Navajo Nation Council celebrates 100 years as the governing body for the Navajo people

By: - July 18, 2023 10:30 am

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren rode on horseback alongside several Navajo Nation Council Delegates and community members in honor of the summer session, which began on July 17, 2023. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

Celebrating 100 years of government on the Navajo Nation, tribal leaders and community members rode up to the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock on horseback to kick off the 25th Navajo Nation Council summer session on Monday.

As more than 50 horse riders converged to the front of the council chambers after a nearly three-mile ride from the Navajo Nation Fairgrounds, they were greeted by cheering onlookers.

At the front of the riders was Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, who said that, 100 years ago, riding up to the Navajo Nation Council Chambers on horseback was how Navajo leaders guided the people at that time. 

“Maybe in another 100 years, our children’s children will be praising us for the guidance that we provided for them,” Nygren said to the crowd. “Our children will probably be speaking our sacred language and singing our sacred songs when they arrive at this very council chamber during one of the sessions.”


The trail ride has become an annual tradition for Navajo Nation Council sessions. It honors past Navajo leaders who rode on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons from their home areas across the Navajo Nation to the council chambers in Window Rock, a journey that could take days to complete.

During their journey to the Navajo Nation capital, tribal leaders would visit with community members along the way and listen to their concerns. By the time their ride ended at the council steps, the leaders would be ready to advocate on their behalf.

In 1923, the Navajo tribe established a governing body known as the Navajo Tribal Council, made up of five representatives from five regional agencies.

“The discovery of oil on Navajoland in the early 1920s promoted the need for a more systematic form of government,” according to historical information on the tribe’s official website. “A tribal government was established to help meet the increasing desires of American oil companies to lease Navajoland for exploration.”

From 1923 to 1989, the Navajo Nation government consisted of the tribal council, headed by a chairman, making the decisions for the tribe. 

In 1989, the council went through reform as the tribe switched to a three-branch government system consisting of an executive, judicial and legislative branch. The Navajo Tribal Council was renamed the Navajo Nation Council, and it was made up of 88 council delegates until 2011, when the Navajo people voted to decrease its delegation from 88 to 24.

The present-day Navajo Nation Council is made up of 24 elected delegates that represent 110 Navajo chapters across Diné Bikéyah, or Navajo land. 

The Navajo Nation is one of the largest tribes in the United States, with nearly 400,000 enrolled citizens with about 175,000 living on Navajo land. 

The Navajo Nation extends across three states, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, making it the largest tribal land mass in the country.

Navajo veterans line up to post colors on the floor of the Navajo Nation Council Chamber during the start of the summer session on July 17, 2023. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

The highlight of the summer session was the celebration of 100 years of the Navajo Nation Council, and as part of the first day of the summer session, reports from several top Navajo leaders were given to the council. 

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley highlighted that, as the council celebrates 100 years, the development of the Navajo Nation government is still a work in progress, though she and the other delegates recognize that the will of the Navajo people is a part of the government process has never dwindled.

“In fact, the call of our people to be involved and informed continues to grow,” Curley said. “As leaders, the responsibility to make our government open to the people rests on our shoulders.” 

Curley discussed several priorities during her address to the council, including water rights, American Rescue Plan Act funding, the fiscal year 2024 budget, the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives Task Force and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

“As we move into the next quarter, the Council will begin many more initiatives, including the 2024 budget session, in which all government departments and programs will present their goals and proposed budgets,” Curley said. “May this summer season bring many blessings to your families and communities.”

Nygren gave a State of the Navajo Nation address to the delegates, highlighting the work that he has done and will continue to do as president. 

“Our council-based government came into existence with the intention of making decisions in the best interest and highest good of all Diné,” Nygren said. “The council was created to make decisions about natural resources, much as we do today.”

Nygren said the council has changed and matured over the years through periods of peace and turmoil, including disagreements with the federal government. 

“It has evolved into what is the largest and most highly-developed three-branch tribal government in Indian Country,” Nygren said of the Navajo Nation Council. 

Nygren noted how, in the centennial year of the Council, they celebrate a government whose leadership is shared by many strong Navajo women leaders, including their first-ever woman Vice President Richelle Montoya.

He said the Navajo government has a legislative body led by its first woman speaker and it has the largest number of women delegates in its 100-year history. 

He highlighted how Chief Justice JoAnn Jayne and Associate Justice Eleanor Shirley head the judicial branch. Attorney General Ethel Branch and Deputy Attorney General Heather Clah lead the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.

Nygren also talked about the Arizona v. Navajo Nation ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Even though it was a loss for the tribe, he said the Navajo Nation will continue to move forward to secure their Arizona water rights. 

“The federal government is not obligated to quantify our water,” Nygren said, but the majority and dissenting opinions noted how the Navajo Nation has a claim to water rights in the Colorado River. 

“Justice (Neil) Gorsuch pointed out that the Navajo Nation has a right to intervene and push our claim to Colorado River water,” Nygren said. “I want the Navajo people to know that we will continue to pursue our claim to our water rights.

“The settling of our Arizona water rights is a priority. Negotiations have begun in earnest to firm our water rights through a settlement.” 

The 25th Navajo Nation Council summer session runs from July 17 to July 21, and it addresses new legislation introduced by delegates for assessment. 

As of July 17, there were 28 legislations on the agenda for the council to consider. The topics of the legislation range from title amendments to property purchases and mapping out funding project plans introduced by council delegates.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.