Ben Shelly ~ Navajo

Published on December 26, 2013 by Amy

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Ben Shelly
Ben Shelly

Ben Shelly (born July 6, 1947) is the President of the Navajo Nation. Shelly is the first person to have been elected both President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation. He is also the first New Mexican to hold the presidency.

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In October 2010, Ben Shelly was among a majority of the Navajo Nation elected officials charged in an investigation of alleged improper use of discretionary funding. He has since been cleared of charges.
On November 2, 2010, Shelly was voted in as the Navajo Nation’s President-elect during the 2010 Navajo Nation Presidential Elections, defeating opponent New Mexico State Senator Lynda Lovejoy of the Navajo Nation.

Early life and education

Shelly was born in Thoreau, New Mexico. He is Tó’aheedlíinii clan born for Tsʼah Yiskʼidnii. His maternal grandfather is Áshįįhí and his paternal grandfather is Táchiiʼnii.

Shelly’s wife of 45 years, Martha Shelly, is originally from Coyote Canyon. She is Tábąąhá and born for Tódích’íiʼnii. They have five children and 10 grandchildren.

Shelly lived in Chicago for 16 years, training in heavy equipment maintenance and working as a supervisor for a heavy equipment company. Shelly moved back to the Navajo Nation in 1976, and owned a fleet maintenance and mechanic shop.


In 1990, Shelly was chairman of the Dineh Rights Association.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate

Shelly became the Thoreau Navajo Nation Councilman in 1991, and in 1993 he campaigned for legalized gambling in Navajo areas.

Shelly became a member of the Transportation and Intergovernmental Relations Committees, and chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee as well as serving 12 years as a McKinley County Commissioner.

He was in the leadership of the National Associations of Counties Organization, where he helped form a Native American coalition of county officials from Apache, Coconino, San Juan of Utah, San Juan of New Mexico, Navajo, Sandoval, and McKinley counties.

Navajo Nation Vice-President

In 2006, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. selected Shelly as his running mate in the 2006 presidential election. At the time of his selection, President Shirley said of Shelly, “He has the necessary knowledge of our government, and the government outside, He is down to earth and knows the heart of the people. He was raised with culture, as I was, on a sheepskin rug.” Shriely and Shelly won the 2006 Navajo Nation presidential election. Shelly was sworn in as Vice President of the Navajo Nation on 9 January 2007.

Shelly serves on the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Tribal Technical Advisory Group, leading efforts to amend existing Medicaid laws to ensure that a Certificate of Indian Blood could be used to verify U.S. citizenship. Shelly represents the Navajo Nation in budget discussions and formulations for federally funded programs. In 2007, he led a Navajo delegation in consultative budget deliberations with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

Although Navajo Nation elections are officially non-partisan, Shelly is a registered Democrat active in state politics in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. He works with the New Mexico state legislature and the governor’s office to fund capital improvement projects on the Navajo Nation. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson appointed Shelly to his Tribal Economic Development Task Force.

Shelly is also an opponent of Senate Bill 1690 which would allow San Juan County, Utah Navajos to be their own trustee, managing their own resources by way of a nonprofit organization structure, without interference from the Navajo Nation. The tribe has long argued it should be the trustee, sans any federal or state interference.

Probe of Tribal Council discretionary funds

In October 2010, Ben Shelly, among Navajo tribal other officials, were charged in an investigation of slush funds just weeks before the November election. Shelly pleaded not guilty to those tribal charges of fraud, conspiracy and theft. Each misdemeanor count carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail and $5,000 if convicted.

Shelly has stated that he is confident that the conspiracy, fraud and theft charges against him would be dismissed, saying he’s no crook. Criminal complaints allege that Shelly unlawfully took $8,850 in tribal discretionary funds to benefit himself and his family while he served on the Tribal Council. He has pleaded not guilty and said the money was for “Legitimate Hardships.”

Court documents allege that Shelly conspired to benefit himself and his immediate family, including his wife, grandchildren and a sister, in 2005 and 2006. On four occasions, Shelly filed applications for discretionary funds on behalf of his family and personally approved the requests, a complaint alleged. Tribal ethics and rules laws have limits on the value of gifts lawmakers can receive and prohibit engaging in conflicts of interest.

Police served some delegates with the complaints just before they convened for the fourth day of their fall session in the tribal capital of Window Rock.

The Tribal Council called for a special prosecutor in 2009 to look into the Navajo tribal president Joe Shirley Jr.’s relationship with two companies that had operated on the reservation. The Navajo attorney general accepted that request but also expanded the probe to include the council’s use of discretionary funds, to the surprise of the council.

The council, and the Office of the President and Vice President receive millions of dollars a year through supplemental budget appropriations to dole out to elderly Navajos on fixed income, college students, organizations in need or Navajos looking for emergency funding.

Alan Balaran was hired as the Special Prosecutor earlier this year. His duties later were expanded to include a tribal ranch program, and discretionary funds given to the tribal president’s and vice president’s office.

“If Shelly is found guilty, however, he will be removed from office and the people will need to launch a new election process,” NM State Rep. Ray Begaye, D-Shiprock said. “If removed, Shelly likely will be joined by many of the delegates. Of the 24 elected Tuesday to the reduced council, 16 were incumbents.”

Navajo Nation President

In the Navajo Nation Tribal presidential election, held on November 2, 2010, Shelly defeated New Mexico Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, becoming the first vice president to be elected to the tribal presidency, dashing Lovejoy’s hopes of becoming the tribe’s first female president.

Voters chose tribal Vice President Shelly as their next leader, despite both his and his running mate’s facing criminal charges in a probe of tribal slush funds. All but one of the races included an incumbent. The current 88-member Tribal Council was reduced in a special election in December 2009 that was aimed at reforming the Navajo government.

The tribe’s executive branch is led by Shelly, who received 52 percent of the vote in the presidential race. His opponent, New Mexico state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, garnered 47 percent of the vote. Shelly garnered 33,692 votes to Lovejoy’s 30,357. Voter turnout hit nearly 58 percent in the 2010 tribal elections.
Shelly was sworn in as President on January 11, 2011.

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