The culture shock of government

By Duane A. Beyal
WINDOW ROCK, September 20, 2012

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C ulture shock can come in many forms.

One day I stopped at the Walmart in Payson, Ariz. Inside I was caught by surprise and stood still a moment.

Everyone was white!

I'm used to the Walmart in Gallup where nearly everyone is Navajo or some other tribe.

Not until you're in a different place do the characteristics of home stand out in their very absence. When the sea of brown faces was replaced by a sea of white faces in Payson, I was struck by the difference.

A worker from the Farmington area who came to Gallup for the Navajo-Gallup water pipeline project remarked, "There's nothing but Indians here!"

His friend replied, "Of course, you're on the rez."

Years ago, I had a two-week assignment in Washington, D.C. Besides the delirium of D.C. in summer, when it was time to fly back I couldn't wait to get home. As the plane approached Albuquerque, I couldn't wait to see a brown face.

Similarly, as we approach the halfway point of the current Navajo Nation Council and administration, we can only hope the personalities that people the various levels of our government will be able to overcome their own culture shock.

Maybe it was the lights, the grand halls of the state legislatures, or the white faces looking at him that caused President Ben Shelly to mouth a few inopportune words in reference to the governors of New Mexico and Arizona.

But like it or not, the stage is part and parcel of an elected official's job.

You can sense that Shelly's staff is trying to prepare him for public forums. For example, at the Nation Building Summit in August in Tsaile, Ariz., Shelly used a PowerPoint presentation. Keeping to a written script while the audience reads along may be safe, but Steve Jobs is gone and we can't expect Shelly to swoop and soar in front of a slide show and mesmerize whoever is listening and watching.

As for the Council, the delegates and their staff cling to a style of speech whose aim seems to be to obscure. Instead of stilted language like this resolution "relates to development," why can't the details and exact intent of the legislation be described?

Delegates have said that every piece of legislation is posted on the Council's website for anyone to see. Never mind our digital divide where large parts of the Navajo population do not have Internet access, but the meat of any bill is always contained in the attachments. If the speaker's office can include a summary of each bill in clear, simple language, bridging the information gap between lawmakers and citizens could be easier.

To be fair, every new administration in recent Navajo history had to endure the culture shock of elected office as the citizens waited for them to get their sea legs.

Also to be fair, the laws, rules, regulations and policies of government are set up to keep everyone in line and focused and to get business done. Without these systems, anything would go and we'd hear more than which governor turns the president on.

The broad sword of criticism can also apply to the news media, which are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the people. Just as in government, the news organizations are comprised of human beings who make errors and may lean in the direction of their opinions, perceptions and allegiances. Also like government, news people have their own system to ensure accuracy and fairness and, for the Navajo region, to stress the importance of culture.

Provided reporters follow these and other tenets, we may be assured the press is doing its job.

But the culture shock for the Navajo area press is to try to make the leadership and their actions interesting. The newness of the 24-member Council and the antics of Shelly show we need a little more aging and experience in the government before the training wheels come off.

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