Outgoing Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has hosted his last official soiree, although it remains unclear exactly when his term will end.
About 200 Navajo Nation officials and guests ate roast beef and listened to a country western band at the annual President’s Office holiday party, on Saturday, December 20 at the Isleta Resort & Casino, an enterprise of the Isleta Pueblo near Albuquerque.
Deswood Tome, Shelly’s political advisor, said special guests included Kelly Zunie, cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, John Draper Witherspoon Sr., who is the father of actress Reese Witherspoon, and Bobby Unser, Jr., NASCAR champion. Navajo Nation Council Delegate-Elect Davis Filfred, and Council Delegate Lorenzo Curley also attended.
“With President Shelly exiting here in a few weeks, this was our last party,” added Rick Abasta, Shelly’s spokesman. “It’s an annual event, an opportunity for the president to give thanks for the hard work from his staff, to sit down and break bread together.”
Abasta said due to a high number of holiday parties, all of the casinos on the Navajo Nation were unavailable to host the event. Holding the event at a neighboring tribe was “in itself is a positive business to business decision,” Abasta said.
Seven tribal divisions were asked to contribute $1,000 apiece to help offset the cost of the banquet, according to a story in the Gallup Independent, a border town newspaper. They included the divisions of Social Services, Human Resources, General Services, Transportation, Community Development, Economic Development, and Health.
Although the Christmas party marked Shelly’s last official social event. he may remain in office longer than usual. Other elected officials will be sworn in for new terms on January 13, but the presidential election was split off from the others last fall and remains unsettled.
A controversy arose about Native language fluency requirements during the November election when it came to light that one of the leading presidential candidates at the time, Chris Deschene, was not a fluent Navajo speaker. Deschene has since been replaced by Russell Begaye, a Navajo Nation Council delegate from Shiprock. Begaye is currently running against former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., who won the contested election in November with just over 21 percent of the votes.
On December 30, the Navajo Nation Council voted to nullify the 2014 Presidential Election, and in the same action established a special run-off election, with the primary in June and the general election in August. The oath of office for the winning candidate will be on September 9.
On December 31, Shelly vetoed legislation for the second time to amend Navajo fluency requirements for presidential candidates. An issue so fundamental, he said, needs to be brought as a referendum to the people.
Abasta said the Navajo Nation Department of Justice has issued a recommendation that Shelly should remain in office until the special election. The current Council disagreed with the recommendations, with some members preferring to have the House Speaker step in as interim president when Shelly’s term expires. So far, there is no official agreement on that aspect of the path forward.