Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times: Edward T. Begay

Institute for Tribal Government

Produced by the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University in 2004, the landmark “Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times” interview series presents the oral histories of contemporary leaders who have played instrumental roles in Native nations' struggles for sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights. The leadership themes presented in these unique videos provide a rich resource that can be used by present and future generations of Native nations, students in Native American studies programs, and other interested groups.

In this interview conducted in November 2001, former Vice Chairman and Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council Edward T. Begay talks about his long and distinguished career with the Navajo Nation, as well as his commitment to preserving Navajo traditions and creating a sustainable, culturally appropriate economy for his people.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Institute for Tribal Government.

Native Nations

Begay, Edward T. "Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times" (interview series). Institute for Tribal Government, Portland State University. Window Rock, Arizona. November 2001. Interview.

Kathryn Harrison:

"Hello. My name is Kathryn Harrison. I am presently the Chairperson of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. I have served on my council for 21 years. Tribal leaders have influenced the history of this country since time immemorial. Their stories have been handed down from generation to generation. Their teaching is alive today in our great contemporary tribal leaders whose stories told in this series are an inspiration to all Americans both tribal and non-tribal. In particular it is my hope that Indian youth everywhere will recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by these great tribal leaders."

[Native music]


"Edward T. Begay, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, was born in the Church Rock Community of New Mexico about six miles east of the City of Gallup. The boundaries of the Navajo Reservation extend from northwestern New Mexico into northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah. The reservation is larger than many states and the Navajo Nation is recognized as the largest Indian tribe in the United States. Ed T. Begay's grandparents encouraged him to get an education in the dominant culture. They sent him to Rehoboth Mission High School rather than a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. He then attended Calvin College and received his degree from Southwest Business College. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate from College of Ganado. After service in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1960 he came to Window Rock and served as head of the Data Processing Unit for the Navajo Nation. During this time he saw issues that needed to be addressed and thereafter began a long public service career with the Navajo Nation. The structure of the Navajo Nation government has changed over time as the people have taken greater control over their affairs. In the 1860s tensions grew between the Navajo, the U.S. Army and non-Indian ranchers who had settled in the area. Although many Navajos resisted, Kit Carson rounded up approximately 8,000 and force-marched them to Fort Sumner. Several thousands died on the march, the four-year imprisonment and the march home. This episode of misery but also survival is known as the Long Walk. The Peace Commission and the Treaty of 1868 allowed the Navajo survivors to return. The treaty set aside a reservation, a fraction of the original homeland. And in exchange for peace the U.S. Government promised basic services to the Navajo. The tenacious Navajo people built their lives and communities again. In the 1920s a Navajo Nation Business Council was established by the U.S. Government to deal with oil companies that were seeking leases on Navajo lands. Then in the 1930s the first Navajo tribal council was organized. In 1989 the National Council was again restructured. A legislative branch was created and an Office of the Speaker established. The 88 members of the council are elected based on the population of 110 chapters. The Speaker is the CEO of the legislative branch. Ed T. Begay was elected to two terms to the Office of the Speaker, first in 1999 becoming the third Speaker of the Navajo Nation council. Before his terms as speaker he had already built a distinguished career in service of the Nation serving as a council delegate for the Church Rock and Bread Springs chapters for more than 30 years. He proudly served on several committees including Education and Economic Development and Planning. From 1983 to 1987 he served the Navajo Nation as Vice Chairman with then Chairman Peterson Zah. Ed T. Begay is committed to the project of developing the economic self sufficiency of the Navajo people. Government work on many levels fascinates him. Today he serves as a Highway Commissioner for the State of New Mexico. He is also engaged in an initiative that will document Navajo traditions and culture. He has two daughters, Charlene Begay Platero and Sandra Begay Campbell. He is the grandfather of twin toddlers whom he says, "˜really like to use their voices.' The Institute for Tribal Government interviewed Edward T. Begay in November, 2001 in Window Rock, Arizona."

