Navajo Nation Council kicks off winter session

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, right, speaks to the Navajo Nation Council at the winter session on Monday in Window Rock, Ariz., as Vice President Jonathan Nez looks on.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — In an unusual move, the Navajo Nation Council accepted a written copy of the tribal president’s State of the Nation on Monday, rather than hearing the tribe's leader deliver the address.

The council started the winter session Monday, and when delegates reached the address on the agenda, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez had not arrived to the council chamber.

Delegate Edmund Yazzie stated staff were notifying Begaye and Nez to head to the chamber, but delegates voted 18-0 to accept the written report.

When they arrived a few minutes after the vote, Begaye and Nez briefly addressed the council. They did not read from the report or answer questions from delegates.

In the written report, Begaye called on the council to monitor the tribe’s budget, stating that the markets for coal, oil and other mineral resources are not as lucrative as they have been in the past.

The president wrote that acting Controller Jim R. Parris advised leaders to monitor operational expenses "carefully" because a downturn in the market could result in less revenue for the tribe.

Begaye’s office is working with the controller’s office, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Budget and Finance Committee to determine if remedial actions are necessary.

"As a result, all off-reservation travel and conference participation will be carefully considered and an updated memo will be released by my office in the near future," the report states.

In addition, the tribe is continuing to address the Gold King Mine Spill. The latest update centers on a $50,000 donation by Arizona Public Service Co. APS made the donation in September and promised to match any contributions made up to $50,000, according to the report.

The company has requested that the $50,000 go toward helping the chapters of Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tsé Daa K’aan and Upper Fruitland.

According to the report, chapter presidents of those five chapters met with representatives from APS, Navajo United Way and the executive branch on Oct. 12 to discuss how each community would receive funding.

At the meeting, the chapter presidents agreed to equally split the amount among their respective chapters.

So far Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland have submitted proposals for the funding, while Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters have not, according to the report.

Begaye's report also noted that officials from Navajo Technical University are taking the lead in helping the tribe apply for a Promise Zone designation.

The Promise Zone is a federal initiative launched by the Obama Administration in 2013. It is a nationwide selection process that partners the federal government with local leaders from high poverty communities to increase economic activity, educational opportunities, reduce crime and enhance public health.

The president wrote that his office, the council and community leaders are "very interested" in receiving the designation.

Begaye also noted that during the winter session delegates will consider a bill that calls for establishing the Navajo Nation Veterans Act, which proposes to transition the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs to an agency under the president’s office and create an advisory council.

Begaye wrote that his office and the veterans department held six public hearings and five outreach meetings about the act.

The president added the proposal has been in the making for four decades, and input from veterans, families of veterans and leaders "molded" the bill.

"This act is inclusive and will honor all veterans by guaranteeing Veteran Advisory Council involvement far into the future," according to the report.

In writing about education, Begaye highlighted the continued state and federal recognition garnered by Newcomb Elementary School and Tuba City Boarding School in Tuba City, Ariz.

"These schools show us that our Navajo students are capable of educational success and achievement," the report states.

Although the council accepted Begaye’s report without his presentation, at least three delegates commented later about the need to hear from the tribal leader.

The council also heard a presentation from Ernie Stevens Jr., the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association.

Stevens spoke about the accomplishments of Indian gaming, including its continued growth, its contributions to communities and governments and its relationship with the federal officials.

He highlighted the work of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise and stated his association will continue to support the tribe in developing its gaming businesses.

During the council’s action to adopt the winter session agenda, Delegate Leonard Tsosie motioned to have his bill calling for postponing this year’s election for chapter officials and other offices removed. Tsosie said he was withdrawing his sponsorship of the legislation.

Delegates approved the motion to delete the bill from the agenda.

The winter session continues at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the council chamber in Window Rock, Ariz.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.