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The Navajo Nation elects a new president this Tuesday. The country's largest Native American 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.

From Arizona Public Radio, Daniel Kraker reports.

DANIEL KRAKER: 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.

Ms. EUNICE MANSON: (through translator) At the time that she's becoming a leader, if there are any pregnant women, then 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.

KRAKER: 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.

Ms. LYNDA LOVEJOY (Presidential Candidate, Navajo Nation): (Navajo spoken)

KRAKER: Lovejoy greets supporters in her native tongue during a recent parade in the dusty Navajo town of Tuba City. At a rally afterwards, she outlines her platform: she wants to give the people a voice in government, create jobs and improve education.

Mr. EARL TULLEY (Vice Presidential Candidate, Navajo Nation): But one thing that I really appreciate is when we stand side by side...

KRAKER: 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.

Ms. LOVEJOY: I'm not running on my gender, I'm running on my capabilities and my abilities and my skills and my knowledge.

KRAKER: Lovejoy has never worked in Navajo government, but she is a New Mexico state legislator.

Ms. LOVEJOY: Being on the outside and not on the inside is really an advantage, I believe. Because you're going to bring in new ideas, you're going to bring in a different way to do things.

KRAKER: And there are a lot of Navajo people, like Myla Povateah, who want change.

Ms. MYLA POVATEAH: Here in the Navajo Nation, we've lost a lot of our culture, we've lost a lot of our language. The younger generations don't speak Navajo. And I think Lovejoy and Tulley will bring a lot of those things back into the spotlight.

Unidentified Man: Let's give it up, let's give it up (unintelligible). We are live on KTNN, the voice of Navajo Nation.

KRAKER: Under a big red striped tent, supporters of Lynda Lovejoy's opponent, Ben Shelly, are holding a rally of their own. Shelly is a known commodity in Navajo politics. He is 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.

Mr. BEN SHELLY (Presidential Candidate, Navajo Nation): And I want the Navajo Nation to have solar power, wind power. We want to be selling electricity to the states that don't have alternative energy.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KRAKER: 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.

Ms. SHARON CLAHCHISCHILLIAGE: Ben Shelly has had a lot of experience with the federal process, the Navajo Nation process, and Lovejoy doesn't have that experience. In fact, she has limited knowledge of the Navajo government, and it's going to be on the job training for her.

KRAKER: 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 on Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.

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