Navajo president pledges to walk road to true sovereignty

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The new president of the Navajo Nation was sworn in Tuesday at a ceremony in which he outlined a pro-business agenda and signed an agreement that includes moving forward with a tram that would shuttle tourists from cliff tops to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Russell Begaye drew repeatedly on his campaign slogan, "Awakening of a New Dawn," after he took the oath of office in Fort Defiance and signed a document that outlines eight projects he agreed with his predecessor, Ben Shelly, to push forward. On the list is a rail port that would export crops and coal from the reservation, the pursuit of clean coal technology and completion of the controversial Grand Canyon Escalade project.

The aerial tram project first proposed years ago would take tourists from the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon on the reservation near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. It's a place prized for its solitude and wilderness characteristics, and revered by Hopis as a birthplace of their ancestors.

Shelly has touted the tram as an opportunity to capture tourist dollars and create jobs for Navajos.

Begaye himself has expressed concerns about the plan, saying too many Navajo laws would have to be waived to move the project forward and that the tribe needs more of an ownership stake. He also said in an interview earlier this year with The Associated Press that he recognizes the sharp divisions among Navajos regarding the project.

The Navajo Nation Council would have the first say in whether to approve the project, but legislation has not been introduced. The development group that includes former Navajo President Albert Hale, now an Arizona state representative, said operations could start in May 2018 or 2019 if the project is approved this year.

"If the president is true to his word about job creation, economic opportunity, I think this is the way to do it," Hale said.

Opponents believe the timeline is far too optimistic and say the project is bound to be challenged in court. The project is proposed outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park.

Renae Yellowhorse, who is part of the Save the Confluence group, said she trusts that Begaye will protect sacred sites in the area but doesn't support developing the reach of the Grand Canyon where her family lives.

"We just have to talk to him and his administration, his people and see what the reasoning is behind it and we'll know better and fully how to approach it," she said Tuesday.

Begaye has said that economic development will be one of his top priorities, focusing mostly on manufacturing plants that could be set up across the reservation and that could entice other businesses. He told a large crowd gathered for the inauguration that the Navajo Nation needs to assert control over its minerals, secure water rights and be able to prosecute non-Indians for all crimes on the reservation in order to be a true sovereign nation.

"The road we will travel on is the road of sovereignty," he said.

Vice President Jonathan Nez focused his speech on "monsters" known as depression, suicide, obesity, poverty, greed and apathy. He said creativity will lead to solutions to those and other problems that have long plagued the Navajo Nation.

"We must self-determine by the sweat of our own brow, a level of commitment to making meaningful differences," he said. "We are ready."

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