Addressing Ben Shelly's View On Voice and Redskins

by Jerome Clark

April 17, 2014

On April 11, President Ben Shelly, along with a number of division heads and representatives, participated in a student hosted information session at Arizona State University titled, "Hozho and Education: Balancing Culture, Life, and Education."

During this session, President Shelly made comments -- concerning voting and the KTNN Redskins sponsored golf tournament -- that should not go unaddressed.

In his first comment, Shelly stated that everyone in the room needed to vote and if you did not then you should not "complain" (his word choice).

I have contention with this because neither Shelly nor any other human being has the authority to disenfranchise a Diné person of their conscious action to "complain." Full disclosure, I have never voted and I do not intend on participating, again, in these upcoming elections.

I do intend to continue to "complain" about Diné government, Diné leaders, and President Shelly. The reason for this is quite simple: My ability to voice my concerns on matters dealing with a healthy, stable future for my family and our nation predates the electorate system.

It predates Shelly's time as president. It predates the current governmental structure attempting to exist for our people.

It even predates the United States of America and its supposed freedom of speech. My ability to voice my concerns, or complain as Shelly delicately put it, are rooted in powers that emerged with Diné people's existence.

This is not something that Shelly, the Navajo Nation, or any law has bestowed upon me and it is not something that will be taken away. Ever.

When we were first adorned with our humanistic qualities it included the breath we call life which is expressed through our intelligence and our speech. To tell one that she/he cannot complain is telling one that her/his uniqueness is undesirable and that her/his life is not worth hearing therefore should not exist.

I, for one, have spent much of my life encouraging our people to voice their concerns and by that extension to realize and reclaim their humanity. Without this important step of reclaiming our voices and our lives, we will never attain the freedom to live life on our terms.

Rather than suppressing the voices of the people or relegating it to the category of complaining, all leaders should humble themselves and remember that their individual strength will never surpass that of the collective.

Shelly's other comment resulted from student questions on the availability of scholarships or lack thereof.

As Navajo Times readers may or may not know, on April 12 KTNN held The Washington Redskins Original American Foundation 1st Annual KTNN Celebrity Golf Tournament, the proceeds of which will fund scholarships.

The issue of Indigenous peoples' representation in professional team mascots and names has been a long fought issue, and more recently the Navajo Nation took up legislation to oppose such disparaging representations.

Sadly, this has not been without contradiction. Situations like the recent KTNN Redskins golf tournament only serve to weaken the stance against the disparaging representation of Indigenous peoples in and outside of the Navajo Nation.

Nevertheless, and even after recognizing the contradiction and controversy surrounding the tournament and funds to be raised, Shelly indicated that if no one picked up the funds from the golf tournament he would.

He jokingly added that he would then double the proceeds at the casino near the golf tournament.

It is blatantly apparent that Shelly has no regard for the issue at hand, and he either has no understanding or care for how racially motivated words permeate and sabotage a people's sense of self.

The same disregard seems to be held for the image serving as the NFL team's logo. This is problematic because the word and the image co-exist in such a way that it proliferates into the consciousness of people and it creates situations where we are then regarded and treated as less than human.

But, this process is not an overnight sensation. In fact, this has been occurring since we first made contact with the colonizers of our territories.

In order for an entire society like the United States to believe and reinforce the justifications for racializing and subjugating an entire continent of people, there has to be a body of knowledge that supports such an idea of savagery.

The topic of knowledge production and how it can be used as a tool for subjugation and otherizing entire peoples is one that our current and former leaders (including Shelly) should become familiar with.

Or, we could reacquaint ourselves with our own knowledge that words have power and have the ability to directly affect reality. This reality includes how we think of ourselves.

Shelly and other leaders should care about this issue because it is a matter of paternalism, identity, and disempowerment. It also has to do with sovereignty. Not the legal sovereignty allowed by the US, but the sovereignty that we carry within us and that we draw from the land.

Until we are able to regard ourselves as Diné -- a people with knowledge, intelligence, power, dreams, and hope -- then we will always be regarded and treated as Redskins.