Navajo council starts session in Window Rock

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, right, and Vice President Jonathan Nez present the State of the Nation address to the tribal council on April 18 at the start of the spring session in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Now that the first members of the Navajo Nation Veterans Advisory Council have been sworn in, tribal officials are turning their attention to helping the tribe’s veterans.

That was the update Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye shared during his state of the nation address to the tribal council on Monday.

Begaye informed the council that eight members of the 11-member advisory council took their oaths of office Monday morning.

Their first responsibility is to pursue housing opportunities for veterans, he said,  followed by securing quality health care services.

“On this issue, we should never ever use the word or say the statement, ‘a homeless veteran.’ We are going to eradicate that,” Begaye said.

The advisory council is also charged with pursuing a "regional service center" designation under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That would allow the tribe to receive direct funding from Veterans Affairs, Begaye said.

Although Begaye did not address last week’s bankruptcy filing by Peabody Energy Corp., which operates the Kayenta Mine in Arizona, Delegate Jonathan Hale asked about the action and its impact to the tribal revenue.

Begaye said officials continue to anticipate a shortfall because the prices of coal, gas and oil have remained at low levels.

He added that it has been estimated that the shortfall could be as much as $25 million and division directors have been streamlining, cutting and restructuring as cost saving measures.

“We’re preparing ourselves to, at least, look at a 12-percent cut across the board,” the president said.

He said his administration met with Peabody officials on numerous occasions and were told the company would survive and would not enter into bankruptcy.

“I was surprised to receive the notice of bankruptcy,” Begaye said adding his office was notified of the filing on April 13.

His administration is also examining how to reduce the duplication of services between departments and divisions as part of the cost saving measures.

A taskforce was formed and has been meeting with each division to carry out a restructuring of the executive branch, he said.

On Friday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will have an oversight hearing in Phoenix to examine the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s response to tribes during the Gold King Mine spill.

Begaye said he appreciates the council’s effort to adjourn the session by Thursday so delegates can attend the hearing. He added that the irrigation canals will open for communities located along the San Juan River.

The president also mentioned that he and the vice president met with Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders when they were in Arizona last month for the state's primary elections.

Begaye said the discussions with Clinton and Sanders centered on upholding treaty and trust responsibilities as well as continuing to recognize tribal sovereignty and the need to boost the local economies and create jobs.

Nez focused on the bills to confirm LaVonne Tsosie as executive director for the Division of Human Resources and Crystal J. Deschinny as executive director for the Division of Economic Development.

Nez said the administration has brought in many highly educated professionals to help the tribe build a “better tomorrow” for the people.

“We have full confidence she will create jobs, develop infrastructure and help diversify our economy,” Nez said of Deschinny’s appointment.

There are bills to confirm additional appointments, he said.

“These are individuals we have bestowed a real large responsibility in leading some of our divisions for the Navajo Nation,” Nez said.

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