SAINT MICHAELS, Ariz. — For the first time in memory, a Navajo Nation vice president and council speaker joined a twice-monthly meeting of division directors at the same time.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren invited Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley to the meeting at the Division of Economic Development building in St. Michaels, Arizona, on March 7.
“It’s good to see you all here this morning,” Vice President Montoya said. “The Navajo Nation continues to have some historic firsts, with many women in leadership positions in the executive, legislative and judicial branches. We see many women leading divisions here, on the council and advising from the attorney general’s office to the president’s office.”
“I see some familiar faces,” Speaker Curley told the 32 division directors and staff. “It’s good to meet all of you. The president and I talked about working together and collaborating together. I don’t think I’ve seen a Speaker come to a division directors meeting before.”
“It’s an honor to have you here with us,” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said. “I don’t remember this happening before. It’s a beautiful act of symbolism to see the two branches working together for the benefit of our people.”
And neither has anyone else in the room seen it, despite some directors having experience that goes back more than one or two administrations.
Speaker Curley introduced herself in the traditional Navajo way and told the group she lived in Fishpoint, north of Salina/Cottonwood, where there’s a lot of “hashtłʼish,” or mud, and many Navajo families are still living in those conditions. She said thinking about those families is what drives her policy work.
Each of the division directors introduced themselves and told the Vice President and Speaker a little about what they were working on. Division of Human Resources Executive Director Debbie Nez-Manuel told them there were many kinds of challenges facing the personnel department ranging from 2,000 vacancies to huge backlogs of background checks and the need to streamline the burdensome hiring protocol.
“Personnel is the hub running the Nation,” she said.
Thomas Cody, executive director of the Division of Social Services, one of the largest divisions, said his staff has begun community outreach in Chinle to bring division information and the types of services that are available directly to chapters and residents.
Division of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike Halona said his team had just completed a day of training with the legislative assistants. He recommended the same training for all council delegates to help them understand the tribal right-of-way, tribal access authorization and homesite leasing processes and for him to receive their recommendations to make it run smoother.
“Are you a barrier or are you a bridge?” was OPVP Chief of Staff Patrick Sandoval’s message to the directors. “We want barriers broken down. All we need are bridges to make things happen. If that can resonate on both sides, that would be really good.”
Department of Diné Education Superintendent Harold Begay injected laughter into the discussion when he asked, “How many U of A graduates are making a difference?”
It’s well known that both President Nygren and Speaker Curley, as well as many on their staffs, are both Arizona State University alums. The Speaker said she and the President took some classes together and knew each other on campus.
“I’m a Wildcat,” she said, referring to having graduated from Chinle High School. “How many Wildcats are in here?”
She told the directors that at ASU she majored in psychology and justice studies. She received her master’s in public administration from the University of New Mexico.
She introduced Legislative Branch Chief of Staff Levon Henry and Deputy Chief of Staff Jared Touchin. She said she’s known them both for more than 10 years and they served as her mentors in her early days when she entered politics and government service.
“I’m really fortunate to have two strong leaders behind me who guide me and advise me like you all do for the President,” she said.
She acknowledged the difficulty of the directors’ jobs. She told them there were not enough rewards for the type of work they were about to embark on.
“It’s a sacrifice and you just do it for the love and compassion of your people,” she said. “It’s not about the paycheck and it’s not about the fancy offices or fancy desks. It’s really about providing services out there for our children. I speak from being a mother.”
She said she knows President Nygren’s top priority is building infrastructure, “and so is my top priority infrastructure, as well,” she said.
“I speak for the people who have no cell service, no electricity, no water,” she said. “I live out at Fishpoint. We still don’t have cell service out there. We still don’t have roads out there.”
Topping the list of items for discussion was the aggressive plan by the Financial Processes Improvement Planning team to spend $1.7 billion in ARPA funding, said COS Sandoval. That includes everyday routine financial expenditures.
He said there is continued movement toward solutions in the required employee background investigations and streamlining the on-boarding processes.
The ARPA office run by Director Tom Platero reported the establishment in record time of the necessary accounts to begin drawdown and expenditures of nearly $226 million.
The Navajo Nation Veterans Administration, under newly appointed Director Bobbie Ann Baldwin, reported the reopening of all agency offices to effectively serve Navajo veterans.
The Division of Social Services, run by Director Thomas Cody, announced the availability of $55.4 million to assist homeowners with mortgage payments, mortgage reinstatement and mortgage principal reduction.