Courtesy Erny Zah/Navajo Nation
Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, with the Navajo flag and seal.

Ben Shelly: NMAI's Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh
June 13, 2013


In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of the Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation.

Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?

In the Diné way of life, we share our Navajo name only with medicine in times of ceremony.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal/band/Native community leader?

I am the elected leader of the largest Indian tribal nation in the United States. Our nation is 27,000 square miles, and we have about 320,000 tribal citizens.

My role is to lead our people and guide our government to become more efficient and focused on fulfilling the needs of the Navajo people.

Government is an ever-evolving entity that can always be bettered. I hope that in my time, I have made improvements so the next generation of leaders can guide our government to become even more efficient. We must always keep in mind our children and grandchildren. Much of what we do today will be what they will benefit from, or what they have to overcome. We must be wise with all our decisions. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe/band/Native community?

I have had many different experiences from childhood through becoming president. My grandmother cared for me when I was a child. When I became an adult, I worked in Chicago and eventually came back to my hometown of Thoreau, New Mexico, where I owned an auto repair shop.

I started running for office after my business lost its contract with the Navajo Nation. I started as a county commissioner for McKinley County and would serve 16 years as a Navajo Council delegate. Six years ago, I was asked to serve as vice president and four years later, I was the first sitting vice president to be elected president of the Navajo Nation.

My experience in life and in government has served me with the knowledge to serve the needs of our Navajo people.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

When it comes to being a leader, I look at the past chiefs, chairmen, and presidents as inspiration.

Our earliest leaders kept future generations in mind as they negotiated treaties. As our government evolved, each set of leaders had their own ideas, but all had the future in mind.

We can’t lose focus on what is important to us as Navajo people. Our language, our culture, our traditions all make us distinct from every other tribe in the world. Our leaders before me understood that, and I hope the future generations will embrace their Diné teachings.

Where is your tribe/band/Native community located?

The capital of our nation is Window Rock, Arizona. Our nation spans through Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Where was your tribe/band/Native community originally from?

In our traditional stories, we emerged from the third underworld to this world near Dzithlnaodithle, New Mexico. We entered this new world from the third world by rainbow.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

In 2002, the Navajo Nation adopted the Fundamental Laws of the Diné, which formally placed our unwritten Navajo law into Navajo codes. Though the Fundamental Laws can be vague at times, they remind our government of our traditional laws and societal practices.

We also have medicine men associations who will offer advice regarding traditional views of contemporary issues.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe/band/Native community that you would like to share?

The Navajo Nation is a treaty tribe. The Treaty of 1868 established our reservation and released the Navajo people from captivity in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Our people cried tears of joy upon their return to Dinetah, and here we continue to flourish as a tribal nation.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe/band/Native community?

According to our Vital Statistics Office, we have about 320,000 members and about 175,000 live on the Navajo Nation.

To read the full interview with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly visit the NMAI series here.