Education and the Army took Ed Begay away from his beloved Navajo lands. But God led him back to New Mexico, not only to live in Navajo country, but to serve the entire Navajo nation—which he has faithfully done for almost 50 years.
Begay’s grandfather wanted a Christ-centered education for his grandson, who had lost both his mother and grandmother early in life. So at the age of 10, he was enrolled in Rehoboth Christian School.
“Rehoboth was tough,” Begay recalled. “I spoke only Navajo, but my grandfather so wanted me to learn English. Eventually, I learned the system and skipped two grades.”
Rehoboth and Calvin are longstanding partners in Christian education; numerous teachers on the school faculty were and are Calvin alumni. Begay said Rehoboth students often heard of the “CRC college in Grand Rapids.” Helped by his teachers and a scholarship from the Navajo Tribe (later called “Navajo Nation”), he left for Calvin College in the fall of 1956.
“It was a culture shock,” said Begay, “but I knew what I was getting into, and I chummed around with students from Denver and Chicago. There were other Navajos in Grand Rapids at the time, too, at Reformed Bible Institute [now Kuyper College] and elsewhere in the city.”
“I remember Dr. Strikwerda addressing me in class, “O.K. Begay from Gallup”—we shared a love of trains, especially the Santa Fe railroad near my home—and Dr. Ippel would have us read the news from the Manchester Guardian from Britain to show us different viewpoints on world events.”
Begay intended to pursue a business administration degree at Calvin, but when he came home the summer after his sophomore year, a draft notice from the Army awaited him. He tried to get a deferment to finish college, but that wasn’t available. Off he went, first to Fort Carson in Colorado, then to Fort Ord in California and finally to Fort Jackson in South Carolina, all the while honing his administrative skills.
Returning to New Mexico after his term of service, Begay never wound up back at Calvin. He got married, started business school and was quickly hired to be a data processor for the Navajo Nation. He also began a storied career in tribal politics.
“Some of the local tribal leaders thought I was pretty sharp—I knew data, finances and current news—so they elected me as a Navajo chapter president,” said Begay. In 1971, he was nominated for the Navajo Tribal Council, an 88-member representational body for the entire nation. His influence on the council grew until he became a member of the 18-person executive committee, ascending to third in line after the president and the vice president.
“I saw this as my opportunity to make some changes in the workings of the government,” Begay said. “I sponsored a number of resolutions to update tribal codes. There was some resistance and change did not happen immediately, but I saw that the Christian ethics of Rehoboth and Calvin that were in me put the ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ theme into what I was doing.”
Begay was interested in codifying what are called the “Navajo Fundamental Laws,” in effect bringing the richness of Navajo culture into government.
“So many things are not written down in Navajo culture,” he explained. “One relies on certain rules, similar to the Ten Commandments, that are handed down and taught: matters related to family, community, government, neighbors, nature, work. I wanted to be sure that these values were passed down from generation to generation.”
Begay threw his hat into the ring to be re-elected vice chair of the council in 1987, but lost and spent the next four years working for an energy company, the only years since his return to New Mexico in 1960 that weren’t in direct service for the Navajo Nation.
Urged to get back into tribal politics, Begay ran for election to the council again in 1991 and was soon tapped for leadership. From 1999 to 2003, he was named Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council. He retired from the council at the end of his second term.
Although not an active council member, Begay still wields influence. He visits council chambers regularly and talks to members about the impact of their votes. Those in the halls of the council still address Begay as “Speaker.”
“Extreme reasonableness and an ability to be shrewdly analytical and simultaneously gracious in human relations are attributes of Ed Begay that I truly admire,” wrote the Honorable Elizabeth Furse, former Oregon congressperson and now special adviser to the national Tribal Leadership Forum. “They are attributes too rarely seen in governing bodies.”
Begay remains involved in Navajo Nation business. After a “two-week retirement” in 2003, he was asked to serve on the nation’s Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, as well as chair the board of the nation’s Agricultural Product Industry.
“I’ve now become a carpenter and farmer,” he quipped.
In addition to this impressive history of service to the nation’s council, Begay has served in numerous capacities for local county organizations, regional insurance boards and the state of New Mexico, including the state’s highway commission, finance committee and commissions on economics, human resources, Indian Affairs and the state’s bicentennial.
He also was the founding member of the Navajo Area School Board Association and was the chairman of the board for the American Indian National Bank in Washington, D.C.
Begay has always seen his faith as integral to his role as a statesman.
“For a Christian, the minute you confess your faith, that’s a start. You use the opportunity to let it be known through your talk, your respect for creation,” he said.
To today’s graduating Calvin seniors, Begay advised: “The challenge is so vast. Rather than trying to do all things, focus on what gives you satisfaction and gives God the glory. You have been blessed; do something with these blessings that honors God the Maker.”
Begay’s wife, Celia, attended Calvin for two years and later received an RN degree, followed by a BSN from the University of New Mexico. She passed away in 1991. He has two daughters, Sharlene and Sandra, and two grandchildren.
—By Michael J. Van Denend
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