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Navajo Nation establishes medical examiners department

FARMINGTON — A bill to establish a department of medical examiners for the tribe has received the approval of Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

The measure to authorize medical examiners to investigate suspicious deaths on tribal land and perform coroner duties was approved by the Navajo Nation Council in December.

Through the department, which will be under the Division of Public Safety, medical examiners will be authorized to issue death certificates.

Begaye, who signed the bill on Saturday, said it is important for the tribe to have authority over such investigations.

“By establishing this department, the nation is addressing efficiency in taking possession of the deceased, determining causes of death and issuing related documents. More importantly, the department will conduct all medicolegal investigations in a culturally sensitive matter,” he said.

Prior to the establishment of the new department, death investigations were handled by the Department of Criminal Investigation, which was assigned that responsibility in a 2004 executive order from then-President Joe Shirley Jr.

But that duty placed a strain on criminal investigators to perform coroner duties and to conduct major crime investigations, according to the bill.

Dale West, director for the Department of Criminal Investigation, previously told The Daily Times those duties represented approximately 40 percent of the department’s workload.

The president’s office release mentioned that personnel who were assigned coroner duties and who were not physicians had the added responsibility of finding physicians to accompany them on cases.

“The Navajo Nation needs to control every aspect of death investigations from determinations to issuance of death certificates. Now, we will,” Begaye said.

Among the next steps for the new department is having a plan of operation approved by the tribal council’s Law and Order Committee within 30 days, according to the bill.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at


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