Next week, Navajos will choose whether to elect a president who has never held political office or a president whose career in tribal government spans two decades.
Incumbent President Jonathan Nez and his challenger Buu Nygren became the top two voters among 15 candidates in the tribe’s primary elections in August.
Both want to ensure that tens of thousands of people on the largest Native American reservation in the country have access to running water, electricity and broadband. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the lack of basic services in the Navajo Nation and led to the federal government allocating more than $2 billion, some of which will fund infrastructure projects.
Nez ascended to the presidency after serving as community leader, council delegate, county supervisor, and tribal vice president. He infused Christianity into the work while promoting a resurgence of Navajo culture and language, especially during the pandemic when Navajos were encouraged to stay on the reservation.
Nygren was propelled onto the political scene four years ago when Joe Shirley Jr. picked him as his running mate after Shirley’s initial choice failed to materialize. Nez got almost twice as many votes as Shirley, denying her a third term. Nygren resigned from a job in construction management to run for tribal president.
More than 126,000 Navajo are registered to vote in the tribe’s general election on November 8 which will also determine the composition of the 24-member Navajo Nation Council – often considered more powerful than the presidency.
Nez and Nygren are limited to raising around $180,000 each for the nonpartisan race, including the primary. Donations can only come from the Navajos.
Radio plays a huge role in campaign publicity due to the remoteness of the vast 27,000 square mile (70,000 square kilometer) reserve. Candidates also spend countless hours on the road meeting voters in tribal and off-reservation communities.
The tribe has by far the largest land base of any other Native American tribe in the United States, and its population of approximately 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Nez chose Chad Abeyta, a law school graduate, as his running mate. Nygren chose Richelle Montoya, who is president of a Navajo chapter on the New Mexico side of the reservation. The tribe has never elected a female president or vice president.
Nygren’s energy in some ways resembles what Nez showed in the 2018 election where he positioned himself as a young candidate ready to work on a to-do list generated by talking to Navajo voters. Nez’s tone is more measured now, as he tries to assure Navajos that progress is being made but it takes time.
During a recent debate at Arizona State University, Nygren suggested that the Nez administration had moved too slowly in negotiating water rights in Arizona and establishing an office in Phoenix to serve the Urban Navajos. He also criticized the president for what he called wasteful spending on a tribal office in Washington, D.C. and the purchase of property off the reservation.
“If you lose faith and hope that we can have a better future for tomorrow, then you should step aside,” Nygren told Nez during the debate. “But as the next president of the Navajo Nation, I am full of hope and aspiration for a better Navajo Nation.”
Nez countered that Nygren doesn’t understand how tribal government works and hasn’t built a network of local, state and federal leaders to advocate for funding and other resources for the Navajo Nation.
Nez also pushed back on claims that his administration was too strict in implementing measures during the pandemic in which more than 1,900 Navajos have died. Nez’s administration ordered lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions.
Navajo Nation businesses have not fully reopened, in part due to fewer than a handful of confirmed monkeypox cases, Nez said.
“We took our sovereignty seriously,” he said in an interview. “We have the ability to govern ourselves and we have kept this mask mandate in place. And if you ask the Navajo, they’ll say we had to do this to keep our people safe during the pandemic, and they accepted it.