Navajo Nation voters had the opportunity today to elect Abilene Christian University graduate Dr. Joe Shirley Jr. (’73) to a record third term of office as president.
But late-breaking drama in the process has caused the election to be postponed until its executive, legislative and judicial leaders can sort out the pieces of a disagreement over the importance of their native language.
The most populous Native American tribe in the United States (more than 300,000 enrolled members) used ballots today listing the names of Shirley and Chris Deschene as presidential candidates – among other races on the ballot – but the presidential votes will not be counted, according to the Navajo Times.
The Navajo Nation Supreme Court recently declared the Board of Election supervisors in contempt of court for not removing Deschene’s name and postponing the election after it was determined he did not meet the tribe’s requirement to demonstrate fluency in the Diné language. The Navajo Nation Council voted on a proposal to change that longstanding election law but current Navajo president Ben Shelly vetoed the measure.
“We are a nation of laws. I took an oath to uphold the law,” Shelly said the next day in explaining his veto. He lost in primary elections earlier this year and will see his presidency end in 2015 after one term. “Every society has an obligation to hold on to their traditions. If we lose our language and culture, who are we?”
Shelly’s question is not purely rhetorical. Forward-thinking Native American tribal leaders struggle with how to preserve their traditional culture while transitioning to 21st-century opportunities for their people, many of whom wrestle with chronic social problems related to low per-capita income in the government-designated lands where they live. Many Navajo reside in 27,000 square miles of territory spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The government capital is in Window Rock, Ariz., part of sprawling Apache County.
Shirley was president from 2003-11 but had to step aside because Navajo law prohibited its leader from more than two consecutive four-year terms of office. When it was determined that Shirley was eligible for a third term as long as it didn’t violate the consecutive terms rule, he listened to tribal leaders and other supporters who encouraged him to run again for the 2014 election. While sitting out one presidential election cycle, he was re-elected to a former role as Apache County supervisor.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Abilene Christian, with minors in Bible and English, and a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University. Shirley received ACU’s Distinguished Alumni Citation in 2007 and has a long track record of public service to the Navajo. He lives in Chinle, Ariz., with Vicki, his wife of 23 years. They have six children, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.