The president of the Navajo Nation was sworn in Tuesday to continue as the tribe's top leader — even though he badly lost his re-election bid.
That's because the presidency of the country's largest American Indian reservation is in limbo over an election that hasn't been scheduled. As a result, Shelly will remain president as part of a deal he struck with lawmakers until the mess gets sorted out.
Shelly's inauguration was low-key and initially advertised as being closed to the media, although his staff said that restriction was lifted at the last minute. He didn't give a speech or outline priorities for the indefinite time he and Vice President Rex Lee Jim will serve.
"We'll keep it together until somebody shows up," Shelly said in a news release.
One of Shelly's advisers, Deswood Tome, said Shelly would not seek to start any new projects.
Tribal lawmakers were sworn in during a public ceremony nearby in Fort Defiance that was broadcast live online. Speakers at the event hardly mentioned the presidential election that was thrown into turmoil after Chris Deschene, one of the winners in last August's primary, was disqualified in a language-fluency case.
Russell Begaye survived a challenge to his qualifications to replace Deschene and face Joe Shirley Jr. in a general election.
The tribe's high court mandated that the election be held by Jan. 31. But Shelly and lawmakers approved a do-over allowing all previous 17 primary election candidates to face off in a special election in June. The top two vote-getters would move on to the August general election, and the new president would take the oath of office in September.
Tome said Shelly wouldn't run again, considering his seventh-place finish in the primary. Shelly said Tuesday he would return to the private sector or consider running for elected office elsewhere.
It's unclear whether the election will move forward as Shelly and the lawmakers planned. Attorneys for the men who challenged Deschene asked the Navajo Nation Supreme Court late Monday to reaffirm the January election date and hold the elections director and tribal lawmakers who voted for the special election in contempt of court.
Some lawmakers have disagreed with the high court's rulings, saying they have disenfranchised thousands of Navajo voters, most of whom supported Deschene.
Deschene unsuccessfully sought to have the order disqualifying him from the race overturned after it was believed that Richie Nez, the hearing officer who issued it, also did not qualify for his job. Shelly fired Nez, but Tome said his termination is being reconsidered.
Joe Aguirre with the tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals said Monday that Nez meets the qualifications in having a Navajo Nation Bar Association license and never was required to be state-bar licensed. Aguirre said the published tribal code doesn't accurately reflect a plan of operation passed in 1995 and upheld Nez's rulings.