WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — Dozens of people rode horses to the Navajo Nation Council chamber on Monday to mark the start of the council's summer session.

The first group of riders spoke about the annual horse ride to the chamber, which honors the transportation method Navajo lawmakers once used. A second group rode to show their opposition to the proposed Navajo Rangeland Improvement Act and the feral horse roundups.

Some of the riders carried flags and signs that stated, "Freedom for Horses" and "Save the permits. Stop round-ups."

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly sits next to Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim, right, as he addresses the Navajo Nation Council on Monday at the
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly sits next to Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim, right, as he addresses the Navajo Nation Council on Monday at the council's chambers in Window Rock, Ariz. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

Despite the protests and other activity that lasted throughout the day in front of the chamber, the council continued its business, including hearing the state of the nation address from Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly. Shelly also listened to delegates talk about opposition to the horse roundup and a lack of scholarship funding. He denied, in response to a delegate's question, that he is using his administrative staff on his reelection campaign.

Reading from the five-page state of the nation report, Shelly said the cost of fighting the Assayii Lake Fire is estimated at $8 million.

The fire started on June 13 and charred 14,712 acres near the Asááyi Lake campgrounds in the Ch'ooshgai Mountains.

He offered appreciation to the Southwest Region Incident Management Team 3 for containing the blaze and the Navajo Nation Department of Emergency Management for coordinating assistance efforts from tribal divisions and departments.

"While this fire was devastating, it also opened our eyes to the need for responsibility and fire prevention," Shelly said.

He also thanked the many people and organizations who stepped forward with donations and financial contributions.

Legislative Assistant Harold Morgan on Monday rings the bell for the start of the Summer Council Session at the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window
Legislative Assistant Harold Morgan on Monday rings the bell for the start of the Summer Council Session at the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

Shelly announced that the Navajo Division of Transportation has selected Wilson and Co., of Albuquerque, to assist with the planning and development of chapter road projects.

The transportation division is also replacing an outdated bridge in Huerfano Chapter.

The Federal Highway Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Transportation are paying for the bridge construction, which is being completed in cooperation with San Juan County.

Shelly mentioned that the Division of Social Services and the Annie E. Casey Foundation have entered into an agreement to strengthen the tribe's foster-care program.

The president also provided an update on the houses being built by the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs in each of the tribe's five agencies.

Forty eight houses are in various stages of construction and the designing and engineering is being completed by Witte Architect Inc., the president reported.

Although Shelly did not mention the feral horse round ups, Delegate Russell Begaye, who represents Shiprock Chapter, reminded the president that there are Navajos who oppose the action and the methods used. And he said there are concerns about domestic horses being taken away.

"They are worried about their horses. People are concerned so we need to listen to them," Begaye said in Navajo.

In Shelly's response, he said he does not have the power to end the roundups because the action was authorized through legislation.

"All you need to do is rescind that legislation and that will take care of the matter," Shelly said.

After hearing the president's report, Delegate Leonard Tsosie reminded Shelly that the tribal scholarship office continues to face a financial aid funding shortage.

More than 10,000 Navajo students apply for scholarships but the office can only fund 2,000, Tsosie said.

Because education is a priority for Vice President Rex Lee Jim, who sat next to Shelly, the president asked Jim to respond to Tsosie's comments.

Jim said the administration is aware of the shortage and is working on developing a plan to address the situation.

"It is a healthy problem because more young people are attending college," Jim said, adding that the number of students who apply for scholarships to graduate school continues to increase.

Shelly faces 16 challengers in his reelection campaign.

With that in mind, Delegate Katherine Benally told the president that she heard news that he is using administrative staff and resources for his campaign.

"I am cautioning you to be careful," Benally said in Navajo.

The president said his campaign is complying with tribal election laws and listening to his legal counsel's advice.

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