Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who pushed ambitious projects that included purchasing a coal mine, building an aerial tram into the Grand Canyon and reaching a water rights settlement with Arizona, has died.
Shelly died Wednesday morning at a medical center in Gallup, New Mexico, after a long illness and with family by his side, said family spokesman Deswood Tome. Shelly was 75.
Shelly took over as president on the vast reservation in January 2011 after serving one term as vice president under Joe Shirley Jr. He lost a re-election bid in 2014, but the Navajo Nation Supreme Court extended his time in office as it was deciding a Navajo language fluency issue involving another presidential candidate.
Shelly’s family thanked Navajos for their support Wednesday as they mourned “the loss of a man who put others first.”
“When he was born, he was told by elders that he would be a great leader,” they said in a statement to The Associated Press. “He fulfilled that legacy. By being a strong husband and father, he showed us to put the importance of the people first.”
Shelly had an energetic nature, waking up well before dawn, and was known for his off-the-cuff remarks yet heartfelt speeches.
The things he counted as successes as ways for the tribe to prosper well into the future, including the $85 million purchase of a coal mine and negotiating a settlement with Arizona for water from the Lower Basin of the Colorado River, weren’t praised widely across the reservation.
In written testimony submitted to Congress earlier this month, Shelly wrote: “I look forward to the day to hand back the last federal dollar, saying, ‘here — we don’t need it anymore.'”
The water settlement ultimately wasn’t approved by Navajo lawmakers or the neighboring Hopi Tribe. To this day, the tribe doesn’t have rights to water in the Lower Basin.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren ordered flags lowered across the reservation to honor Shelly, who died just two weeks after former tribal President Peterson Zah.
One of the most ambitious proposals from Shelly’s administration was an aerial tram that would take tourists from the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon on the reservation near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. Shelly touted it as a way to capture tourist dollars and create jobs for Navajos. Tribal lawmakers shot it down after Shelly left office.
“He had the strength and courage to take on controversial issues,” said Erny Zah, a former communications director for Shelly.
Shelly advocated for a ban on smoking in public places and approved a junk food tax. The tribe fully passed reviews for its Head Start program for the first time in two decades under Shelly’s administration and received a roughly $1 billion settlement to clean up uranium-contaminated sites.
Shelly was the first Navajo president to work with a legislative body that was reduced from 88 to 24 members in a ballot initiative. Shelly approached the task by trying to be as inclusive as possible to move forward the priorities of the Navajo people, said Sherrick Roanhorse, a former assistant and chief of staff for Shelly.
“Those first six months were pretty challenging for the whole Navajo Nation government,” Roanhorse said. “They had to redefine themselves.”
Outside the office, Shelly enjoyed taking road trips with his wife, Martha, working on his ranch in Thoreau and tinkering with vehicles, Roanhorse said.
“If we had an extra moment in time where we were in Phoenix or Albuquerque, an hour extra of time, we would end up taking a tour of some of the junk yards to just see what kind of parts they had available,” Roanhorse said. “That was his hobby.”
Shelly was the first sitting vice president to be elected to the top post on the reservation — the largest in the U.S. at 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers), extending into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. He won the election in 2010, despite being charged in a case that accused dozens of Navajo Nation lawmakers of stealing from the tribal government.
Shelly and his vice president, Rex Lee Jim, openly talked about the charges and reached a settlement to repay some of the funds. Shelly had served on the Navajo Nation Council for 16 years representing his hometown of Thoreau and on the McKinley County Board of Commissioners.
Shelly and his family ran a transportation business for the last seven years.
He is survived by Martha Shelly, his wife of 57 years, plus five children, 12 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Shelly’s family plans to hold a private service and a public memorial at a future date.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.