The Navajo Long Walk of the 1860s, Kit Carson and the peoples' four-year imprisonment at Fort Sumner

Edward Begay:

"Through my grandfather Jesus his grandfather was the official, he was a Spanish man and he was the official interpreter for the Navajos in Fort Sumner. So by virtue of that my grandfather's grandfathers and mothers they were part of that Long Walk. Well, I guess by reading about them later on in life sometimes it's irritating from a standpoint that there was no human rights in those days. I guess there was but nobody emphasized that so it was more or less on the plunder and conquer approach. Sometimes a bit of resentment but then you have to take it into perspective in terms of history and what was taking place and try to work with the attitude that's in place."

As a child, Ed Begay learned about leadership and the rules of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from his family members

Edward Begay:

"My sisters and I were raised by my grandparents and my dad eventually he moved back to Tohatchi where his family, his mom and dad were. But as...I don't know, about five or six years old my grandfather always talked about different policies that are being placed upon Navajos by Bureau of Indian Affairs. Why he is so astute to that is him being the chief rancher and cattle rancher and raised horses so they always talk about grazing areas and units of sheep and how many you're supposed to be limited to such and such numbers in order to fit the pasture. So as small as I was just listening to the elderly people discuss I became very keen aware that there is an ongoing struggle in terms of federal government's rules that are placed upon Indian people, in our case Navajo people. And my grandfather Tom Jesus was very involved in leadership role. He was...I guess some people nowadays would say he was a headsman of a group in a community. And from there on it stemmed into Navajo chapter government so he was chapter president for I don't know how long. But from the meetings he would always bring back what the government policies are and the programs that they want to undertake -- they, meaning the Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives."

Learning the dominant culture at a Christian boarding school and at home the teachings of grandparents

Edward Begay:

"As I was growing up my grandmother and grandfather they wanted me to get educated in a dominant society. So rather than that they placing me what the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school they put me in private school. It was an interesting experience. Not knowing a word of English and I thought to myself, "˜Let's see how would I do best in learning other language and who would speak to me so that I would readily understand and also be able to maintain it and also practice it?' But I wasn't the only one, there the whole class, the first students in my age group, we were all similar. There was one or two that understood the English language. Of course in those days they taught from the simplest book in pictures. So in that way I can readily relate what they're trying to describe and name names and the action that they produce to get your verbs and so forth. But once in awhile when we would play by ourselves, we would talk Navajo and we were punished, I guess we were disciplined for doing so because the teachers and the people that were advising us, they wanted us to learn and speak fluent English and understand the printed page and so forth. It was interesting. But we paid attention to the discipline that was involved and oh, discipline meaning along the lines of military type of discipline where we'd go to...time to go eat breakfast and lunch and dinner we would all get lined up according to size and we would march not so in military steps but we'd march and go in groups and then we would sit in the dining room. We learned etiquettes of the world. Then also in terms of play you've got to give a fair consideration for the other person. That's a key in terms of getting along with people and in terms of you had to share responsibilities in different areas, in classrooms, keeping the classrooms tidy and not only that but also in the dormitory situation and also in terms of studies and all different subjects. To me ... and learned was that it meant something as a tool, as a tool that you could use in life. It wasn't just something like the temporary stuff. These are the things that one would learn and keep and maintain because I keep going back to grandparents. If you learn something, if they teach you something, you better pay attention and understand and be able to apply it because their teaching was, "˜If you can learn well, then you will be positioned to teach your children later on when you get married and have your own children. And if you don't know, then it will get chaotic.' That was the teachings of our grandparents.

The need for flexibility when operating in two cultures

Edward Begay:

"Learn the phrase, when you're in Rome do as the Romans do and that goes a long ways. I tell you it can even work today. It's just like yesterday I was attending the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission which is to redraw the state legislature boundaries and also congressional down in Arizona, been following it real close. So we had to play their game. That's what it means. You have to speak the language that they use that they can understand and that they pay attention and that's the phrase that it'll go a long ways for. Many people if they could understand that rather than saying, "˜I'm Navajo therefore I can't be open to what the discussion is about or the subject matter that's being discussed.' If you do that then they leave you behind so you've got to keep up with it. There's a constant awareness that one must be aware of."

