The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

     The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren attends State of Union address, sets record pace for D.C. trip

WASHINGTON — Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren’s first visit to the nation’s capital this week may have set a record.

This was President Nygren’s first official trip to Washington, which was scheduled around his attendance of President Biden’s second State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress.

His week’s agenda included Tuesday night’s attendance at President Biden’s address as a guest of Senator Mark Kelly, a White House meeting on Wednesday with Director of Tribal Affairs PaaWee Rivera, meetings with four cabinet officials, five U.S. senators, five congressmen and women, a tour of the National Museum of the American Indian on Wednesday and the Pentagon on Thursday.

He met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for the fifth time in two weeks on Wednesday. On Thursday, he is scheduled to meet individually with Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.

To cap off his week, however, President Nygren told his staff to clear his schedule so he could attend the 3A North Boys Regional Basketball Tournament at the Wildcat Den in Chinle on Saturday.

The president also met with Indian Health Service Director Roselyn Tso, who took the helm at IHS in September, and National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Shelly Lowe. Both Tso and Lowe are Navajos.

“I’m honored to have President Nygren join me as my guest,” Senator Mark Kelly said. “He is a key partner in our work to boost economic opportunities, expand access to clean and reliable drinking water, fix and upgrade roads, and much more.”

Senator Kelly said his priority this term is to work with the new Navajo president to ensure “tribal sovereignty is respected and that Washington supports the needs of Navajo Nation.”

If there was one subject that came up with almost every official the president spoke to it was the devastating legacy left by uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.

Senator Kelly told the president that there was $1 billion being held in trust by the EPA to be used for uranium mine cleanup. The money comes from the 2014 Kerr-McGee settlement. Part of the Navajo Nation’s delay in receiving it is the requirement for a five-year plan for each of the 500-plus abandoned mines needing remediation.

President Nygren later met with Arizona’s senior Senator Kyrsten Sinema. They discussed the Navajo Nation’s continuing need for water development.

President Nygren sought the senator’s support as he seeks to align with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community and Tohono O’odham Nation for Arizona legislation to return a portion of the Arizona transaction privilege tax to tribes.

On Monday, President Nygren met with Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh and his deputy, Intergovernmental Affairs Tribal Liaison Jack Jackson, Jr.

Secretary Walsh told President Nygren he will soon visit the largest tribally-controlled Job Corps Center in the country, which could serve as a model for the Navajo Nation to help train its 18- to 24-year-olds.

The president said that kind of program would be welcome on the Nation, which has a ready and youthful workforce that wants training of all kinds.

“Not everyone wants to go to college to get four-year degrees,” the president said. “A pre-apprenticeship program sounds like a great opportunity so that every Navajo can have a successful career even if college isn’t for them.”

The president next met with Bureau of Indian Education Director Tony Dearman. Construction, the development of a Navajo language program, BIE teacher certifications, the status update of the BIE School Facilities Design Handbook, forward funding and advocating for state funding for BIE schools to enhance the delivery of educational services were their main issues.

Enhancing the use of the Navajo language in K–12 education, President Nygren said, is one of his top priorities. His administration wants to see a strong program that can be taught in BIE schools across the Nation either in person or through an online platform like Zoom to reach the greatest number of Navajo students and help document, preserve and perpetuate the daily use of Navajo.

During the president’s visit to Utah last week, he discussed such a program with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials, who train their missionaries in less than four months to become fluent in languages from all over the world.

The BIE maintains the physical facilities for 66 Navajo Nation schools. As these facilities age, the BIE creates plans to renovate or rebuild them based on the BIE design handbook.

The handbook was last updated in 2003. New plans are expected to be finished and released later this year. These will be important to the Nation because four schools are now scheduled to be built in the next five years.

The president and Director Dearman discussed the problems created by delays in completing employee background checks for BIE school board members. Navajo law Title X requires background checks for all tribal employees, although the BIE has such checks on hold.

President Nygren and the director discussed the need for repairs at the Cove Day School in Cove, Ariz., to prevent further contamination by uranium waste that is washed down from nearby mountains where uranium was mined.

In 2014, the federal government entered into a settlement to provide almost $1 billion to investigate and clean up approximately 50 uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that were operated by Kerr-McGee Corporation and its successor, Tronox. Approximately 32 of these mines are in the Cove and Lukachukai areas.

In President Nygren’s meeting with Utah’s senior Senator Mike Lee, uranium came up again. The senator expressed his dismay that it’s been years since the Kerr-McGee settlement and Navajos are still struggling to have the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines closed and cleaned up.

Senator Lee was likewise supportive of the president’s priority to preserve, document and expand the daily use of the Navajo language.

Although Navajo is not commonly taught by the LDS church today, the senator noted that it had a robust program in the past. At that time, the church collected numerous historical records and expertise that could be used in a Navajo language program that was taught in schools on the Nation.

The senator, who serves on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, was also eager to discuss the potential for clean energy development on the Nation. President Nygren told him he’s exploring with several groups pumped storage hydropower, which creates hydroelectric energy by using solar power to pump water to an upper storage reservoir. Water is then released at night into a lower reservoir, passing through a turbine like those used in hydroelectric dams.

The first known uses of PSH date to the 1890s in Italy and Switzerland. It was first used in the U.S. in 1930.

Also on Tuesday, President Nygren met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The secretary said tribes are eligible to apply for road building grants, but for the past seven years, the Navajo Nation’s applications had been repeatedly rejected.

Both agreed to correct this and that a more comprehensive review process was needed to improve the Nation’s applications, which hadn’t changed through the years but were reviewed and rejected by the same department staff.

President Nygren said DOT grant assistance is needed because it costs approximately $3 million a mile to pave a road on the Navajo Nation and gravel pits on the Nation are needed to reduce the cost.

On Wednesday, the president met with New Mexico’s two congressional representatives, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and Rep. Gabe Vasquez, who took office this year.

The congresswoman assured President Nygren she would reintroduce the bipartisan Radiation Exposure Compensation Act expansion bill this year. She was its original sponsor in 2021. Rep. Vasquez said he would continue New Mexico’s strong record of advocacy for the RECA amendments as well.

RECA is a program established in 1990 to provide partial restitution for the devastating health impacts of radiation exposure from U.S. nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining.

The U.S. government seeks to compensate downwinders, uranium workers and atomic veterans whose lives and health were sacrificed for national security.

The RECA expansion bill would:

  • Extend RECA by 19 years.
  • Increase payments to $150,000 for all claimants.
  • Add downwind eligibility for all of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Guam, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
  • Extend the period for uranium worker eligibility and add additional uranium worker categories.
  • Add chronic lymphocytic leukemia as a compensable disease for downwinders and atomic veterans and compensate additional categories of uranium workers who develop renal diseases.

One of President Nygren’s last meetings Thursday will be with U.S. Department of the Treasury Treasurer Lynn Malerba.

The U.S. treasurer is also known as Chief Mutáwi Mutáhash (Many Hearts). She became the 18th Chief of the Mohegan Tribe in August 2010. She is the first woman chief in the tribe’s modern history, and her position is a lifetime appointment made by the Mohegan Tribe’s Council of Elders.

President Nygren also addressed approximately 200 attendees at the United South and Eastern Tribes reception with a message of unity.

“I know that united, when we stand strong across America, there are a lot of good things that we can do for our communities,” he said. “I’m open to partnerships. I hear a lot of good things that you’re doing. Some of those concepts to help your people, I’d love to try to bring some of those solutions to the Navajo Nation.”