Skip to main content

Joe Shirley Jr. speaks out on the Navajo Nation

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. took office in January with a campaign platform based on government reform, providing a quality education to Navajo students, revenue generation with an economy that will produce jobs, trust accountability, and sovereignty protection. His office recently released a "State of the Navajo Nation," for the summer session. Indian Country Today recently caught up with President Shirley to discuss the Navajo Nation's progress report and get updates on other issues.

ICT: You've been talking about installing a permanent governmental structure for the Navajo Nation. What challenges do you face?

Shirley: (Shirley chuckles and there is a twinkle in his eye.) Well, it's a big challenge. It means moving the people. We're talking about moving upwards of 83,000 people. I guess even more - 83,000 is the number of registered voters that are on the books, so if there's any way it's going to clear, it's going to have to be the registered voters. Of course anytime you go on a drive there are petitions to be signed, there are monies to be paid for the petitions, putting (the issue) on the ballot, timing and all of that takes collaboration, coordination ? let's face it, it's a humongous challenge. But I believe we need to go through with it. (The Navajo Nation has approximately 225,000 members and the largest land base spanning 17.5 million acres across New Mexico, Arizona and Utah).

ICT: Is that because the present governmental structure was put in place by the U.S. government and not Navajo people?

Shirley: Exactly, the governmental structure we call the Navajo Nation government was not put in place by the people. It was put in by the U.S. Government, yes. So, in that sense it's not really our government. I think it's time Din? people have input into what form of government they'd like to see have in place.

ICT: What would the structure of this government look like?

Shirley: The two forms of government we've been through deserve review; deserve discussion, so it could be one of the two. There could be a constitutional form of government, we haven't tried that. In fact the Nation's Council put in place, back in '89, instructions for looking at the constitutional form of government. It has yet to take place, but I have proposed to begin with the three forms of government.

Editor's note: Traditionally, Navajo political decisions were made at a local level between groups of 10 to 40 families.

In 1923, responding to outside oil interests eager to tap Navajo resources, the Interior Department created the Navajo Tribal Council, the first body in Navajo history organized to act on behalf of the entire Navajo Nation. This entity was created solely for the purpose of approving oil leases.

The Navajo Nation created the Commission on Navajo Government Development and its administrative arm, the Office of Navajo Government Development which was given the responsibility of undertaking government reform in 1989.

At that time, the Navajo Nation also endured a highly publicized dispute between Council members supporting and those opposing the chairman, resulting in a series of amendments reorganizing the government into three branches and renaming the "Navajo Tribal Council" the "Navajo Nation Council."

Presently, the Navajo Nation Government is composed of an Executive, a Legislative and a Judicial Branch, with an 88 member popularly elected Council and 12 Standing Committees.

An elected President and Vice-President head the Executive Branch. The Judicial Branch consists of a system of seven District Courts, seven Family Courts, and a Supreme Court. One hundred and ten local government subdivisions, or chapters, exist at the local level.

Reorganization was viewed as a temporary measure intended to take place concurrently with a reform effort and reexamination of governmental structure. However, reform did not occur, nor did the amendments' ratification. Consent to the establishment of the Council as the governing body in 1923 was never given and there remains a desire among Navajo people to reform their government.

ICT: Do you feel the present government has too much authority in one area?

Shirley: I believe so. I think there is too much authority in the legislative branch of the Navajo Nation government. There needs to be checks and balances. The power needs to be distributed between the three branches. We need to have a local form of government. At this point in time, there's very little of that. Pretty much, all the local governance has is a recommending authority. More authority needs to be given to local governance. We call them chapter governments and chapter governments need to have control over the land they sit on, over their boundaries. Some of the bigger communities need to have control over their law enforcement, social services, the generation of revenue, contracting with outside entities, whether it's the federal government, state governments or county governments, even the mother government itself.

The government that oversees the whole Navajo Nation needs to play a bigger role in working with the federal government in protecting the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation and in reaching out to international governments whether it be Mexico, Canada, Japan, the European Union in trade, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

(Continued in Part 2)