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Local News

Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly Dies at 75

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by Shondiin Silversmith, Arizona Mirror
March 23, 2023

Former Navajo Nation President and Council Delegate Ben Shelly died on March 22 from a long-term illness at 75. 

Shelly served as Navajo Nation President from 2011 to 2015. Before being president, Shelly served as vice president from 2007 to 2011 and as a Navajo Nation Council Delegate from 1991 to 2007, where he represented the community of Thoreau, N.M.

“President Shelly will always be remembered in our hearts and minds for his great sense of humor, devoted public service, and his love for his people and family,” Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley said. “We mourn the loss of our leader, but we honor and give thanks for his life and the legacy that he leaves behind.”

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Shelly resided in Thoreau with his family, who owned and operated a transportation business. Shelly was Tó’aheedlíinii and was born for Ts’ah Yisk’idnii. His maternal grandfather was Áshįįhí, and his paternal grandfather was Táchii’nii. 

Shelly was married to his wife, Martha, for 57 years. They have five adult children, 12 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. 

“He was a strong person who always demonstrated great commitment to his people and our communities,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Steven Arviso, who currently represents the community of Thoreau. 

“My prayers are with Mrs. Shelly, their children, and grandchildren as they grieve for our leader,” Arviso added. “We thank him and his family for their sacrifices and service for the Navajo people.”

Erny Zah, who served as communications director for Shelly during his presidency, said the best way to describe him was heartfelt and that he was probably the least understood president. Zah said Shelly was very much from a generation of leaders who worked and led for the people. 

“He cared about people and wanted the best for them,” Zah said. “He had no quarrels on trying to make conditions better for the Navajo people.”

He took on a lot of controversial issues during his time as president, Zah said, including the water rights for the Little Colorado River, the purchase of a coal mine, the establishment of the Utah trust fund and the Grand Canyon Escalade project. 

Zah said Shelly cared more about the end result of his initiatives than how it made him look in pursuing them. 

“He always had his vision of getting it done,” Zah said, adding that, at times, his vision did not reflect well on Shelly, but he stood his ground.

One issue that Zah remembers Shelly took on as president was feral horses. His administration introduced several options to deal with them, including rounding them up to be transported off the Navajo Nation. But the Navajo public did not embrace the idea. 

“He took on feral horses, and nobody has touched that sense,” Zah said.

In terms of creating a better life for the Navajo people, Zah said that Shelly wanted people to take care of themselves and be self-sufficient. 

“He didn’t want them to rely on the government,” he said.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Curley offered their condolences and prayer on behalf of the Navajo Nation to the family of Shelly. Nygren signed a proclamation that ordered flags across the Navajo Nation to be flown at half-staff in honor of Shelly from March 22 until sunset on March 28. 

“He was very straightforward. He was always courageous,” Nygren said. The last time Nygren saw Shelly was in December 2022 during a meeting of former Navajo Nation leaders at Twin Arrows Casino.

Nygren said he met Shelly several times as a student at Arizona State University and remembers him as a bold leader.

“I think with that type of fearless attitude, just being a heavy equipment operator, to ascend to be president of the Navajo Nation is something to be said for his type of leadership style,” Nygren said. “Jasmine and I want to extend our condolences to his family. I think the state of New Mexico on the Navajo side should be very proud of him.”

Former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez shared his condolences to Shelly’s family on Facebook, recalling how he first worked with Shelly during his time as a council delegate. 

“He was a prolific leader and navigated Navajo politics with a direct and honest style,” Nez said. “He proved how far hard work could get anyone if they believed in their abilities to change the world.”

A private service will be held for Shelly by the family, but a public memorial will be held in his honor. The Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President said it would release the memorial details when available.

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