Harnessing woman power

Navajo Women’s Commission takes on full slate for 2017


It’s called the Navajo Nation Women’s Commission, but it could as easily have been labeled “The Commission on the Navajo Family,” or “Attacking the Nation’s Social Ills.”
Because in Navajo culture, male and female are not easily separated.

“At the time this commission was formed (in 1985),” said its chairperson, Vivian Arviso, “Women’s Lib was a national political struggle. I don’t think Indian women have ever been part of that. We’re taught from an early age to respect our men and work with them as equals.”

Added Charlotte Begaye, the commission’s longest-serving member, “In our (Diné) history, we already tried separation of the sexes. It only brought discord and confusion.”

So if you look at the commission’s busy calendar for this year, you won’t find very many events that are specifically geared toward women. There are family conferences, developing a model syllabus for domestic violence prevention, but also cowboy poetry, public service awards, a writers’ institute and an ambitious “assessment for social problems within the Navajo Nation.”

In the commission’s 32-year history, noted Begaye, its level of activity has ebbed and flowed. Sometimes it has only managed to pull together one conference. This year, with nine events scheduled just through September, it’s at high tide.

Both Begaye and the commission’s newest member, Ramona Begay, who was appointed a month ago to fill a vacancy in Eastern Agency, credit Arviso’s leadership.

“She lets us run with our ideas,” noted Begay. But “she also checks up on us,” Begaye said.

Arviso shifts the credit back to her team.

“They’re all very strong Diné women,” she said, “and their strengths are all in different areas.”

Each of the five commission members — Arviso, Begaye, Begay, Lolita Paddock and Shirley Montoya — represents a different agency of the Nation. All are well educated, several are businesswomen, and Begay and Begaye served as chapter officials.

“Most of us have full-time jobs,” said Arviso, who holds a Ph.D. and owns Arviso Educational Services, Inc., a consulting company. “With a very small budget of $16,000, it’s amazing we do as much as we do.”

The commission was formed under the Peterson Zah administration to provide some balance in the Navajo Nation government.

“Back then, there were very few women in government,” Arviso said.

One could argue that is still the case with respect to the Navajo Nation Council, but in other aspects, it has changed very much for the better.

“We have women heading major divisions,” Arviso noted, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more women attorneys than men in the DOJ.”

So while the original focus of the commission was getting women motivated to realize their potential and play a bigger role in government, the priority has shifted toward tackling some of the Navajo Nation’s more intractable problems affecting the family.

This year, for example, the main focus is literacy; thus the cowboy poetry, essay contest and writers’ conference.

Under the Navajo Nation Code, the duties of the commission are so broad and so vague (just one of its 10 mandates reads, “to disseminate information to the Navajo public concerning men, youth, children and women’s issues, maintain local participation of men, youth, children and women within their communities, and advocate the continuation and support of programs and laws assisting Navajo men, women, youth and children”) that one wonders how the commission decides where to start.

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Categories: Community

About Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at editor@navajotimes.com.