Q&A with Navajo Nation presidential election candidates

Presidential candidates from left: Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye

Presidential candidates from left: Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye

Russell Begaye

What is the biggest issue facing the Navajo Nation and how will you address it?

Begaye: I believe it's unemployment, if the United States had 50 percent unemployment we would be in a great, great depression and the Navajo Nation is. We are in that situation where, overall 50 percent unemployment, but in some communities it's as high as 80 percent unemployment. And for any community in the world 80 percent unemployment is something that would be a really negative statistic, but for us we just seem like we take it for granted. We just see it as a norm and it's really, to me, an unhealthy perspective that our leaders and our people have, is thinking that this many people being unemployed is normal and it is absolutely not. And we've lived with it for years and if you look at the Navajo Nation budget, and I served on the council the last four years, and through budget hearings, I have every year's budget in the last four years, including 2016, the new budget that in 2015 was voted in. And the economic development budget, every single year, has been the lowest of all the visions and programs that we have. And so we say it's a priority, and we hear that, but year after year it remains the same. So for us and since I come from a business background and my running mate, Jonathan Nez, is very well experienced.

So I believe that for us to address this, what we are saying, what I'm saying, is that we need to produce a product that we buy from the outside. And that's really significant, because we buy millions and millions of dollars worth of products, equipment and things like that. So the monies keep going out of the Nation, creating employment for communities outside, creating sustainability for communities off the Navajo Nation, we ourselves are not doing that.

So we created an office within our structure, the president structure that will work with all of our enterprises, corporations and divisions, in establishing manufacturing plants on the Nation. And to put that in areas where there's a significant amount of labor force and we're talking about places like Pinyon, Dilkon, Pueblo Pintado, places like that out there and Shonto and those places.

And also you look at Navajo Agriculture Products Industry (NAPI), our big farm, they produce a lot of food products like beans and flour and potatoes and just tons and tons of hay, so the containers for the beans, potatoes and the flour sacks and the twine used to hold the hay together, all of those we can produce right here on the Navajo Nation. There is absolutely no reason why we should buy those products off the Nation, because we have people that are very skilled in making these products.

So those are just two examples and then you go expand. So we keep our money here, we employ our people and that's the first step that's where we start.

We have a lot of food stands on the road sides and our people are really good at that. Just a simple building, a strip mall, in various places throughout the Navajo Nation, these people that sell of the road, they can utilize those buildings like that, and people that want to sell jewelry, things like that. We just haven't really done anything to initiate small businesses. And so this office that we've created for lack of a better term, is gonna be a chief operating officer, for now, but it's a Nation wide collaboration of all of these enterprises, with the goal of starting businesses. And so the report card for every division and program will be, on a monthly basis, how many jobs have you created?

So creating jobs, to me, is something that I feel we have a real legitimate, doable plan on how to do that, because I've never seen this type of plan pulled together by anybody as long as I've been on the Nation. And these are types of things that Jonathan Nez and I bring to the table. It's new leadership, new ideas, new direction, but we're using what we already have, we're not trying to create something new, we just taking what we already have and expanding on their capacity and their capability.

The western side of the Navajo reservation still suffers from lack of basic needs - water, electricity, infrastructure - and many people feel they don't get support from Window Rock. How are you going to support the people here in their basic quality of life?

Begaye: Well, when they tell me, when they say that they're the forgotten people, that describes the western part of the Navajo Nation. They are the forgotten people, and it goes all the way back to the day when our people were forced into buses and they were taken to Window Rock, just out at Veteran's Park, and we talking about not just a few hundred, but we're talking about several thousand. And our government turned it's back on the people that were displaced from western, because our government said you're not our responsibility, the federal government created this, it's their responsibility and we have continued to have a lot of homeless people that came out of that.

So it was always this attitude, that whole region, that whole area, the Bennet Freeze area, the Navajo and Hopi Land dispute areas, and this attitude of federal government, "you created the mess, you fix it," and so we just kind of withdrew from really helping our people, they are our people. I mean they may be displaced, they may have been forgotten and the land may have different kinds of status in terms of restricting them from developing that whole area, putting infrastructure in place, those types of things. And so that attitude because of the old guard having that same mentality in people that have sat in these offices, first as council delegates and then they were elected into the president's office, they carried that mentality from back then in the 70s when it occurred and that same mentality is still the attitude, the unspoken policy is still in place.

