Lynda Lovejoy waves to the crowd during the Navajo Nation Fair parade in Window Rock, Ariz., on Sept. 11. Lovejoy is seeking to become the tribe's first female president.
Lynda Lovejoy waves to the crowd during the Navajo Nation Fair parade in Window Rock, Ariz., on Sept. 11. Lovejoy is seeking to become the tribe's first female president. Felicia Fonseca/AP
The Navajo Nation elects a new president on Tuesday. And the country's largest American Indian tribe, which spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, could make history by choosing its first female leader. But to do so, it will have to overcome old cultural hurdles.
Going Against Tradition
Growing up on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, Eunice Manson learned to become a medicine woman. Speaking through a translator, she explains why a woman should never lead the Navajo people.
"At the time that she's becoming a leader, if there are any pregnant women out there, when they bear their children, they're going to bear monsters, with bad character, and these are the ones that are going to grow up and rise up and destroy our people," she says.
It's those traditional fears that presidential candidate Lynda Lovejoy needs to overcome. In the last presidential election she took a big first step. She shocked the reservation as the first Navajo woman to be a finalist for the presidency. She lost that race. But this year, she easily beat the other primary candidates, and even though there are no polls, many now consider her the favorite to win.
Lovejoy greets supporters in her native tongue during a recent parade in the dusty Navajo town of Tuba City, Ariz.
At a rally afterward, she outlines her platform: She wants to give the people a voice in government, create jobs and improve education.
While her running mate, Earl Tulley, addresses the crowd, she says she doesn't want people to vote for her solely because she's a woman.
"I'm not running on my gender, I'm running on my capabilities and my abilities and my skills and my knowledge," she says.
Lovejoy has never worked in Navajo government, but she is a New Mexico state legislator.
"Being on the outside, not on the inside, is really an advantage I believe," she says. "Because you're going to bring in best practices, new ideas. You're going to bring a different way to do things."
When It's Good To Be An Outsider
And there are a lot of Navajo people, like Myla Povateah, who want change.
"Here on the Navajo Nation, we've lost a lot of our culture," Povatean says. "We've lost a lot of our language, the younger generation don't speak Navajo. And I think Lovejoy and Tulley will bring a lot of those things back into the spotlight."
Daniel Kraker for NPR
Navajo Nation Vice President Ben Shelly addresses his supporters at a rally in Tuba City, Ariz. Shelly is running against Lynda Lovejoy for the presidency.
Navajo Nation Vice President Ben Shelly addresses his supporters at a rally in Tuba City, Ariz. Shelly is running against Lynda Lovejoy for the presidency. Daniel Kraker for NPR
Under a big red striped tent, supporters of Lovejoy's opponent, Ben Shelly, are holding a rally of their own. Shelly is a known commodity in Navajo politics — he's the current vice president and a longtime council member. He touches on a lot of traditional campaign themes, like jobs and education, but also more modern issues.
"I want the Navajo Nation to have solar power, wind power," Shelly says. "We want to be selling electricity to the states that don't have alternative energy."
Shelly's backers agree with that focus on building economic prosperity. People like Sharon Clahchischilliage all say they back him because of his experience — not because he's male.
"Ben Shelly has a lot of experience with the federal process, the Navajo Nation process, and Lovejoy doesn't have that experience," Clahchischilliage says. "In fact she has limited knowledge of the Navajo government, and it's going to be on-the-job training for her."
But in an election year where Navajo people — like Americans nationwide — are frustrated with their current crop of politicians, Lovejoy's outsider status may help her make history.