The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

     The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

State of the Navajo Nation address delivered by President Buu Nygren, reports to council on mask mandate, emergency response, employment crisis

State of the Navajo Nation address delivered by President Buu Nygren, reports to council on mask mandate, emergency response, employment crisis

WINDOW ROCK, Navajo Nation — Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren defended his decision to lift the tribe’s 34-month-long COVID-19 mask mandate during the question-and-answer session with the 25th Navajo Nation Council following his first State of the Navajo Nation address Tuesday.

As he began, he acknowledged the election of Delegate Crystalyne Curley as the first woman speaker of the Navajo Nation Council by her colleagues. She was elected to council as a delegate in November 2022.

The president said he was happy to congratulate her shortly after her election the evening before. He said they had classes at Arizona State University together.

He said he could feel the “energy of change” when he came into the council chamber.

Regarding the mask mandate, President Nygren said that more than a year ago he informed voters the nation should be open 100 percent, which he’s repeated since his Jan. 10 inauguration, “so I hope it wasn’t a surprise to all of you.”

“Wearing a mask is completely optional,” he said. “It’s up to you. We will continue to sanitize, continue to take care of one another. Continue to make sure you’re vaccinated, get your boosters.”

While criss-crossing the Navajo Nation for the past nine months of the campaign, he was repeatedly told by everyday Navajo people, “I need to get to the chapter house,” he said.

“We’ve got to get back to business and make sure our tribal services are accessible to our people.”

Following the president’s 20-minute address, the 24 delegates carried out a discussion on the report. Delegate questions ranged from his goals for the next hundred days, his position on the development of helium resources, the executive branch divisions’ plans of operation to whether he will conduct an investigation into the previous administration’s COVID hazard pay for some employees and not others, and the controversial purchase of sheep for $107,000 during the last months of the outgoing administration.

In his address, the president said two of the largest and long-standing internal problems the nation faces are the 1,200-to-1,500 job vacancies throughout the government and the lack of housing for employees who are hired.

“We have an employment crisis and a housing crisis,” he said. “When a Navajo applies for a job within our tribal government, the application and background check process is often so lengthy, many of these applicants give up.”

But, he said, a shortage of employees who conduct required background checks contributes to the current backlog. By the time checks are completed, applicants often have been recruited away to other positions. That leaves other positions unfilled, the president said, leaving the cycle to repeat.

Applicants who are a perfect fit for a job often find that they may not meet requirements set by the personnel office rather than the department that needs them, he said. Job candidates are eliminated as unqualified while another applicant who might have a college degree but not have the necessary experience gets the job.

President Nygren sought the council’s assistance to modify the personnel system so departments that need employees are a key part of the selection process. Not doing so, he said, allows hiring problems to continue.

He reported that his first two weeks on the job were busy receiving updates from each of his new division directors, meeting state elected officials, all while declaring and managing the Navajo Nation’s first weather-related state of emergency declaration.

On Sunday, he reported, he met U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris during her visit to Luke Air Force Base near Glendale, Ariz. On Friday, he was in Phoenix to meet with Gov. Katie Hobbs. He said he would like to see Arizona introduce legislation to allow the Navajo Nation to participate in the state’s Transaction Privilege Tax distribution.

That would allow the Navajo Nation to receive a percentage of sales tax dollars Navajos send to the state, as Arizona towns, cities and municipalities do.

Earlier Friday, he visited the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. SRPMIC President Martin Harvier and his staff gave an economic development presentation and led a tour of their new health and recreational facilities that SRPMIC financed with revenues from its gaming facilities. Next they toured the community’s gravel plant and landfill, which President Nygren wants to develop on the Navajo Nation.

On Jan. 17, he attended the opening day of the New Mexico legislative session in Santa Fe to hear Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s State of the State address. Afterward, he was invited to his first discussion with her.

He told her about meetings he had with Sen. George Munoz and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth regarding the Navajo Nation’s capital outlay funds. He said it is his personal goal and administration’s objective to use the millions of dollars in these funds that the nation has yet to fully expend.

The president reported to council on the recent weather emergency that severely impacted the Sawmill Chapter and affected the entire Defiance Plateau with as much as three feet of snow last week.

He said the Navajo Nation’s Department of Emergency Management was hindered at first under restrictions on access to needed resources.

He acknowledged the work of the special operations coordinator for the Navajo Police Department, Harland Cleveland, who stepped in to serve as Emergency Management director, and Lavina Nez, who served as his deputy. Both are highly trained and have worked 13 presidential emergency declarations in the past, he said.

The highest priority of the emergency response, he said, was human life and safety.

“No lives were lost,” he reported. “I know it was very difficult with the resources that we had.”

The president expressed his appreciation to Apache and Navajo counties for their quick response, assistance and professionalism.

“They brought personnel, they brought Snowcats, they brought drones, food, they brought workers,” he said. “They even let us borrow some of their tire chains so some of our police officers could get to the affected areas.”

He cautioned that the emergency is not over as the snow will turn to mud.

President Nygren acknowledged the longstanding work of Delegate Amber Crotty on the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People that has plagued Indian Country. He also announced the appointment of John Tsosie, co-founder of Walking the Healing Path, to his staff. Mr. Tsosie will work on issues related to MMIP and domestic violence.

He touched on other issues and asked the council for collaboration on financial and legislative solutions. These include:

Using ARPA funds that have not yet been put to use.

Building housing for tribal employees and assisted living facilities for elderly.

Developing roads and gravel pits for construction and maintenance.

Clearing red tape for the construction of water and power lines.

And the hiring of more police officers, fire fighters, EMTs and teachers.

He said all of these issues are interconnected and all are needed to get the nation on the road to economic development.

“My hope is that working with the 25th Navajo Nation Council, we can work together [on] laws so that our personnel have the equipment, the resources needed to do their job.”

The president’s report was accepted unanimously by the council after four hours of discussion.