Nearly a dozen file for Navajo Nation’s top job, including Joe Shirley Jr.

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) May 2010

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said he’ll fight any attempt to disqualify his run for a third consecutive term, while a critic contends he is “making a mockery of tribal laws.”

Election officials accepted Shirley’s application May 5, but his candidacy is destined for a challenge. Tribal presidents are limited to two consecutive four-year terms under Navajo law, which Shirley said is unjust.

“The people have a sacred right to elect who they want their leader to be,” he told reporters in Window Rock. “We cannot frustrate the people with laws that are not fair.” 

A recent legal opinion issued by the top attorney for the legislative branch reaffirmed the two term limit, said Tribal Council spokesman Joshua Lavar Butler.

“He (Shirley) heavily criticized the council for breaking the laws, yet today’s action, it really symbolizes hypocrisy,” Butler said. “He is breaking the law. Period. And all of it is for self gain.”

May 5 marked the deadline for Navajo presidential hopefuls to submit their applications to the tribal elections office and pay the $1,500 filing fee. A grievance period follows in which candidates can contest another’s candidacy.

Nearly a dozen people are seeking the post, including Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly and Lynda Lovejoy, who lost out to Shirley in 2006 by about 4,500 votes but surprised most political observers by becoming the first woman to make it through the primary election.

Another woman, Sharon Clahchischilliage, also joined the race and said she expects to face much of the same criticisms based on traditional beliefs about women leading the tribe as Lovejoy did.


“The belief is that it should be a man, but not a woman,” said Clahchischilliage, who most recently led the tribe’s Washington, D.C., office. “The other part of the belief is that we are to help the man, and now is the time because they do need help.”

Dale Mason, an observer of Navajo politics, said Shirley, Shelly and Lovejoy clearly have the name recognition. But with so many candidates in the race, he said, “it’s anybody’s ball game right now.”

Government reform topped Shirley’s list of priorities, while other candidates cited the need for economic development, creating jobs in an area where half the work force is unemployed and restoring harmony to the tribal government at a time when political tensions are high.

Shirley and some tribal lawmakers have been at odds for years and have been in legal battles over Shirley’s efforts to reduce the number of lawmakers and secure a line-item veto. Voters approved those initiatives late last year, but they haven’t been implemented.

Tribal Council delegate and presidential candidate Rex Lee Jim attributes the power struggle to a “lack of clear direction, clear goals.”

Despite the cause, the candidates say it’s time to it to end.

“There’s a great need for reconciliation, because we’re not gaining anything with that dispute,” said Donald Benally, a candidate who served 10 years in federal prison for his role in a 1989 riot in Window Rock.

Another candidate and 32-year employee of the Salt River Project, Dale Tsosie, said: “If the homeland and the home are not in order, everything on top of that is going to be in disarray.”

Some candidates, including Deputy Attorney General Harrison Tsosie and former state Rep. Daniel Peaches, floated the idea of creating a tribal constitution as a way to better define the government and how it should serve the people.

“That’s the only way we have better balance between the legislative and executive,” Peaches said.

The tribe’s primary election is scheduled for Aug. 3. The top two vote-getters select running mates and face off in the Nov. 2 general election.

Division of Community Development Director Arbin Mitchell and Jerry Todacheene of Shiprock, N.M., also are seeking the presidency.