FARMINGTON — A new U.S. Navy ship named after the Navajo Nation is closer to reality after a keel laying ceremony was held on Oct. 30 in Houma, Louisiana.

The future USNS Navajo (T-ATS 6), the lead ship in the Navy's new class of towing, salvage and rescue vessels, will be built in Houma at the shipyard operated by Gulf Island Fabrication Inc.

The company was awarded a $63.5 million contract in March for design and construction of the ship, which is scheduled for completion in 2021.

A keel laying is the ceremonial recognition of the start of a ship's construction and the joining of the ship's modular components and the keel serves as the symbolic backbone of the vessel, according to a Navy press release.

The release states the Navajo class, which will replace a retiring class, will support fleet operations and will be capable of towing Navy ships.

The ship's crest reflects its connection to the Navajo people, with the depiction of a horned toad – a symbol of protection – and the use of black, white, turquoise and yellow to signify the four sacred mountains.

The crest's motto is written in the Navajo language and translates to "the vessel of the protectors of life."

Among those who attended the ceremony at the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center were Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Speaker Seth Damon, Chief Justice JoAnn Jayne, Miss Navajo Nation 2006-2007 Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw, former Speaker LoRenzo Bates, former Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Hale and five delegates from the current council.

Billy-Upshaw is the ship's sponsor. She, along with Nez and Damon, signed their initials onto the keel plate, which will be fastened within the hull of the vessel, according to a press release from Nez's office.

The Navajo Nation Council has been in support of naming the ship and its class after the tribe since 2014. Hale sponsored the first bill that backed the name.

Bates, who was speaker when the council supported federal legislation in 2017 by U.S. Sen. John McCain to use the Navajo name, called the event "historic."

"It is a major accomplishment for the Navajo Nation and, most definitely, for the veterans that have served and continue to serve," Bates said in an Oct. 31 telephone interview.

He added that anytime the vessel is called to duty, the tribe will be recognized.

"A keel ceremony is very significant because it starts the transition from concept to reality," Bates said.

Mike Kosar, manager for the Support Ships, Boats and Craft Program Office within the Program Executive Office Ships, said it was an honor to have members of the Navajo Nation attend the event.

"These ships are critical to the operations of our fleet and will soon sail with the resilience and determination of the Navajo people of which they honor." Kosar said in the release from the Navy.

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

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