Navajo lawmakers adjust veterans department

Noel Lyn Smith
Delegate Jonathan Hale returns to his seat after the Navajo Nation Council passed his bill during the winter session on Tuesday in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – When a bill calling for changing the agency that serves Navajo veterans went before the Navajo Nation Council on Tuesday, delegates did not hesitate to vote in favor it.

The council voted 20-0 to pass a measure establishing the Navajo Nation Veterans Administration under the tribe’s Office of the President and Vice President during the second day of the winter session here.

The bill also establishes a Navajo Nation Veterans Advisory Council under the executive branch. The six-member council is designed to provide policy advice to the tribal president regarding veteran issues and concerns.

One reason for the modification is to make the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs, which has been under the Division of Human Resources, a separate administration within the executive branch in order to seek recognition from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the legislation states.

Delegate Jonathan Hale sponsored the legislation. Before he could present the bill to the council, some delegates called for a vote on it. Their request was answered, and the bill was voted on without debate.

“This legislation honors Navajo veterans and will provide services and funding from agencies to the Navajo Nation on behalf of veterans,” Hale said in a press release from the speaker’s office.

Paul George, commander of the Northern Agency Veterans Organization, attended the session. He said passage of the legislation is “a start” and part of the first step to reform the system for addressing and providing services to veterans.

“Just establishing an office of the veterans administration does not change the current system. We’re just transferring the whole program into the new administration, but the deficiencies are still there,” George said in an interview after the vote.

He said the bill will help give veterans a “say so” in their tribal government, but he added that veterans continue to be outsiders when it comes to certain processes under the government.

The legislation will be submitted to President Russell Begaye for review. After it is submitted to his office, the president has 10 calendar days to sign or veto it, according to the press release.

Speaker LoRenzo Bates, left, address the other members of the Navajo Nation Council at the winter session on Tuesday in Window Rock, Ariz. Patty Chee, right, president of the Community Land Use Planning Committee at Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter, helped Bates present his bill.

In other council action, delegates voted 15-6 to table legislation requesting $270,000 in supplemental funding from the tribe’s Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance for the Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter to replace a fence line between two districts.

Speaker LoRenzo Bates, who sponsored the bill, said fencing is needed to prevent livestock from crossing between the districts, and the material would replace fencing that is at least 60 years old.

The Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter has worked with surrounding chapters to identify the “historical fence line,” Bates said. He added that the project has received $123,168 in assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for completion.

During the council’s discussion, Delegate Dwight Witherspoon reminded delegates about the shortfall the tribe is facing in its budget due to declining revenue from oil, gas and other minerals. Witherspoon, who serves as vice chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, said his committee and others are continuing to examine the situation and search for solutions.

With that information, Bates said it might be in the best interest for the council to table the bill because one avenue for addressing the shortfall could be tapping into funds, such as the UUFB.

Before the bill was tabled, Delegate Tom Chee said the project is a good way for the Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter to practice land management.

“Hopefully, we begin to return to valuing the land, being good stewards of it,” Chee said.

The council did approve legislation to change the regular meeting day of the Health Education and Human Services Committee from Wednesday to Tuesday.

Another measure passed by the council requests approximately $1.8 million in supplemental funding from the UUFB for stipends to members of district grazing committees, farm boards and the Eastern Navajo Land Board.

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