Russell Begaye was sworn in Tuesday as president of the Navajo Nation, agreeing to support several of his predecessor’s projects including an aerial tram at the east rim of the Grand Canyon and a rail port that could export agriculture and coal from the reservation.
Begaye easily beat former two-term President Joe Shirley Jr. in a special election last month for the post on the country’s largest American Indian reservation. He succeeds Ben Shelly, who served an extended term while challenges surrounding the election played out in court.
Begaye and Shelly stood together on stage during the inauguration ceremony in Fort Defiance and signed a document that outlines eight projects Begaye agreed to push forward.
Among them is the Grand Canyon Escalade, a controversial project that would ferry tourists from cliff tops on the Navajo Nation to the edge of the Colorado River just before it meets the Little Colorado River; a rail port that could export crops and coal from the reservation; and the pursuit of clean coal technology, according to the agreement obtained by The Associated Press.
In an interview earlier this year, Begaye said he had concerns about waivers of law that would be needed to move the Escalade project forward, the Navajo Nation’s ownership stake, and divisions the project has caused among Navajos.
Legislation for the project has not been introduced in the Navajo Nation Council. If approved, the development group that includes former Navajo President Albert Hale, now an Arizona state representative, said operations could start in May 2018 or 2019.
“If the president is true to his word about job creation, economic opportunity, I think this is the way to do it,” Hale said.
The Hopi Tribe, the National Park Service and some Navajos oppose the project that would be built outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park.
Renae Yellowhorse, who is part of the Save the Confluence group, said she trusts that Begaye will protect sacred sites in the area but doesn’t support developing the reach of the Grand Canyon where her family lives.
“We just have to talk to him and his administration, his people and see what the reasoning is behind it and we’ll know better and fully how to approach it,” she said Tuesday.
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 drew repeatedly on his campaign slogan, “Awakening of a New Dawn,” in addressing the large crowd gathered for the inauguration.
He said 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.
“The road we will travel on is the road of sovereignty,” he said.
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.
“We must self-determine by the sweat of our own brow, a level of commitment to making meaningful differences,” he said. “We are ready.”