Learning and teaching discipline in the military

Edward Begay:

"Then I got my assignment in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I used to train troops for 18 months. The people that, the majority that came through that army camp was Puerto Ricans and they thought that they could just run over me by being stubborn and all that. So I said, "˜Okay, if that's what you want to do, I've got the patience and I'm in shape and we could run and run and run.' That's how I got my point across. They don't want to run, "˜Okay, you pay attention to what I'm teaching.' So as long as I'm on the platform I'm in charge, you do as I say because I know what I'm talking about because these are the things that I got taught and therefore you have to learn the discipline. About the third day I was understood pretty well. They know who's in charge and why. One of them asked, they said, "˜Why?' I said, "˜If you don't learn discipline here, when you get into actual combat you'll be the first casualty.' I said, "˜That's why I'm teaching you discipline to pay attention and understand the commands that are given. When I say hit the dirt you say how hard. That's for your safety. No other reason just for your safety.' Once you put that thought across then it goes a long ways for being understood and provide timely leadership and also surprisingly by the time they finished four weeks or eight weeks, they come and thank you for all the lessons that you taught them. That's gratifying."

Ed Begay began his service with the Navajo Nation in data processing

Edward Begay:

"They thought I was a computer whiz then but then the community that I come from, Church Rock, they have this chapter, local government of the Navajos. I would go to these meetings and I would just sit in the audience and there were some things that I thought they were overlooking, I thought they were elementary so I would address that in a timely manner. So one day they said, "˜Young man,' they said, "˜if you think you're so smart, we're going to put you in as chapter president. What would you say then?' I responded to the gentleman and I said, "˜If that's a challenge, as soon as you vote me in I would provide leadership for you, the community.' I said, "˜Leadership means that I have to tell you what to do, when to do it and how to do it. And then you have to pay attention.' I said, "˜That's what you're asking of me to do, then you vote for me.' So that's how I got elected chapter president and I served, didn't finished my term, three years or so then I got nominated to serve on be candidate for Navajo Nation council delegate."

He was in the forefront of forming the Navajo Area School Board Association

Edward Begay:

"So we got organized and from all over the reservation and they said, "˜We want to get in that circle where the decision is made, approving budgets, hiring personnel and program changes.' So I was one of the organizers for federal legislation where the Bureau has to recognize a school board membership where they would be responsible for Bureau of Indian Affairs school. So I got elected from my chapter to Fort Wingate High School Board, one of the original and served there and by virtue of that there was at that time 67 schools on Navajo, Bureau operated, funded. Then each of these all had school board members eventually. When the federal legislation came through, we got organized so that we have an area association that oversees these school operations. A lot of work but we got it done, it's in place, it's working."

Meeting resistance to reform

Edward Begay:

"Some people naturally in any society there's always resistance but that just adds a lot of energy that you want to do better and you want to convince them and that's the approach that I took, especially with the people that understood what the agenda was, which was to be properly authorized so that could be in charge of these schools as a school board elected by the community that we come from where we send our children."

The influence of the 1960s on the Navajo people, using their voices

Edward Begay:

"Being out there in various communities, working and also being part of communities in different places, yes, I think Navajo people got swept into those movements and I guess in that way they realized, Indian people realized that, hey, you could be outspoken and be heard and you could write your opinions and like writing to the editor in news media or get interviewed and get your thoughts across. A lot of people would pay attention to what you have to say if you take it a positive way with the human interest in it, yeah, people will pay attention."

He has devoted 35 years to the service of the Navajo Nation

Edward Begay:

"I've been reelected since 1970 up to 1982; '82 I guess I could have continued but at that time, 1982 I was asked by Peterson Zah that he was running for chairman of the council and he asked me if I would consider being his running mate as the vice chairman of the council. So I resigned from my candidacy as a council and came up with the Peterson Zah to seek the nomination and election for primary and general, which we did. So I served as vice chairman of the council from 1982 to 1987. For reelection we lost reelection by 750 votes."