But where Jonathan Nez, ya know Jonathan's family came out of that area, came out of an area where his family was transferred, his family's land was transferred to the Hopis and so they're part of these displaced people. And he served, I know in the last council, probably previously too, on the Navajo Hopi Land Commission and so every opportunity that he had he always amended the appropriation, legislations to put monies into some of these places, among the whole western area. And I've supported it every time the legislation came up. I voted for it and I let people out there know. I think that's why a lot of leaders out there always call on me when I was in council to see what I can do in appropriating more dollars out that way, for housing infrastructure, roads and small businesses startups and things like that.

These are our people and we need to come along side them and start implementing a master plan, a master plan for the entire region. And you know this is one of the most over studied regions of the Navajo Nation. Universities have studied it, commissions have studied it, Congress has studied it, and we have, I'm sure, reams and reams of notebook that probably says what needs to be done. But in terms of actually seeing something happen and putting monies into it, I just don't see it, I mean I've not seen it. And the people out there, they've not seen it.

And so our policy, and I've said this on the air, is that the forgotten people, you will not be forgotten. And make the statement that the Bennet Freeze, they tell us was unfrozen, but you go out there and I say to the people it froze again. Because there's nothing that's being done out there that's helping the people in terms of building roads, putting water lines, electricity, building homes and putting together a plan that will help develop businesses.

The water settlement on the New Mexico Side, the San Juan River Water Settlement, we use less than half of what's been allocated to us. So the rest is just flowing down stream and being used by cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson and beyond. And so we need to pipe that water that we're not using to western to develop and sustain the farms out there. There's displaced people in Winslow, the forgotten people around Gray Falls and that whole area and there are other people. So these groups are wanting to do something but no funds. So um...I believe with Jonathan's really clear knowledge on what needs to be done and the things that have been attempted we can really help impact that area.

I'm saying to the people and individuals that we've interviewed that we need to transition from the concept of servicing the displaced people and transition from the mentality of "sorry we moved you off your land and gave it to the Hopis and now we're gonna try and help stabilize your living conditions." To move from that mentality to let's redevelop our land and be aggressive. It's really a significant change in policy, from servicing the displaced people, the impacted people, to actually getting out there and putting in place a really legitimate plan, a viable plan to bring businesses in.

So in all this, we have not gone after the water that's under our land and some of the water, most of the water is very pristine water and I just don't understand why, the Nation, we have not aggressively drilled wells, like cities around us are doing, and taking water out of these aquifers. So we had the whole thing on the water settlement issue, the 2109 Senate bill, now the key element of that Senate bill, was that is we agree to the settlement they were gonna drill wells and draw water from ground water and pipe it to different communities. So the federal government is telling us you have water and you have significant amounts that can be drawn out and piped to communities and the price tag on that was $199 million. And we just had a settlement of $554 million and we have other dollars and there are other funding sources that we can go after. So if the federal government and mainly the congressional body is telling us that we have this amount of water that we can utilize for our people on western, that's a lesson and an opportunity that we have yet to take advantage of. So western can have the water that they need and it's just everybody's hauling water out there and there's no sense when we have plenty of it and we're not going after it.

How do you manage the $554 million and what issue/needs will you address with that money?

Begaye: Well, one thing about Navajo Nation is that the way we use our monies, our funds is that we created this financial system that perpetuates poverty, and I said this on the floor of the council, I said we, by our actions and through legislation and the things that we do we ourselves continually perpetuate poverty on our Nation. Simply because we spend everything that comes in, we don't turn the dollar over, and it's like you get a check and the next thing you know you're out there buying a vehicle, TV's and all this other stuff and at the end of the day you're left with nothing.

But there's the next day and so now you're looking for monies again that you're gonna spend on day two, so you're always out there looking for monies to spend. And the $554 million, I believe, is a great opportunity for our Nation to quadruple that amount by just putting together a really clearly defined financial system, which we don't have. And so one of the things that I appreciate about Jonathan Nez and something I've been talking about since I became council or even before that is that we need to become a lending tribe. We need to establish a really strong financial institution on the Nation.

Meaning that we call ourselves a Nation, but we don't have a single bank.

And part of that managing is lending to our people when they buy vehicles, trailers and also to our enterprises. Because the monies that you get from federal they're all on reimbursable agreements, meaning that well we gonna give you $80 million to build houses, well they're not gonna give you $80 million upfront, you have to build the houses first then you're reimbursed by the federal government. And just thinking about the judicial complexes that we built at Tuba, Crown Point, now Chinle, we borrowed $60 million from Key Bank and we're expanding that to $90 million, but the finance charges, the interest on all of that is huge. And all of our enterprises do the same thing. So having our own bank we can loan money to our enterprises, we can loan money to individuals and we can invest our monies so to me becoming a lending tribe I believe will bring us the financial stability that we need for years to come.

