July 24, 2019 / Modified jul 24, 2019 3:11 p.m.

Tohono O'odham Nation inaugurates leadership

Ned Norris Jr. and Wavalene Saunders had previously served as chairman and vice chairwoman.

Norris and Saunders sing Chairman Ned Norris Jr. and Vice Chairwoman Wavalene Saunders close out their inauguration with a Tohono O'odham song, Friday, July 19, 2019.
Emma Gibson/AZPM

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The Tohono O'odham Nation celebrated the inauguration of Chairman Ned Norris Jr. and Vice Chairwoman Wavalene Saunders Friday.

Leaders from other tribal governments, United States government officials and members of the Tohono O'odham Nation gathered together at Sells Recreation Center to welcome the pair into their new roles. Cissimarie Juan, former Miss Tohono O'odham Nation and former Miss Indian Arizona, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" in O'odham.

Norris served as chair from 2007-2015, and Saunders served as vice chair from 2011-2015. They lost the election to Edward Manuel and Verlon Jose in 2015.

They were re-elected in May and will serve a four-year term.

Norris and Saunders identified many things they hope to improve during their administration, including road conditions, health care and climate change. Norris addressed President Donald Trump on the subject during his inauguration speech.

"Believe in our not, Mr. President of the United States, we have a climate change issue," said Norris. "When you have 95 degrees in Alaska something is going wrong, Mr. President, and you need to understand that."

He said that members of the Tohono O'odham Nation also needed to understand how climate change affects life on the nation. He encouraged the crowd to realize the nation needs to respond as a group to changes in its environment.

Norris also said he has plans to strengthen the nation's relationship with the state universities in Arizona and build on the symbolic acts of acknowledgement towards Indigenous peoples by these institutions.

"We can begin to understand each other," said Norris. "We can utilize the services. We can do something more than just erect monuments on their campus to acknowledge the existence of the Native population in those areas."

He said instead of statues, he'd like to pursue discussions that address injustices inflicted on Indigenous populations in the United States.

The event included a blessing by Manuel Havier and performances from Marissa Valentine and Shania Manuel. Norris and Saunders closed the ceremony with a song — an O'odham prayer.


Eds.: This version of the story corrects the years Saunders served as vice chair prior to the 2019 election.

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