Restructuring the Navajo government following the years of Peter McDonald

Edward Begay:

"I was out of office that period of time. However, as all politicians do that you work behind the scenes to get your ideas and programs in place. So I worked a lot in that period of time in that fashion. And some of the sitting council friends and relatives they were active participants in that. I think they're just...I knew being on the council prior I knew that this was going to come about sometimes. By that I mean that the Navajo Nation council is the governing body and whoever's chairman or president, if they want additional powers to do certain things, they have to go back to the council to receive that authority. During Peter McDonald's term in '87, '88, '89 at that time quite a bit of or most of the power was delegated to the chairman then. So when Peter McDonald came back to regain his seat he knew he had all the delegated authority so he didn't pay attention to what was being advised by the council. He said, "˜I'm duly authorized, therefore you have no say.' So the council said, "˜Okay, we'll test this.' So they stripped him of all the delegated powers and reserved unto themselves. They brought everything back only the position of the chairman and the vice chairman. It came down to they tell him when to come to work and when to quit and what he can do and what he can't do. That's where all the eruption that the council did wrong and that they were abusing their power at allegation and so forth. But that's, to me that's the bottom line. So he had to pay attention to the council. So by virtue of the restructuring, all the powers that were delegated to the chairman then was given...the council took it all back and they did distribute that power to the standing committee of the council. That's the way it is now, which is Title II as amended. And then by virtue of that they created the office of the president and vice president, they created office of the speaker for legislative branch to preside over the council and also oversee the day to day activity of legislative branch. And then of course we have the judicial branch, which is headed by chief justice to do all the activities. So they worked those things out and that's what we have in place now."

The Nation has turned down gaming

Edward Begay:

"I think in the area of authorizing legalized gaming on Navajo I think it's a mix. The elderly people, those that pay close attention to culture, say that it's not the proper thing for the Navajos to establish because it creates a lot of disruption in the family, disruption in the spending pattern and then also disruption of marriages and all the related vices that goes with outright gaming if one does not closely control and monitor. I think that's one of the basic reasons why they kind of, the Navajo people kind of says, "˜Slow down a minute.' And then there's some other segment of Navajo population they like to establish gaming so that we could capture all the monies from other people rather than from the Navajo people themselves. But in order to do that I think education is the key to that."

The place of traditional wisdom in the everyday decisions of life

Edward Begay:

"In my personal life in the early years I was brought up as believing in the practice of Navajo beliefs meaning Navajo prayers, meaning Navajo songs and certain things of doing. People call it rituals but it's just the way Navajo practice their beliefs and practice through the ceremony, that's how I was brought up. But when I got into a Christian school then I was taught about the discipline of Christian practice and to me they are very strict. It's not just hearsay. By that I mean they're in thick books, they're all spelled out and you could, if there's a certain subject matter you wanted to address or find out why they are written you go to those source and they'll explain it to you, detail. Before I lose my train of thought, that's where I would like as a speaker to council now before my term is up I'd like to get those, some of those principles in Navajo practice to print and into maybe a law but the people tend to say you shouldn't do that. But I myself believe it should be written down, you should have books on it so my grandkids that follows me would know what I was talking about, they could go to that reference. The way it is now you have to find some elderly folks to be your reference on those songs or prayers and practice. On the other side, in the Christian faith it's all written down so that there's no room to wiggle "˜cause it's there. But for myself, if you just pay attention to those principles that are written down and then also the principle of Navajo that are handed down verbally we understand I can almost put it together just from my own belief and there's some variations but very little if you pay attention to those fine print. I think that that helped me in life to have a strong faith in myself and also the good Lord above that guides me and provides me wisdom to make all these supposedly hard decisions, tough decisions. But if you have those things in place those are just day to day decisions one makes to survive in life."

The need for real commitment to the task of developing economic self-sufficiency

Edward Begay:

"At the same time we have to pay attention to orderly development in all these different areas because there's so much regulation, environmental protection laws. We have our own environmental protection laws in place now. If one could pay attention to all those I think there's a business opportunity for an entity. The Navajo Nation talks about developing Navajo entrepreneurship but they just say it in words, they need to put it in practice. But at the same time the people, the Navajo people, business people need to have a personal initiative, drive, which means you have to sacrifice to achieve what you're after because nobody's going to give it to you. If you wait for that, there's a long list for handout. The handout just lasts a little bit but if you're in private business I think you have unlimited opportunity that I think which we Navajo individuals yet to grasp fully so I think that's a challenge for not only Navajos but I think it's for Indian communities."