So to me again going back to the dollars that we get let's handle that manage it in a way that we keep turning the dollar over, I think that's critical. That's a really key concept for our administration for Jonathan and I, because everybody else knows, and especially delegates, that if they don't bring projects home, I think they call it the pork, something like that, if they don't bring it home their job's on the line, and they may just get another person put in there place saying well you haven't done a thing for us so goodbye. So the mentality on that side is always spend, spend, spend even if you don't have it keep on spending so when we came in from the 21st or 22nd Council, we were in the red, I mean we were in the deficit in the millions and we took the first settlement that we received and I served on that negotiation team. Again just turning the dollar over, that's what we're about.

How do you unify the Navajo Nation after this tumultuous election season?

Begaye: Well I think it's simple, when you start bringing jobs to the Nation when people start seeing that this is a team that's bringing change to the nation and they're embracing everybody. Ya know people follow results, because the big complaint from our constituents, as elected leaders is, "you guys don't do anything for the Nation, you guys steal money, you guys do things just for yourselves, you don't do anything for the people." And so this whole thing about, in this case Chris Deschene, is that it didn't matter what kind of a platform he had, if any, because to me, when I'm running against people I study who they are, their platforms and I see what they're saying. Very general statements, it's all memorized stuff, no really tangible plans were in place by Chris Deschene, but the thing is our people wanted somebody new. Because they felt by having somebody new, they may bring new ideas that will really impact the Nation, because everybody else has had their turn and they tried and we're still in the situation that we're in, economically and with our lack of infrastructure and so forth. It didn't matter who the person was, they wanted someone new that they believed would bring new ideas and start to see changes.

So it's not so much the person, I don't think, but it was just the hopeful attitude in the Nation that we need new ideas, new leadership, maybe just maybe they'll bring real change. So it doesn't matter who's elected and if that person is able to bring real tangible sustainable change, it's not gonna take very long for the people to come back together.

So this whole thing about the election, the chaos there, I think a lot of it is just being perpetuated by certain members of council and not really listening to the majority of the people out there and they just need to, well they're just prone to gravitate to anything that's controversial.

Like Leonard Tsosie, over four years I know he's introduced less that five legislations and a person like me over 100 plus legislations I've introduced or cosponsored. But in four years he hasn't legislated much of anything, I would say it's less than five. And now since this controversy started, he's introduced, probably, more legislation than any legislator and it's all to perpetuate this chaos, not to build communities, not to build houses, not to put in water lines, especially out in his area where that need exists, the oil boom and the fracking issues, the contamination that has taken place out there, all of those issues is not being dealt with.

And I think our people are getting to the point, a couple of weeks ago I think, when I really start hearing the people that are the mainstay, the backbone of this Nation, that vote every time there's an election for somebody, and I start seeing the restlessness and they were being agitated and I have felt that when you agitate the backbone of the Navajo Nation you're asking for trouble. Something similar happened in 1989, I understand. And so I felt us moving in that direction, until the Supreme Court made this final decision, that the election will take place on the (April) 21st and now I'm starting to see people getting excited about voting for somebody.

And I'm telling people, just vote for me, vote for Joe Shirley, it doesn't matter just get out there and exercise this privilege, about being able to select a leader. And in many ways I've really felt disappointed in some of our leaders telling our elders not to vote and I don't know if they understand the history behind people working hard, blood, sweat and tears for them to have the ability to vote beginning with the women and the African Americans and finally Native Americans. And also I don't know if they understand what they're saying when they tell people not to vote. It's a violation of their civil rights, it's just wrong to me. Individually, you can decide whether you vote or not that's your business, but don't go around almost to the point of harassing people that are defenseless and telling them not to vote, it's just wrong.

The reason why I'm saying this is because I have a couple of elders that came up to me and that's what they expressed, is that they're afraid to vote. Well you shouldn't be afraid to vote. Well they're telling us that if we do vote there's certain things that may happen to us and we just don't want to deal with that. And it's just unsettling for anyone to put that kind of thought into the minds of people that are defenseless, it's nonsense. That's why I'm really happy that we are gonna finally vote, and that the people will finally vote on the president and the majority, the large majority of people have yet to vote for president and I don't think people realize that.

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