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Uphill Battle: Tough Climb for NM Navajos to Become President

As the Navajo Nation tribal elections approach, tribal members looking to run for president from New Mexico face an uphill battle.
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Navajo voters this year will elect their eighth president in a race that comes as the tribe wrestles with unemployment, controversial energy policies and widespread government corruption.

The August 26 primary election promises to pit several political veterans against each other, including some big names from across the 27,000-square-mile reservation. If history holds true, however, candidates from the Arizona portion of the reservation will have a better chance of being elected.

“Traditionally, it has been harder for New Mexico candidates to get elected because there are more voters on the Arizona side,” said Edison Wauneka, executive director of the Navajo Election Administration. “Arizona has a bigger land mass and more voters.”

According to voter registration records, nearly 58,000 Navajo voters live in Arizona, while about 47,000 live in New Mexico. Utah, which makes up the smallest portion of the reservation, reports only about 5,000 voters. The numbers are stacked against candidates from outside Arizona, who face an uphill battle when it comes to generating support.

Since Henry Chee Dodge was elected as the first tribal chairman in 1922, 18 individuals have held the office of the tribe’s top executive, either as chairman or tribal president. Ten of those people came from Arizona, eight were from New Mexico – including Dodge, who was from Crystal – and none came from Utah.

After the tribe restructured its government in 1989 to include an executive office, seven individuals have served as president. Five of them, including the first president, Peterson Zah, were from Arizona.

The tribe’s current president, Ben Shelly, is from Thoreau, New Mexico, which proves it is possible to gain support across the reservation, said Albert Hale, who served as second president, from 1994 to 1997. The third president, Thomas Atcitty, was from Shiprock, New Mexico.

“Historically, very few people from New Mexico have been elected,” said Hale, who is from Klagetoh, Arizona. “All the rest have been from Arizona. Anyone from New Mexico has to overcome that history.”

Two people have filed paperwork and paid the $1,500 fee to run in this year’s election, Wauneka said. Political newcomer Myron McLaughlin and Joe Shirley Jr., who served as the tribe’s only two-term president from 2003 to 2011, have officially joined the race. Both candidates are from Chinle, Arizona.

Several other people have picked up packets from the various election offices across the reservation. They have until May 28 to complete them and pay the fee.

Presidential hopefuls from New Mexico include Shelly, who served as vice president under Shirley, and Donald Benally, a career politician from Shiprock.

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Benally ran for president four years ago against 11 opponents. He came in third during the primary election, after Shelly and former New Mexico Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, who faced off during the general election.

The 2010 election was unique because of the candidates who led the race, said Raymond Tsosie, a political insider from Upper Fruitland, New Mexico. All three top candidates were from New Mexico.

“It’s doable, but you’ve got to get that Arizona portion,” Tsosie said. “Arizona is a different animal. It’s very different from New Mexico.”

Although part of the same reservation, the Arizona, New Mexico and Utah communities differ in language, culture and religion, Tsosie said. New Mexico tends to be more progressive, less fluent in the Navajo language and more Christianized, while Arizona has remained more isolated and the people cling tighter to traditions and ceremonies.

Successful candidates must demonstrate traditional and modern knowledge, Tsosie said.

“A president needs to know about traditional things and about what’s coming in the future,” he said. “They need to speak Navajo and English and be articulate in both languages.”

Candidates also need to communicate a vision to the people, Hale said.

“As a candidate, you need to connect with all the people, elderly to children, traditional and modern,” he said. “You have to have a vision that connects with all the people and you need to be able to speak about that vision.”

Whoever wins this year’s election will inherit myriad challenges, including stricter energy policies coming from the federal government, an unemployment rate that tops 50 percent and ongoing criminal investigations into members of the legislative and executive branches who were accused of misusing tribal funds.

The tribe’s next president – like every preceding leader – also will be expected to help keep the young generation at home, Hale said. That means economic development and opportunity for young, educated Navajos to stay on the reservation and connected to the culture.

“There are a lot of Navajos moving off the reservation,” he said. “If the exodus continues, the language and culture will be gone. As leaders, we haven’t done enough to keep our children and grandchildren on the reservation.”