On whether the tribal council shares his views on economic development

Edward Begay:

"I wish 87 other members did, they would be a very dangerous council to work with meaning that they would just blow up the opportunity, that's what I mean. But they express it but when it comes to financing then everybody starts hedging back. Let me just use the word loosely or even the full meaning, they hate to take risk. I feel if anything you want to do worthwhile for yourself or for your family or for your neighbors and your kin folks, you have to take some risk. But you've got to know the risk that you're taking up front rather than just surprise type of thing. I think that's a virtue that people have yet to fully learn."

The Navajo Nation and the U.S. Congress

Edward Begay:

"This might surprise you but the strongest advocate that the Navajo has is a Hawaii senator, Senator Dan Inouye. He's very interested in Navajo language, he's very interested in culture and very interested how we do things. I guess...he says it intrigues him and it also challenges him. Secondly is from New Mexico, Senator Pete Domenici. Sometimes he gets upset with us but I always tell him, "˜Senator, you have nowhere to go. We're here to stay.' So he's very helpful. Senator Jeff Bingaman although he doesn't take our advice at times, but then he too has to pay attention to Navajo. Then you get to the Arizona side it's a different story. By that I mean they tend to take care of the dominant society's interests first, then if there's some left over they might share it with you or support you, DeConcini, Kyl. Then to Utah the Mormons have all these wonderful things for me the people should do but when the pressure is applied they have a tendency to shy away. There again, they take care of their own first and if there's some left over we'll share with the Native Americans. This is in terms of proper funding from the federal government. That's what I'm alluding to and also for ongoing support for economic development. By that I mean if United States government can at the twinkling of an eye can appropriate $40 billion, no argument for some other places they can't even take care of their own here. This is sad. But that's in the real world."

Asserting Navajo sovereignty on every level

Edward Begay:

"That doesn't mean we have to sit down and say, "˜We're going to give up.' No, that just adds fuel to our work and for myself, I get involved in the state legislature, county government, chapter government, United States government and international. Last fall three of the council members we were delegates to United Nation in Geneva, Switzerland. They meet for two weeks. Anyway I was there for one week and then my counterpart Chief Justice Yazzie took care of...sat in the second week so we had full coverage. So that's where in that forum as a government, you have to go there as a government to be effective I learned. But when I gave my statement on some issues all those people turned around and faced the Navajo delegation when we made a presentation because we were there as the Navajo government. Interesting, it was very interesting. And they pay attention to what you have to say and they said they value the recommendation that you present to them. That's a very rich experience in terms of worldwide governance I call it. That's where each Indian Nations of the United States and Canada should be. Hopefully Navajo Nation will get a seat one of these days."

The most important quality in leadership

Edward Begay:

"The key things is your upbringing, putting it to use at the higher level, higher level meaning in the government with the mass, let me just say the mass population of your group. You have to be dedicated. I guess some leaders they want to go for individual achievements. It could be done but they come and go to me. But if you're serious in being dedicated to impact and also improve the livelihood of your people you have to be honest with them. I think a lot of leaders come and go because that's where they fall. They're not honest, the true sense of the word honest with their people. I like to pride myself in being honest and level with the people that I represent meaning that I just tell them just the way things are at and also give them the consequences that might be involved if you continue to...sometimes it's not a pleasant thing to do. To achieve that you have to be honest with yourself in order to be honest with your fellow man."

