statement.
Morgan attended the Hawaii trip with the other 17 members of the legislative branch.
The Office of the Speaker chose not to release any information regarding the cost of sending delegates.
Requests for information about how many delegates were sent in past years, when the convention was held in Denver and Phoenix, received no response.
Joshua Lavar Butler, spokesman for the Office of the Speaker, said only that the travel money for delegates comes out of a travel fund for the committees that is written into the budget for each fiscal year.
Former Council delegate Wallace Charley told The Daily Times that the money for travel expenses comes out of the Council's general fund, which is paid for by oil and gas revenues and other gross-receipts taxes.
The 21st Navajo Nation Council is made up of 12 committees, ranging in focus from budget and finance to ethics and rules. Eight people sit on each committee on average, and there are 88 councilors total.
Council members who went to Hawaii are from four committees: five delegates from the Education Committee, seven from the Health and Social Services Committee, one from the Human Services Committee, and four from the Public Safety Committee.
At least three of the four committees have ties to education and have legitimate reasons for making the trip, said LoRenzo Bates, Upper Fruitland Council Delegate and chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, but he did not wish to speculate about the decisions.
Bates himself did not attend the conference, but the number of delegates the Navajo Nation's legislative branch sent does not concern him. He said the number of travelers sounded reasonable considering that the duties of many committees overlap.
For example, it likely would be useful for members of the Health and Social Services Committee to be aware of issues facing Indian education, he said.
"Within the legislative branch, there's overlapping authority. What we apply to education we may also apply to Human Services. And it might also apply to Government Services," Bates said about the committees.
Way, way too many'
The motivation for sending 18 committee delegates was to adequately represent the Navajo Nation concerning education, the Office of the Speaker said in a press release.
"The NIEA brings together Indian leaders, Congressional representatives, and educators from throughout the United States and Canada. Conventions are held to facilitate an exchange of information related to education. Participants are provided with the opportunity to share concerns, ideas, and to pursue solutions to educational issues that affect Native American communities. Topics pertaining to early childhood education, to post-secondary education were discussed," the release states.
Another reason given by Speaker Morgan for the large delegation's attendance was to seek out answers to questions about funding for schools on Navajo land.
The Office of the Speaker also points out that it is not unusual for legislators of the Navajo Nation to travel in and out of the state to do business on behalf of the sovereign nation.
"It is very important that our public servants remain actively abreast of national issues that have an impact upon our Nation," he said.
But former Education Committee Vice-Chairman Wallace Charley said it sounds as though the Council sent more delegates than it needed to send.
"That's way, way too many," he said, after hearing how many Health and Social Services Committee members attended. "Maybe they went to learn something. Well, we're ready to hear what they've learned."
Several years ago, when the national Johnson O'Malley Association had its annual convention in Alaska to discuss federal funding for American Indian students, Charley said he and only two other delegates attended. He said it was the committee's policy to send only one or two people and bring back the information to share with others.
As for the hundreds of Navajo people who went to Hawaii in October, convention organizers said most attendees were school board members and Indian education members who presumably had their trips paid for by federal dollars.
Acting superintendent of the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education, Eddie Biakeddy, did not return calls. He also went to Hawaii. Various other education officials refused comment. One school principal reached by phone refused even to give her name, despite it being public knowledge, in apprehension about talking to the newspaper regarding this story.
Cory Frolik: firstname.lastname@example.org