WINDOW ROCK -- The branch chiefs of the Navajo Nation made a rare joint public appearance on Aug. 16, to sign an important proclamation declaring Sept. 8 a day of recognition and respect for individuals with disabilities.
With about 40 people looking on, the signing ceremony took place at the beautifully restored Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Land Office Building. The 59th annual Navajo Nation Fair is scheduled for Sept. 5 to 11.
The highlight of Sept. 8 will be an exceptional children's rodeo, complete with mock rodeo events, at the 59th Annual Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock. Professional Indian cowboys and cowgirls, including John Boyd, Jr., Ruth Bitsui and Edision Bitsui, will guide children through such events as Kidz Kowboy Roping, Lickety Split Barrel Racing, Horse Grooming and Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo.
The recognition of Navajos with disabilities is so significant that Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan, President Joe Shirley, Vice President Frank Dayish and Chief Justice Herb Yazzie each attended the morning ceremony to show their support for the event, which is a first for the Navajo Nation.
The rodeo planning committee credited Council Delegate George Arthur with initiating the project. Arthur is also the Resources Committee Chairperson and a Navajo Nation Fair Commissioner.
"The theme coming forth always said it was the Navajo people's fair. Historically, it was a gathering where the Navajo people renewed friendship and visited with neighbors. As years went by, it became apparent there was very little activity, in fact none, for individuals who have limitations," Arthur said.
Arthur said that after speaking with fellow Resources Committee members and other individuals, they decided that the time for just talking about such an event was over. It was time to start planning. It was time to welcome and embrace Navajos with disabilities during the Navajo Nation Fair.
"We are indeed blessed to have such individuals in our society," Arthur continued. "We should give them the opportunity to have what we take for granted every day."
Edison Bitsui called the event "the missing piece of the puzzle all these years." He added that many people, himself included, would value the event.
"It's wonderful that this year is going to commemorate that we will embrace these children in the Navajo Nation Fair rodeo arena. Rodeo is not about winning prizes. It's about people," Gloria Grant, a planning committee member, said.
Ruth Bitsoi, another of the planning committee members, added, "This is an opportunity for us as contestants in the rodeo community to give back in a special way. Every person in the rodeo community who has heard of the event wants to help. The very idea touches our hearts."
John Boyd, Jr., also a planning committee member, recalled how he held a team roping school in Leupp one year where he noticed an exceptional child walking around wanting to be a team roper.
"This boy had a rope. He got in line with the other students. He wanted to be treated equally," Boyd said.
By the next day, the boy was on a horse and trying his hand at roping.
"He had questions. He had drive. On Sept. 8, there is going to be a lot of kids who have that drive," Boyd said.
Marcella King, who is also on the planning committee, reminded everyone to be mindful of parents and family members who must care for individuals with disabilities.
"Just like any parent, they love their child and dream that someday their child can become independent, successful and be a contributing member of society. But most importantly, they desire their child to be treated with dignity and respect," King said.
She added that it takes individuals, families, communities and an entire nation to make those dreams a reality.
"The Navajo Nation leaders acknowledge that the needs of individuals with disabilities go beyond providing basic needs such as health, education and transportation. There are issues of cognitive and physical development, including communication, social and emotional development," King said. "For that reason, the Navajo Nation seeks opportunities to make the world a better place for all children."
President Shirley expressed his appreciation to Chairman Arthur, the Navajo
Nation Fair and the Exceptional Rodeo Planning Committee for creating this day for Navajo people who deserve recognition and respect.
"These are our relatives, our children, who are disabled in some fashion, and it does good to recognize them and what they bring into our families," he said. "This is the way it should be."
Despite the needs, requirements and emergencies involved in running a government, children remain a special priority of his administration, he said. Whenever school children arrive at his office on a school tour, he takes time out of his schedule to visit with them in his receiving room.
When they grow up, they may not remember who the President was when they were in first or third grade, but they will remember visiting the Navajo president, hearing him talk to them and seeing his huge office.
Among the disabled of the Navajo people are those returning from foreign wars, the President said. He asked those gathered for the proclamation signing never to forget that a war is now underway, and that many children may have fathers or mothers return to them with disabilities because of it.
"These are the people protecting our country and freedom," he said. "If you know of one of them, reach out."
Speaker Morgan said that he would like to see the exceptional children's rodeo become an annual event at the fair.
"Rodeo has a lot of opportunities for people of all ages including exceptional children. They have been in our life cycle from the beginning, and it is worth recognizing them at the Navajo Nation Fair," the speaker said.
Vice President Dayish said the proclamation bestowed honor on deserving Navajo citizens.
"We're talking about valuing human dignity," he said. "We need to ensure they're brought to the forefront."
He told a family story of one of his young nieces with a disability who put on someone else's much too large cowboy boots and hat, shuffled out to a round pen where an active stallion was kept and began to drive it around as she1d seen the trainers do.
No harm came to her, the Vice President said, and never once did she think this was something she was incapable of doing. Instead, it demonstrated that while there may be some physical limitations, there are few to one1s heart and desire.
"Everyone went out there and she had control of that stallion," he said. "I stand side-by-side with you," he told the Exceptional Rodeo committee members.
During the ceremony, the artists who won the logo design competition for the rodeo were introduced. Nate Tsosie, from Page, Ariz., and Cameron Billy, from Shiprock, N.M., placed fourth; Erica Lynn Begay from Bluff, Utah placed third; Jerome Tso, from Tsaile, Ariz., placed second; and Lucian Anthony placed first.
"I myself have been touched by these people," Anthony said. "When I heard about this, I told myself 'You got to participate in this contest,' because we are all touched by the disabled."
George Arthur agreed, saying "I will be a complete person in mind and spirit to have been a part of this project and I will have been blessed to be a part of this."
The planning committee is asking for volunteers and donations to make the first ever exceptional children's rodeo a success. For more information on doing so, please contact Ruth Bitsui by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-844-5196. You may also contact, Marcella King at email@example.com; Clarina Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 928-755-1107; or John Boyd at email@example.com.
(Karen Francis is Public Information Officer for the Navajo Nation office of the Speaker. George Hardeen, Navajo Nation Communications Director, also contributed to this story.)