The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

     The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren honors the life of former President Ben Shelly

GALLUP, N.M. — Former President Ben Shelly was remembered here today as a loving father, a direct-speaking boss and politician, an inspiration of what can be accomplished with raw determination and even a young movie actor.

Following a service at the Rollie Mortuary, a Navajo Police Department procession escorted the late President and his family to Sunset Memorial Park where he was laid to rest.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Danny Simpson served as master of ceremony. He said he always thought of President Shelly as “Dad.”

From the time he was first elected to the council at age 34 and served with the President, he said President Shelly always called him “Danny” rather than Delegate Simpson or other title. He was his life’s greatest mentor, he said.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said President Shelly always served as an inspiration to him from the time he was a college student because the late President didn’t follow the ordinary path to the presidency.

Rather than pursue an advanced degree or fancy career, President Shelly used his blunt honesty, exquisite political bluster on the council floor, a clear vision of what he wanted and a gentle heart holding deep love for his family and the Navajo people.

“He took so much pride in being Navajo,” President Nygren said. “He came from a family that really cared about him.”

“There’s all sorts of things people assume you need to become the leader of the Navajo Nation,” President Nygren said. “I draw inspiration because I always thought, man, this construction guy, this heavy equipment operator, became the president of the Navajo Nation. I’m a construction guy. I should be able to run for president.”

Speaking to the former First Lady Martha Shelly, who was married to President Shelly for 50 years, the President said, “You were there with him, supporting him, guiding him and taking him in the right direction.”

President Shelly’s former staff members said that wherever the late President went he always wanted Mrs. Shelly along with him. One of their favorite trips together during his term as President was to Israel where he was baptized.

President Nygren said he was very pleased that President Shelly accepted his invitation to be honored last December along with other former Navajo presidents and chairmen at Twin Arrows Casino and Resort.

“He was the first one to greet me and he was the last one to greet me,” the President said.

At the end of the service, President Nygren presented Mrs. Shelly with a large, framed portrait of her late husband and him from that event and a Navajo Nation flag.

President Shelly and his loyal, longtime companion and former Chief of Staff Deswood Tome presented President Nygren with a large packet of information at the event that President Shelly wanted him to know about.

“You’re the president,” President Shelly told him. “I don’t want you to forget that.”

Mr. Tome, who gave the eulogy which was laced with many laugh-filled lines, told how in July 1964 President Shelly and his close friend Gilbert Brown became actors.

“Director John Sturges was filming “The Hallelujah Trail” and needed some Indians,” he said. “Some of the white women had never seen a real Indian,” President Shelly told him.

It was filmed in Gallup, Shiprock, Coyote Canyon, Tohatchi, Twin Lakes and Paramount Studios. It starred Burt Lancaster, Martin Landau, Lee Remick and, of course, Ben Shelly and Gilbert Brown.

“Anytime we were within six feet of the camera for each shot, that’s $250,” Gilbert Brown told him. “Horseback was $500.”

He told how the late President was a kickboxer, a karate instructor, taught other nationalities and used the basement of his large home to teach, Mr. Tome said. He participated in tournaments, won trophies and was fearless, Mrs. Shelly’s sisters told him.

The family lived in Chicago for 16 years before returning to the Navajo Nation where he served with the New Mexico State Police and participated in the World Police and Fire Olympics in the weighted pistol competition.

Later, he opened Shelly’s Garage to pursue his love of mechanics and fixing vehicles.

Mr. Tome told how proud the late President was of creating the first official Navajo Nation identification card.

“The new Navajo ID card was not only U.S. Homeland Security compliant, it was authorized and accepted to enable border crossings into Canada and Mexico,” he said. “It was the very first tribal ID card that serves as a U.S. passport. I carry this religiously because it’s the only thing I have to prove I’m Navajo.”

Also speaking at President Shelly’s memorial was Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley, former Vice President Myron Lizer, who gave the opening prayer, Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson, Rabbi Robert Wolff, Patero Robert Tso and, on behalf of the family, President Shelly’s daughter Floreen Shelly.

# # #