Edward Begay's family

Edward Begay:

"Right now I'm a widow. I lost my wife 10 ½ years ago. She was Cecilia Damon Begay was her name. She was very supportive. I think one of the reasons is her upbringing and also the educational background that she had. She was a graduate of UNM in health science and she was a registered nurse. We have two daughters, Charlene Begay Platero, a son-in-law John Platero. Two weeks ago they adopted twin babies, a boy and a girl so they are proud parents as I speak. My daughter's a UNM graduate and she has her discipline in marketing. She works for Navajo Nation Economic Development in the area of all these activities marketing. She's an outspoken lady. She's a Rehoboth school board president until she resigned last week "˜cause she has two babies to tend to. She works really well with the state legislature and the State Department, New Mexico and working her way into the Arizona portion, coordinating in the area of economic development and ongoing things. And my son-in-law works, he's a foreman with the giant refinery just out of Gallup so they live in Gallup. My younger daughter Sandra Begay Campbell, she's a structural engineer for Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque and her husband is a mechanical engineer. Yeah, my daughter Sandra got her master's degree out of Stanford University and presently she just last January she was appointed to the University of New Mexico Board of Regents, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the New Mexico Senate."

His daughters did not speak the Navajo language in the home but many years later Speaker Begay and other leaders agreed to utilize it in government activities

Edward Begay:

"Surprisingly they understand but they can't talk fluently back to me. But that was my own fault, my wife and I's own fault. We consciously made a decision early on since both of us did not understand English, speak English when we went to school, as we went through school we had a tough time, at least I did, I had a tough time doing English composition. I always switch words around and I was thinking Navajo instead of English language and so we made a conscious decision that we would talk English to our daughters and that way they could excel. And they did I think, in my mind they did but then they had to go back and pick up learning Navajo and I think they can do that. They understand but it's just a matter of practicing speaking, a conversation with their aunts and so forth. But other than that I think in some cases Navajo families we speak mixed language, Navajo and English, we intermingle then that way you would understand me fully if I spoke to you in that way or the same way with the Navajo. If I spoke to them in Navajo and English to them they would lose the true meaning of my conversation or the idea I'm trying to convey to them. Knowing that, President Begay and I and Chief Justice Robert Yazzie, we said during our term or at least my term be supportive of them and they supported me is that they would preserve Navajo language and culture in all aspects of our governmental activities. That's what we're going with. It's a struggle. They say, "˜What are you saying?'"

Achievements and disappointments

Edward Begay:

"I guess there's several but just achieving the goal of getting educated and also provide leadership to Navajo people, not only the Navajo people but provide leadership to the county. I was a county commissioner for two terms in McKinley County and right now I'm serving as a highway commissioner for the State of New Mexico serving second term, the only individual that was appointed twice. So if I complete my term I will have served the State of New Mexico in that capacity for 12 years. And in that earlier statement I made was that when you're in Rome do as the Romans do and that's what I do best in those settings is provide leadership in that commission in terms of budgeting. But if I could only have that opportunity on the Navajo council it would have been wonderful but on the commission side I just deal with five versus I have to deal with 87 on the council side, that's the difference. I think the other one is achieving to be the Speaker of the Navajo Nation council elected twice, the second term being elected by a commission. So I'm the third Speaker of the Council, which is I think an achievement in terms of it's a new concept and being able to come and being the third one that in itself to me is a special achievement."

The legacy he would like to leave

Edward Begay:

"One of them probably be is just being fair and being honest and always promoting Navajo interests. Then also too is that I've been able to work with any government meaning that I said before that I'm electable in Navajo setting and also getting appointed to a state commission position and do an excellent job for them. That way they reap the benefit of the achievements that I made in those areas."

The dream of documenting Navajo traditions in a lasting piece of work

Edward Begay:

"Under my current term one of my plans was that I'm going to put Navajo Common Law to writing. As we speak one of my staff members is...I just gave them outline and I said, "˜Now you fill in the blanks.' In there it would be a guide, a guide and also a constant reminder for whoever reads this that these are the concepts and the practice that were used by our ancestors and this. But if they do it proper in reverent manner they could never go wrong so we'll have a book on it I hope."

The Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times series and accompanying curricula are for the educational programs of tribes, schools and colleges. For usage authorization, to place an order or for further information, call or write Institute for Tribal Government – PA, Portland State University, P.O. Box 751, Portland, Oregon, 97207-0751. Telephone: 503-725-9000. Email:

[Native music]

Videotaping and Video Assistance
Chuck Hudson, Jeremy Fivecrows and John Platt of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

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Photo credit:
Navajo Nation
Edward T. Begay

Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times is also supported by the non-profit Tribal Leadership Forum, and by grants from:
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