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Federal Government Needs to ‘Step Up’: Jonathan Nez, Navajo VP Says

Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez recently shared his thoughts on the direction of the Navajo Nation with ICTMN.

Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez took office in May 2015 after a tumultuous election that resulted in court hearings, disqualified candidates and an unprecedented debate over the importance of speaking the Navajo language.

RELATED: Navajo Election: How We Got Here?

Nez and running mate Russell Begaye won their bid for office – in a delayed election – and took the oath as the Navajo Nation faced some of the most complicated issues in its history. During his short tenure in office, Nez already has contended with police-involved shootings, border town violence, lawsuits against the federal government and long-standing disputes over land and water rights.

RELATED: Russell Begaye Wins Navajo Election: Time to Unite and Move Forward

A marathon runner who hails from Shonto, Arizona, Nez advocates for education, local empowerment and enhanced sovereignty.

Sixteen months into his term, Nez sat down for a candid interview with ICTMN.

It's been more than seven years since U.S. President Barack Obama repealed the Bennett Freeze. What does the thaw look like on the Navajo Nation?

There are still so many regulations we have to deal with, but the overall master plan is being developed for that area. A lot of our people got relocated out of there and many of them have yet to be compensated. We need the federal government to honor its promise to provide resources to those people.

Right now, we’re working on a plan, approving projects for electricity and water lines. We have $1 million for dams and windmills and $2 million to provide homes.

Things just don’t happen very quickly on the Navajo Nation, but for this project, seeing tangible results and rehabilitation in the former Bennett Freeze – that’s in the near future. For some of those people who really need homes, we’re hoping to provide those before winter.

RELATED: Bennett Freeze Thaw Finally Underway: Flurry of Activity To Improve Living Conditions

A police officer who shot and killed a Navajo woman in Winslow, Arizona, in April was cleared of wrongdoing. What is the Navajo Nation doing to get justice for Loreal Tsingine?

We’re trying to get the federal Department of Justice to investigate the incident. We’re just waiting for that. After the Arizona Department of Public Safety did its investigation and cleared the officer, we weren’t satisfied.

RELATED: DoJ Listens to Navajo Nation Request, Will Investigate Loreal Tsingine Death

The Navajo Nation recently announced it is suing the U.S. EPA over the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill. In the lawsuit, the Nation is asking that the Navajo way of life be restored. What will that look like?

Right now, there is so much hurt. This incident instilled more mistrust in the federal government. We have had hearings in D.C. and in Phoenix, and senators have come out here, but there is this long-term psychological effect that will linger for a long time. There’s already distrust about using the water.

We’re challenging the federal government, as always, because they need to step up and clean up the river, and also hold those mining companies accountable for all the neglect that’s happened in the Colorado mountains.

The Gold King Mine was one of thousands of abandoned mines. Just imagine, this could happen again – and it probably will.

So we’re suing the U.S. EPA. We need to raise awareness of the need to compensate our people and clean up the river. This is constantly on our radar and there’s continuous advocacy for the folks along the river.

RELATED: Poisoned Waters: Navajo Communities Still Struggle After Mining Disaster

A long-standing issue on the Navajo Nation is the lack of electricity and running water for tens of thousands of residents. What are you doing to remedy the situation?

We have, right now, over $300 million appropriated by the Navajo Nation Council and signed into law by the president for water infrastructure. I’ve been a lawmaker for eight years and I’ve never seen this much money put aside to help improve basic life for our people.

Some of that will go to extend water lines, and then we can work with Indian Health Service to help fund individual hookups.

We’re also working to extend electricity trunk-lines and develop a package to make that affordable. We are encouraging folks to plan with their families to create communities on their ancestral lands. If they group everyone together, that makes power and water more affordable. That’s the biggest bang for the buck.

They also have to realize that if they want to live way out there, they will probably not see power or water. So the bottom line is that we’re encouraging people to put together plans so we can provide infrastructure.

Another perennial issue is unemployment, which hovers at about 50 percent. What can be done to create jobs?

A lot of our families, in order to make ends meet, are sending one parent off the reservation to get a job. That’s five or six days a week away from the family. Then social ills start plaguing us because parents are split.

We are investing millions of dollars in Navajo business and we believe jobs are just around the corner. We want to empower individuals, families, communities and the entire Navajo Nation. Our ultimate goal is to create jobs that will bring a lot of our Navajo people home.

One of your personal goals is improved health for yourself and the Navajo Nation. What would you like to see the Navajo people achieve in terms of health?

I was once 300 pounds, and I was telling kids to be healthy and take care of themselves. Then I realized they weren’t going to believe a 300-pound man. One day a young man called me on that. He said, “You tell us to eat right, but every year we see you getting bigger and bigger.” I decided he was right. I needed to control myself. So I lost 100 pounds and started running.

If we’re a sovereign nation, we should be in charge of our own health. That means we should be able to grow our own Native foods, to go back to our traditional seeds and encourage our people to return to subsistence farming.

We also need to challenge our lawmakers to make laws that are more friendly to our farmers and ranchers. If you’re going to put a gas station, service station, convenience store or grocery store on the Navajo Nation, you should sell Navajo fruits and vegetables and Navajo meats. That’s food sovereignty at its highest.

We also have our junk food tax, which I supported to help our people be a lot more aware of their health.

RELATED: A Junk Food Tax in a Food Desert: Navajo Nation Triest to Curb Unhealthy Snacking

You and President Russell Begaye have been in office for more than a year. What's still to come before the end of your term?

We just want to leave a lasting impression on our people. We want them to know that we, as Navajo people, have the power to change our own lives and our own families.

We want our people to be the best they can be. Now is the time for all able-bodied individuals to be part of the building process. Now is the time to help each other, to bring back service and volunteerism.

This will come in gradual steps. It may not happen this year or next, but we’re hoping in this administration to plant a seed for our families to become stronger and combat the monsters we fight on a daily basis: alcohol, drugs, poverty and violence. We all know that a healthy family can fight a lot of these monsters off.

What we really want to see in this administration is that our families are whole and healthy. We want to plant that seed of empowerment so that in one or two generations we’ll see true self, true sovereignty, a return to who we were.