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The Bizarre Election Scandal Unfolding in Navajo Nation

A (mostly) sovereign nation the size of Iceland inside the US is experiencing some political volatility this week, after their president was just sworn in despite getting trounced in the most recent election.
Via Google Maps

Last week, in a bizarre turn of events that capped off a campaign season marred by controversy and scandal, incumbent Ben Shelly was inaugurated as the president of the Navajo Nation despite losing the election badly.

Shelly came in at a bruising seventh place in the primary, winning about 5 percent of the vote, and wasn't even a candidate in the general election. He's staying in office thanks only to an intense disagreement over a requirement that the president speak fluent Navajo. The tribal council recently passed a bill eliminating that stipulation, allowing popular candidate Chris Deschene to run, but earlier this month Shelly vetoed that bill, sparking outrage among his opponents.


"President Shelly, I don't know what he was thinking," Navajo Nation Election Board Commissioner Wallace Charley told a local TV news station at the time, adding "I'm very disappointed in him."

After Deschene was disqualified, he posted a status on Facebook that said, "It's time to challenge the decisions made by an unqualified hearing officer and a few members who have disregarded the will of the people."

Since Deschene was one of the two candidates who had made it through to the general (the other was former president Joe Shirley), the single-candidate contest was postponed thanks to a bill passed by the tribal council and signed by Shelly.

That bill is being enforced for the moment, although Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne, two former presidential candidates, aren't taking it lying down: They filed a motion before the Navajo Supreme Court on Monday that, if upheld, will find those who enforce that bill in contempt of court. Their plan is to hold the election on the date already set by the judiciary: January 31—11 days from now.

Though it sounds on the surface as if Shelly is taking advantage of a confusing situation, Rick Abasta, the communications director for the president's office, thinks the press is guilty of "creating sympathy with a candidate that was disqualified from the ballot," referring to Deschene. "It is our responsibility to ensure we share factual information about our tribe with the rest of the world," he told me in an email, adding that when something sensational shows up in the media,"that's when people start paying attention."


Even without this latest court battle over the election, however, Shelly is extremely unpopular among the tribe he's currently leading. In 2010, when he was a presidential candidate, he was investigated for misappropriation of tribal funds and was accused of applying for discretionary payouts on multiple occasions, then using his powers as a lawmaker to approve his own requests—essentially giving away the government's money to himself and his family members. He wasn't found guilty of a crime, but he wound up having to pay back the money.

Late last year, he attracted controversy by allowing himself to be photographed next to Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington DC football team, wearing a hat with the team's logo on it. Shelly has also come out against forcing the team to change its controversial name, which can be used as a racist slur, and had recently inked a lucrative deal to sell genuine Navajo souvenirs at FedEx Field. One Native American group on Facebook called him an "apple" and an "uncle tomahawk," adding that "many are so assimilated and mentally colonized that they no longer see insult and disrespect when it slaps them in the face!"

Navajos elsewhere on Facebook seemed less worried about the logo, and more concerned about his time spent away from the office. One Navajo named Tery Dee dismissed him as a lame duck, and asked, "What the hell is this fool… doing at a football game while over the weekend [a] Navajo Nation police officer was shot in the line of duty?"


The Navajo Nation is American's largest reservation and is spread across sections of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Like other reservations, it has its own government and infrastructure; it's larger than ten US states and has a population of around 300,000. The Navajo economy is seriously struggling, with the unemployment rate at 52 percent in September. The tribe has the same meth problem that plagues the rest of the Southwest, and a murder rate above the national average. All that's to say, this is a place that really, really doesn't need an election to turn into a political disaster.

Rough geographic footprint of Navajo Nation

An editorial in Thursday's Farmington Daily Times wrote that democracy on Navajo Nation "appears to be on a destructive path," adding that the "long, strange election season has been marred [by] courtroom theatrics, legal maneuvering and voter fatigue—and there's no end in sight."

Abasta says that Shelly's continued presidency is necessary, even if it's unpopular. "A dissenting opinion from the Legislative Counsel said the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council be installed as interim president," he said. But he argued that nonetheless, "the fact that [the president and vice president] were both elected by the people cannot be contested, and according to the Navajo Nation Code, they will officially be relieved when the next president is elected and takes the oath of office."

Unless the election is moved up—and surely anything is possible at this point—Shelly will most likely be in office for at least the next eight months. The election process has to begin all over again, and the new primary is scheduled for June 2, with the general election coming on August 4. Shelly might well run, but at this point it's hard to imagine who, beyond a group of die-hard supporters, could be persuaded to vote for him.

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