The Bureau of Indian Affairs has outlived its usefulness. The San Juan County Navajos are justified in demanding an accounting as to how Indian monies have been spent. And government has a moral responsibility to help the tribe climb out of the poverty that has plagued the reservation for generations.
Those were among several observations made Friday by Peterson Zah, newly elected president of the Navajo Nation, who was in Salt Lake City on Friday to participate in Native American Awareness Week and to meet with Gov. Norm Bangerter to discuss a cooperative agreement between the Navajo Nation and Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.Eight years ago while tribal chairman, Zah had a similar agreement with then-Gov. Scott Matheson and the governors of Arizona and New Mexico. Now he would like to see the governors of the three states - all with substantial portions of the Navajo Reservation within their boundaries - sit down at the same table with him in open and unrestrained dialogue.
"We ought to discuss our problems without resorting to the federal courts to resolve our disputes," Zah said. "Leaders of government can sit down in one day and iron out all our problems."
Among the problems he would like to see resolved: duplication of services, the need for more American Indians to attend universities and the need for more Indians in leadership positions in county and state governments.
"Some see it as the wrong thing for Navajos to do (be involved in politics)," he said, "but darn it, I was taught to be involved."
Zah's comment's came during an address to the Hinckley Institute of Politics, wherein he noted the Navajo Nation is rising above the political turmoil that has besieged the reservation since the indictment and conviction of former tribal chairman Peter MacDonald.
Of the "good things to come from that," Zah said the most important has been political reform, including the divestiture of authority in a single tribal chairman, and instead dividing that authority among newly created judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. Zah is the first president to be elected under the reformed system.
Unsettled conditions on the reservation have prompted a lot of suggestions from outsiders on how the Navajos should deal with their problems. But Zah was emphatic when he said the Navajo Nation is a sovereign nation and only Navajos should solve those problems.
"We are the only ones with a legitimate role in correcting the problem," he said.
Among those with an increasing voice in correcting the problem are younger Navajos, whom Zah credited with spurring much of the reform currently under way in tribal government. These younger Navajos are pressuring tribal leadership to consider such issues as the Navajo Nation becoming a state or commonwealth, and the creation of a written constitution.
He also encouraged Utah universities to take a greater role in creating Native American centers, or cultural refuges, for Indian students who go on to college, "a place they can identify with so that they can get the knowledge and training they need to go back to the reservation."
Zah noted the irony of Secretary of State James Baker's comments that the United States should now help rebuild a destroyed Iraq. The Navajo people also were destroyed by the American government, but the reservation still lacks roads, water development and other basic services like electricity and power.
"We need a basic infrastructure," he said. "Our statistics are terrible: 34 percent unemployment, a 50 percent dropout rate, no decent housing. Some areas (of the reservation) have had no development at all in 30 years."
But he also wants tribal control. "One of the things the Indian people got to have is to be able to run its own tribal government its own way, and we call that the Indian way," he said.