Alexa Rogals / The Daily Times / AP Photo

Navajo Nation president sworn in after contentious race

Former Navajo Nation Council member Russell Begaye sets forth economic development agenda, pledges to protect language

The new president of the Navajo Nation was sworn in on Tuesday after an election delayed for five months by a dispute over a rival's language ability, and he vowed to uphold the nation's culture and sovereignty while putting forth a pro-business agenda.

Businessman and former Navajo Nation Council member Russell Begaye won the leadership of the largest U.S. Native American tribe after a contentious race last month that was dominated by controversy over a rule that presidential candidates be fluent in Navajo.

In his inaugural address, Begaye spoke of his desire to protect a language steeped in tradition and value.

“Let's not ever be ashamed of speaking Navajo again as we move forward on this awakening of a new dawn,” said Begaye, who drew repeatedly on his campaign slogan, “Awakening of a New Dawn,” when speaking after he took the oath of office in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

He signed an agreement that includes moving forward with a tram — the controversial Grand Canyon Escalade project — that would shuttle tourists from cliff tops to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and other projects he agreed with his predecessor Ben Shelly to push forward. On the list is a rail port that would export crops and coal from the reservation and the pursuit of clean coal technology.

Shelly has touted the tram as an opportunity to capture tourist dollars and create jobs for Navajos.

Begaye himself has expressed concerns about the plan, saying too many Navajo laws would have to be waived to move the project forward and that the tribe needs more of an ownership stake. He also said earlier this year that he recognizes the sharp divisions among Navajos regarding the project.

The Navajo Nation Council would have the first say in whether to approve the project, but legislation has not been introduced.

Opponents say the project is bound to be challenged in court. The project is proposed outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park.

Begaye has said that economic development will be one of his top priorities, focusing mostly on manufacturing plants that could be set up across the reservation and that could entice other businesses. He told the inauguration crowd that the Navajo Nation needs to assert control over its minerals, secure water rights and be able to prosecute non-Indians for all crimes on the reservation in order to be a true sovereign nation.

Vice President Jonathan Nez focused his speech on “monsters” known as depression, suicide, obesity, poverty, greed and apathy. He said creativity will lead to solutions to those and other problems that have long plagued the Navajo Nation.

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