Joe Shirley Jr. speaks out on the Navajo Nation

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Progress through economic development, job creation and revenue generation are highlighted in this week's second segment of Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr.'s interview with Indian Country Today. These topics were paramount in his State of the Nation address presented to the 20th Navajo Nation Council Summer Session this past July.

ICT: What is the status quo on the reported injunction the Navajo Nation planned to seek against BIA reorganization?

Shirley: It's still under discussion. We'd like to do it, but it's still under discussion.

ICT: Legislation like the Energy Policy Act of 2003, giving federal government the power to develop and implement energy programs on tribal lands, without tribal consent and waiving federal liability, could be devastating to the Navajo Nation. What is the status of this bill?

Shirley: Well, S. 14 is the proposed legislation that we've been talking about. That has been the topic of discussion in Native country. That has been put to the side, but it's not an issue any longer. What has happened is that the Senate passed legislation - last year's legislation and now it's going to conference through the Senate and the House as I understand it. There is where we hope to have addressed not only Navajo's concerns, but Native country's concerns.

Editor's note: The Senate-House conference committee will determine the federal Energy Bill's final language and discussion begins after lawmakers return from their summer recess in September.

ICT: At the global level, what is your position on the presence of the American military in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East?

Shirley: I believe it's something that needs to get done. I don't like dictatorships where grandmas and grandfathers get killed at the whim of a dictator. I don't like a government where children get killed at the whim of a dictator. I think that's where the United States, as a leader of the free world, is coming in. So in that sense I agree with deposing Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. They're oppressive governments and they really ought not to be in the world of the five-fingered intelligent earth dwellers. That isn't what I've see here in the United States with as far as living freedom. I think it's what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about. So, in essence, I agree with it. I think no one ought to be oppressed.

ICT: Your administration recently unveiled the "Initiative in Teacher Education Opportunities" to increase the number of Navajo secondary teachers from 13 percent to 35 percent by 2008. How will the new positions be financed?

Shirley: Well, we're looking at a few initiatives. Like I talk about out in Navajo country, we have several irons in the fire and we're talking about the generation of additional revenues, taxes for one - we're looking at that, and a gaming referendum.

The people took a shot at it twice and it got shot down twice. There's a clamor to get it back before the people, so I think we're going to do that. If that goes, then that's where part of the revenues will come from.

Of course, we're working very diligently to bring new businesses to Navajo country. We're bringing some of the business from the outside and developing businesses and supporting small businesses on Navajo land: the more businesses, the more taxes and the more revenues coming into the Nation's coffers; we're using some of that.

ICT: Denny's opened a restaurant on the Navajo Nation this year, the first on Navajo land and the second by a Native American which brought around 100 jobs. Is this a step closer to making the Navajo Nation "business friendly?"

Shirley: I wouldn't say another step toward making the Nation "business friendly," Denny's only opened after about three or four years of trying to get established and it barely opened just the other day. But we are working on making it a little bit easier for businesses to get established. Of course, we're trying to make the Navajo Nation more business friendly by zeroing in on the bureaucracy and the red tape that surrounds these steps and decisions. We're talking about business issues in leases, getting the environmental impact statements out of the way, matching funds for businesses to come in.

We're working on all of that trying to make Navajo land more business friendly. I appreciate Denny's hanging in there with us, in spite of all of the red tape and bureaucracy and all the time it took for them to get established. I hope the next time it'll be easier to establish, not having to go through three or four years of red tape it took to get there. I don't know how much Mr. Brown has spent to get management status, but I am sure it's a substantial amount. And we're trying to wade through that and through all of that out with the red tape and the bureaucracy.

The other day I pulled out a set of instructions with my technical people and said, "Let's get comfortable with the border towns. How did they do it, how fast did they do it? If it takes 10 days to issue a license to do business in Gallup, New Mexico, let's get comfortable, let's do it in 10 days. Let's do it in nine days. That way we can attract businesses. We're working on changing legislation like that.

ICT: Would you elaborate a little on the Navajo Nation's bond financing proposal?

Shirley: Yes, we're working very diligently to put that together. Right now we have capital improvement projects on the books to the tune of about $168 million dollars. There are several projects: a power line project, a water line project, new chapter houses, renovation of old chapter houses, governmental facilities. We don't have the wherewithal to get it put up, so thereby we're talking about a bond financing package to bring in the revenues to borrow money to get the capital improvement projects going.

Then on top of that, we'd like to see new structures coming in, proposals for nursing homes, detention facilities - jails, new public safety facilities, new governmental structures, new senior citizen centers. It also means jobs.

ICT: Do you personally support gaming?

Shirley: (With a chuckle) Let me put it this way, I voted for it twice. The first time it was put before the people as a referendum and I voted for it. The second time I voted for it too. It's revenue, jobs.

ICT: Do you think there would be enough business to support a casino?

Shirley: I'm not really talking about (putting a casino) on the Nation itself. It would be in what we call the I-40 corridor. We're talking about To'hajiilee - Canoncito, near Albuquerque. So, near growth centers. We're talking about Page, putting in a marina, as a tourist attraction.

Whether we make a go at it or fail at it remains to be seen. I am concerned, going into gaming at this late juncture. I don't know how much the market is saturated. I think there's still a market for it, though.

If the people continue to say no at a third run, that will remain my position. If the people say yes, then I will do everything I can to do it. The very least that I could do as the president is to put it before them again. It's a people issue - the people need to be involved, the people need to decide. I want to hear from the people this time around.

Editor's note: The Navajo Nation legalized gambling at To'hajiilee last year and just recently Navajo Nation's Inter-government Relations Committee approved the standard New Mexico gambling contract, a legal requirement to operate casinos in the state.

Although a majority of the council had previously refused to sign because the compact requires waiving the Nation's right to enforce their own laws if and when legal claims are brought against a casino, the council decided to make the move as a step toward drafting a custom gaming compact with New Mexico.

Navajo chose to legalize a casino at To'hajiilee as a pilot project for developing casinos in other areas. The casino is expected to employ about 350 people, generate $70 million the first year and $150 million by the fifth year of operation, according to a feasibility study.

To'hajiilee would receive 80 percent and the Navajo Nation would receive 20 percent of revenues.