NIGA's Stevens on Navajo President, ‘Slams,’ Respect and Redskins

Gale Courey Toensing
4/22/14

In mid-April the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) withdrew its name – but not its donation – from a golf tournament to raise scholarship funds for Navajo college students after learning that the primary sponsor of the Navajo Nation-hosted event was the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation (OAF) – Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s new Indian country charity.

RELATED: Redskins Sponsorship Taints Navajo Golf Event, Other Sponsors Outraged

In the media blitz that followed, the Navajo Post had a story headlinedNavajo President slams the National Indian Gaming Association” The story quoted Navajo President Ben Shelly’s response to NIGA’s withdrawal. “We’d like to say thank you to the sponsors. I believe we lost one sponsor, which is National Indian Gaming Association. I’m very disappointed in them,” Shelly said at a public speech he gave at the tournament. In an exclusive interview with ICTMN, NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. talked about the press, his relationship with Navajo and the ongoing opposition to the racist slur.

What is your response to the headline of a story about the National Indian Gaming Association withdrawing its sponsorship of a golf tournament to raise scholarship funds for Navajo college students?

I don’t believe that President Ben Shelly slammed me. I think the press is trying to start a fight between us and I won’t go for it. Since I was a young boy my father told me about the Navajo Nation. I have a sister who was born there at Window Rock.  So my family has a long standing relationship from then right up to now with my respect for President Ben Shelly and former President Joe Shirley Jr., who’s a close friend of mine.

How did that relationship come about?

It goes two generations back to my father in the late ’60s. My father worked for and with the Navajo Nation all the way into the early ’80s. One of the things my father taught me was that the Navajo president is someone with a special status and somebody who has a lot of responsibility and is to be respected to the utmost and so I’ve always maintained that approach and I continue that despite this press statement that indicates that he may have slammed me. I don’t see that being the case and I will continue my high road approach not just to the Navajo president but to the Navajo Nation as a whole because that’s the way I was taught. Starting with President Joe Shirley Jr. when he came into office, I began a strong bond with the Navajo Nation in the work that I do with NIGA. I’ve visited the reservation a couple of times and most importantly I’ve continued to fund youth and children’s organizations throughout my entire tenure [as NIGA chairman]. Over the last 13 years, again starting with my bond with President Shirley, we’ve made significant contributions to youth and children’s’ organizations in the Navajo community. And we continue to do so.

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