Navajo Nation Faces Paramount Election

When Americans vote in the congressional elections Nov. 7, about 300,000 Navajos will be voting for their president. The next leader of the Navajo Nation will be one for the history books. Either incumbent President Joe Shirley will become the first to win the presidency twice, or his opponent Lynda Lovejoy will be the first woman elected to the office.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Did you hear that little broadcast ad in Mike's piece? Candidates are always trying to get attention with TV ads, and phone banks, and Internet outreach -but what if many of your voters don't have electricity? That's the challenge confronting candidates for next week's Navajo Nation presidential contest. The Navajo are the largest Native American group in the country. Julie Rose of member station KCPW in Salt Lake City reports.

JULIE ROSE: On the Navajo reservation near the Four Corners area, wind rattles the tin roofs of one-room huts. Pick-ups bump along the dirt roads, and the orange cliffs stretch for miles. Presidential politics here look familiar in some ways. There are the ubiquitous campaign signs, the critical candidates, and the rallies with devoted supporters.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

ROSE: But the similarities end there. The rallies are conducted largely in the Navajo language and they last for hours. At this one for incumbent President Joe Shirley the entire population of Sayato(ph) packs the town hall. Shirley speaks for forty minutes, then his running mate, then at least twenty other people speak. It stretches late into the night and the crowd stays for all of it.

Mr. EDISON WANEKA (Navajo Nation Elections Director): The interest is really has increased for this election.

ROSE: Navajo Nation Elections Director, Edison Waneka says political participation among Navajos is traditionally high, but this presidential race could see a 70 percent turnout for one simple reason.

Mr. WANEKA: Because for the first time there is a woman that has gone into the general.

ROSE: That's exactly why voter Anna Rose Blackwater says she's going to the polls.

Ms. ANNA ROSE BLACKWATER (Navajo Nation resident): Because I want a woman in there. Woman cleans the house and everything. She does all the chores. Mens just sleeps and lay there, and just get up and eat.

ROSE: The woman she wants is Lynda Lovejoy, a former New Mexico legislator and the first female ever to reach a Navajo Nation general election. Her presence on the ballot is attracting young voters in particular, which is good for Lovejoy because more traditional Navajos have some concerns. Like Cecelia Banali(ph).

Ms. CECELIA BANALI (Navajo Nation resident): My daddy used to tell us about a story about a lady not - will never rule.

ROSE: Banali doesn't know if the legend's true. But she's not voting for a woman she says. Just to be safe.

Ms. BANALI: When that happens it's the end of the world is what they say. She will never become a president or something like that.

ROSE: Lovejoy recognizes that superstition as a very real fear for some. Still, she thinks most voters have overcome it. There are other concerns though. Some say she's too much of an outsider to be president of the Nation. She lives most of the year in Albuquerque, off the reservation, and her command of the Navajo language is limited. At this rally, in the town of Tisnaspa(ph), she repeatedly switched to English when she didn't know the Navajo word.

(Soundbite of speech)

Ms. LYNDA LOVEJOY (Navajo Nation presidential candidate): We're infringing on people's land...

ROSE: Still, Lovejoy says it's her English skills and her knowledge of the outside world that make her a strong candidate.

Ms. LOVEJOY: I'm just focusing on my qualifications and what we can do to get our Navajo Nation growing and moving again.

ROSE: Lovejoy says previous leaders have let the Navajo Nation economy stagnate.

Mr. JOE SHIRLEY (Incumbent president, Navajo Nation): It's bleak.

ROSE: Incumbent president Joe Shirley acknowledges that fact.

Mr. SHIRLEY: We're thirty years behind the mainstream, so I guess that kind of tells you where we are.

ROSE: As do the statistics. Both the poverty and unemployment rate on the Navajo Nation are over 40 percent. That's partly why no Navajo Nation president has won re-election since the post was created in 1991. Shirley says with another four years in office he can make real improvements. Including plans already in the works for a new coal power plant and a casino.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Once upon a time before the foreigners came across the big waters you know we were the very independent Navajo Nation. Very fierce, very proud. And somewhere in there that got taken away from us and we need to get it back. And revenues, jobs - that's what will get us back on our two feet.

ROSE: Some 300,000 Navajos living on and off the reservation will have their chance to cast their ballot. They'll usher in either their first female president or the first president they're willing to give a second chance. For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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