Joe Shirley Jr. speaks out on the Navajo Nation

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. has taken a personal approach to combating drunk driving and addressing other health issues since taking office. He recently signed an historic proclamation with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) that kicked off "Working for a Safer Nation" awareness and education week in Crownpoint, N.M.

The proclamation backs MADD's mission to stop drunk driving, support the victims and prevent underage drinking through personal appearances in several community service advertisements.

Navajo Nation officials are also resolved to tackling underage drinking through several of MADD's youth programs, including "Protecting You/Protecting Me," multimedia shows for junior high and high school students and Youth In Action" - MADD's high school youth activist program.

Last year, Navajo National law enforcement received nearly 37,000 calls for alcohol-related incidents, according to one report, with 8,262 calls specifically related to DWI. Arrests for DWI totaled 3,009 - up about 8 percent from the previous year, which totaled 7,507 DWI incidents.

ICT: You've launched a media campaign to educate Navajo people about the resurgence of syphilis and have signed a historic proclamation with MADD to stop drunk driving and prevent underage drinking. Have your efforts had an impact?

Shirley: I think it really hasn't begun to take root yet - the proclamation to take a real stance against driving under the influence - killing people. The syphilis epidemic, we've just barely started. I don't know how long these things take to take root - when people really start getting aware and for things to start happening in a positive fashion. But I venture to say, before I get done, it will have taken root and we will have done something about it.

We are going to continue to be very diligent out there. We are going to be upping the campaign to go against driving under the influence. I'm talking about in fiscal year 2004 we've got another million dollars [going] into the division of public safety. That should get us more law enforcement officials and efficiency out there, on the ground and in the communities.

We're talking about doing a bond financing package and building some jails - you get caught driving under the influence, you get put away for however long it takes as penalty. Right now we can't do that.

We've had some personal experience with it. Back in November 2001, a very beautiful angel of a daughter, who had just married a week [prior], had three children and was fixin' to adopt three more children, was killed by a drunk driver.

Three of my grandkids got injured severely, one irreparably. The kid has gone through some traumatic experiences because of the injury and barely recovered, is still recovering. My son-in-law is still recovering. It was a really bad experience we had - my wife and I. It does take on a personal feeling with this.

But otherwise, it's pervasive.

You hear about drunk drivers killing families in one shot - three kids at a time and sometimes both of the parents. It's just devastation out there. I don't want Navajo land to be a haven for drunk drivers. We need to do everything we can to go up against it.

We're making contacts with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix and New Mexico. We're talking with the FBI about seeing what we can do to collaborate, not only with the county government officials and state government officials, we're seeing what we can do to collaborate and coordinate to work together to help not only Navajo people but all people out there.

ICT: IHS funding to providers in urban areas has been drastically cut even though the urban Indian population has grown. What are your thoughts regarding getting health care to those living in the city?

Shirley: Well we need to lobby, for one thing, the state governments to make sure they're mindful of all Natives that are out there, whether they're living in the city or on Navajo land. In this case we're talking about Navajos or Natives living in the urban areas. They need to work their laws or legislation such that we're all covered. Because, if you're Native, it doesn't matter whether you live on Navajo or off Navajo land, you're still Navajo, you're still eligible.

The federal and state governments need to be cognizant of that. They say they're there to help out Natives. Well, there are Natives everywhere, 24 hours a day. No matter where we are, whether it's in Germany, the most southern part of Africa, we're still Navajo. I know the U.S. Government reaches out to Americans living everywhere - anywhere. If there are Americans in trouble they'll go out there and help. It's no different here in the States with Navajos living in urban areas. We still need help. We have to rework our legislation to accommodate them.

ICT: Violent crime on the Navajo reservation is six times the national average according to one source and a string of high-profile murders have given you reason to publicly support enacting the death penalty for certain crimes committed on the reservation. Traditionally Navajos are opposed to capital punishment. How will the death penalty give the nation a better ability to deal with horrific crimes?

Shirley: I don't know. I don't support the death penalty. It was not an accurate report. It was reported that I support the death penalty. I've never said that I supported the death penalty. I do support putting people away where you get them out of society so they can't hurt again. I think there are many out there who cannot be reformed and they need to be gotten out of the community and that way they won't kill again, they won't rape again.

That's what I believe and support.

Editor's note: Associated Press reported in June that Shirley said he supported the death penalty for especially violent murders on Navajo land and planned public hearings on whether Navajo should reverse its long-held opposition to capital punishment.

A May 27, 2003 press release from his office stated that Shirley personally believed capital punishment was appropriate in certain cases. But, the release further stated the decision to impose the death penalty in cases involving Navajos was not a one-person decision.