In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?
In the Diné way of life, we share our Navajo name only with medicine in times of ceremony.
Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, with the Navajo flag and seal. Photo by Erny Zah, Navajo Nation; used with permission.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
I am the elected leader of the largest Indian tribal nation in the United States. Our nation is 27,000 square miles, and we have about 320,000 tribal citizens.
My role is to lead our people and guide our government to become more efficient and focused on fulfilling the needs of the Navajo people.
Government is an ever-evolving entity that can always be bettered. I hope that in my time, I have made improvements so the next generation of leaders can guide our government to become even more efficient. We must always keep in mind our children and grandchildren. Much of what we do today will be what they will benefit from, or what they have to overcome. We must be wise with all our decisions.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
I have had many different experiences from childhood through becoming president. My grandmother cared for me when I was a child. When I became an adult, I worked in Chicago and eventually came back to my hometown of Thoreau, New Mexico, where I owned an auto repair shop.
I started running for office after my business lost its contract with the Navajo Nation. I started as a county commissioner for McKinley County and would serve 16 years as a Navajo Council delegate. Six years ago, I was asked to serve as vice president and four years later, I was the first sitting vice president to be elected president of the Navajo Nation.
My experience in life and in government has served me with the knowledge to serve the needs of our Navajo people.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
When it comes to being a leader, I look at the past chiefs, chairmen, and presidents as inspiration.
Our earliest leaders kept future generations in mind as they negotiated treaties. As our government evolved, each set of leaders had their own ideas, but all had the future in mind.
We can’t lose focus on what is important to us as Navajo people. Our language, our culture, our traditions all make us distinct from every other tribe in the world. Our leaders before me understood that, and I hope the future generations will embrace their Diné teachings.
Where is the Navajo Nation located?
The capital of our nation is Window Rock, Arizona. Our nation spans through Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
Where was your nation originally from?
In our traditional stories, we emerged from the third underworld to this world near Dzithlnaodithle, New Mexico. We entered this new world from the third world by rainbow.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
In 2002, the Navajo Nation adopted the Fundamental Laws of the Diné, which formally placed our unwritten Navajo law into Navajo codes. Though the Fundamental Laws can be vague at times, they remind our government of our traditional laws and societal practices.
We also have medicine men associations who will offer advice regarding traditional views of contemporary issues.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
The Navajo Nation is a treaty tribe. The Treaty of 1868 established our reservation and released the Navajo people from captivity in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Our people cried tears of joy upon their return to Dinetah, and here we continue to flourish as a tribal nation.
Approximately how many members are in your nation?
According to our Vital Statistics Office, we have about 320,000 members and about 175,000 live on the Navajo Nation.
What are the criteria to become a member?
Our citizenship is distinguished by blood quantum. A person has to be at least one-quarter Navajo descent to be enrolled as a Navajo citizen.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
We have many communities that still speak our language, though the percentages of fluent speakers have decreased over the years. Nonetheless, about 30 to 40 percent of households speak Navajo fluently. We are actively teaching the Navajo language in classes from preschool through college.
What economic enterprises does your nation own?
We have a few enterprises. We have our Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, which is charged with oil and gas development on the Navajo Nation. We have Navajo Arts and Craft, which helps market and sell our Navajo crafts. We have the Navajo Times, our tribal newspaper.
Our newest possible enterprise, Navajo Transitional Energy Company, is working to acquire a coalmine that is on the Navajo Nation. The acquisition would open many opportunities for the Navajo Nation and put the Navajo Nation in a global market for coal.
What annual events does your nation sponsor?
We have several events that our tribal offices sponsor throughout the year. We have our Navajo Nation Fair in September; we average about 15,000 attendees per day during the five-day fair. And we have a Fourth of July Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo in Window Rock.
We also have smaller events and fairs that communities sponsor, including the Northern Agency Navajo Fair. Although it has been recognized as a fair for 103 years, the Northern Agency Navajo Fair has served as a gateway for harvest-time trading and the beginning of the season for one of our most sacred ceremonies—the Ye’ii Bi Cheii Ceremony.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
The Navajo Nation has been blessed with some of the most scenic lands in the world. Our nation encompasses the most eastern gorges of the Grand Canyon. We have Antelope Canyon Tribal Park, which has some of the most incredible natural sandstone colors anywhere in the world.
We also have Canyon de Chelly, a U.S. National Monument. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, including Navajo families who still use the canyon floors for livestock and crops.
Then we have Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which is our most famous tribal park and has visitors from around the world. Countless westerns have used the backdrop of the park to set majestic, wide-open scenes. And most recently movies like The Lone Ranger and Transformers 4 have filmed scenes at the tribal park.
How is your government set up?
The Navajo Nation has a three-branch government similar to that of the United States. I serve as the president of the Navajo Nation, our legislative branch has 24 council delegates, and our Navajo Nation Supreme Court has a three-member body.
We also have local governments called chapters. Each chapter has officers the local voters elect every four years.
How often are national elected leaders chosen?
The Navajo people vote for the president and council delegates every four years.
How often does your national council meet?
The Navajo Nation Council meets at least four times a year, every three months. They may also call special sessions to deal with pertinent issues. We have standing committees that meet throughout the year as well.
How does the Navajo Nation deal with the U.S./Canada as a sovereign nation?
We are fortunate to have a large land base and a large population. That has set the tone for negotiations, meetings, and agreements with county, state, and federal agencies, including other tribal nations. We understand that we have a government-to-government relationship with other governments, and we meet with them accordingly.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your nation?
To our youth, don’t forget who you are and where you came from. Being Navajo is the gift that the Holy Ones has given us. The Holy People gave us the teachings to live in our surroundings. The mountains, bodies of water, and places throughout our homeland have their own names, songs, and prayers, and those prayers and songs serve as the unrelenting strength of our people. We can’t ever forget who we are.
Other interviews in this series:
Councilman Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman
Title banner, from left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.