Twenty-three men and one woman on Tuesday took the oath of office as delegates of the 23rd Navajo Nation Council.
The delegates, 11 incumbents and 13 newcomers, were sworn into office during an inauguration ceremony at the Fighting Scouts Events Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Newly elected members of the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors and the Navajo Board of Education also took the oath of office in front of tribal, county, state and federal officials – and hundreds of witnesses.
Navajo President Ben Shelly, who attended part of the inauguration, was sworn in Tuesday during a private ceremony, along with Vice President Rex Lee Jim. The two will serve unprecedented extended terms until a presidential election is held or an interim president is named.
Council Speaker Pro Tem LoRenzo Bates, who spoke to his fellow delegates before they were sworn in, thanked them for their willingness to serve.
“You have chosen a path that undoubtedly will be filled with challenges, but also one that presents many opportunities to help our children, families, elderly, veterans and many others that seek a better life for their loved ones,” he said. “Each of us has been given an honor – an honor bestowed upon us by our people and our communities through the casting of their ballots to represent them and to serve them. It is an honor that comes with great adversity, growth and success.”
The delegates include former police officers, teachers, veterans, youth mentors, spiritual leaders and policy analysts, Bates said. Addressing his colleagues, he said he is confident the diverse backgrounds, working collectively, “will deliver prosperity to our Nation.”
The inauguration ceremony came as questions continue to linger about who will serve as the tribe’s eighth president. Seventeen candidates competed in the August primary election, and voters selected Joe Shirley Jr., the tribe’s only two-term president, and newcomer Chris Deschene to face off during the November election.
Shortly after the primary, former candidates challenged Deschene’s language fluency, prompting the Navajo Supreme Court to disqualify him and order third-place finisher Russell Begaye to take Deschene’s place on the ballot. But ongoing legal challenges and the Council’s attempts to pass legislation relaxing the fluency requirement have put the election in limbo for the last two months.
Just days before the inauguration, Shelly signed a resolution calling for a special run-off election to take place June 2, followed by a general election August 4. The new president will take the oath of office on September 9, 2015. The resolution also allocated $317,000 to fund the elections.
“It is in the best interest of the Navajo people that we give the thousands of voters a new opportunity to choose their leaders,” Shelly said in a prepared statement.
The Council and Shelly came to an agreement January 10 that allows Shelly to remain in office at least until the Council convenes for its regular Winter Session, which begins January 26. The executive and legislative branches also agreed to meet before the Winter Session to discuss the “best interest” of the Navajo Nation.
The 24 Council delegates who took office Tuesday inherit a “seemingly impossible task,” Jennifer Denetdale, associate professor at the University of New Mexico, said during her inaugural address.
“You will deal with, and you have dealt with unrelenting poverty,” she said. That includes a 50-percent unemployment rate, homelessness and “all manners of social ills.”
Denetdale also called attention to historic loss of land, displacement of people, alienation from government leaders and a lack of viable infrastructure. Further, 75 cents of every Navajo dollar leaves the reservation in favor of businesses in border towns, she said.
In her speech, Denetdale touched on several sensitive issues, including “unrelenting racism,” a dependence on the federal government, the need to protect sacred sites, the controversy of energy development and the importance of including more women in leadership roles. She called on all elected leaders to stand up to inequalities.
“We are not a minority within the United States,” she said. “We are the citizens of our own sovereign nation.”