Navajo voters are deciding Tuesday who they want to be their next president — a position that wields influence nationally because of the tribe's hefty population and the size of it reservation in the U.S. Southwest.
Incumbent President Jonathan Nez is looking for another four years in the job to carry out infrastructure projects that will deliver running water, electricity and broadband to tens of thousands of tribal citizens who live without it.
“Here's an opportunity to put a shot in the arm for the Navajo economy and bring our Navajo people back,” Nez said in a recent interview. “Overall, this is nation building, about bringing our professionals home.”
Nez's challenger, Buu Nygren, also sees the need but said Nez has had more than two decades in politics to make it happen.
“I'm used to being held accountable in every job,” said Nygren, who has a background in construction management. “I'm taking that approach. If I don't perform, I have no business being here.”
The Navajo Nation’s population of 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. It also has the largest land base by far of any tribe at 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) stretching into parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
About a third of the reservation's residents, 126,000 Navajos, are registered to vote in the tribe’s general election that also will determine the makeup of the 24-member Navajo Nation Council — often seen as more powerful than the tribal presidency. Nez and Nygren emerged as the top two vote-getters in the tribe's primary election in August among 15 candidates.
Nez chose Chad Abeyta, a U.S. Air Force veteran and attorney, as his running mate. On Nygren's ticket is Richelle Montoya, the elected leader of the Torreon/Star Lake Chapter and a school board member.
The Navajo Nation has never elected a woman as president or vice president.
The Navajo Nation was thrust into the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic because at one point, it had one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the U.S. Its decisive action became a playbook for other tribes on how to enact lockdowns, curfews and other requirements to help slow the spread of the virus. The Navajo-area director for the Indian Health Service, Roselyn Tso, later was appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to lead the federal agency.
The virus highlighted long-standing inequities for Navajo people but also led to an infusion of federal money for the tribe that partly will be used for infrastructure.
The tribe has long relied on revenue from the coal industry to fund its government, but those revenues have been declining as coal-fired plants and mines shut down. While the Navajo Nation owns a stake in one coal plant and some coal mines, it’s been working to develop renewable energy sources.
Tourism also helps fuel the reservation's economy. Towering rock formations in Shiprock, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly are international draws, as is the story of the famed Navajo Code Talkers who developed an World War II code that the Japanese never cracked.
Nygren says Navajo should take advantage of its geography and history as a way to boost the economy, along with beautifying flea markets and roadside stands where vendors sell jewelry, food and other goods. Nygren, who was a tribal vice presidential candidate in 2018, has been frustrated at the pace of tribal government and projects.
Unemployment hovers around 50% on the reservation.
“Millions and millions of dollars probably cruise through the Navajo Nation every day, and we're not capturing it," Nygren said.
Nez acknowledged that businesses were hurt by strict measures enacted on the Navajo Nation to keep the coronavirus from spreading. He's encouraged mine and power plant workers who have lost their jobs and are skilled in various trades to form businesses and apply for what will be about $1 billion in contracts for infrastructure projects.
“There are some irons in the fire right now of some permanent changes,” he said.
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