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The Jicarilla Apache Nation of New Mexico is holding a highly anticipated special election for president on April 17. The former President Levi Pesata resigned February 15 for “personal reasons” according to a press release from the Jicarilla Nation. Pesata had served several terms as the nation's president.

The resignation came after Pesata made inappropriate comments about women from his reservation at a catered dinner hosted by the Jicarilla Nation during the New Mexico legislative session in Santa Fe in February. There have been claims that members of the tribal Legislative Council pressured the former president to resign.

The special election will be held 61 days after the resignation, even though the Jicarilla constitution and bylaws state that “a president must be elected within 60 days.” In 2020 there will be another vote for a full-term president, a vice president and four members of the tribal council. This primary will take place on April 17 (early voting began on April 6, absentee voting began on April 10) and the general election will be held on May 17. The top two vote recipients in the primary will square off in the general election.

The nine candidates who are vying for this temporary president position are: Edward Velarde, who is currently the Interim president and the sitting vice president; former President Ty Vicenti; former Legislative Council member Leon Reval; Violet Garcia; Jennifer Muskrat; current Legislative Council members Troy Vicenti and Darrell Paiz; Merrill Guitterrez and Ouray Muskrat.

Like many tribal communities, members are unhappy with the way the tribal government works without showing full transparency. This is one of the top issues that the candidates stressed, along with abiding by the nation’s constitution, when each one of their statements was printed on the front page of the April 1 edition of the tribal newspaper – the Jicarilla Chieftain.

"It is important that integrity, fairness, and accountability (are) foremost on our list as Jicarillas,” said candidate Paiz.

“Although I’m well aware of how a government is supposed to operate, in order to serve its people, other candidates on the ballot have a track record of serving in our government before,” said candidate Ouray Muskrat. “But quite frankly I would rather have no track record than a bad track record. We’ve seen what they do for us, and quite frankly I’m not impressed.”

Candidate Reval’s message, like many of the candidates, is to “promote the power of a sovereign nation by responsibly and proactively govern and protect the Nation’s Natural and Community resources by consistently following the The (sic) Nation’s Constitution and laws.”

(All of the candidate's statements can be found in the April 1 edition of the Jicarilla Chieftain)

The Jicarilla Nation spans nearly a million acres in north-central New Mexico. The reservation’s northern boundary borders the Colorado state line. According to Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country “The reservation’s ample natural resources have proven to be the tribe’s greatest economic asset.

Currently, fees from hunting and fishing, livestock production, and particularly the vast oil and gas reserves located in the San Juan have provided valuable sources of tribal revenue.” These natural resources, along with the Apache Nugget Casino, a smaller casino and the tribal government provide the foundation for the tribal economy.

Another cloud hanging over Pesata’s head was, according to the Rio Grande Sun newspaper, tribal members “submitted petitions to the Nation’s Legislative Council in August 2018 calling for the impeachment of Pesata after it was discovered the Nation’s Comptroller Chad Eaton embezzled more than $500,000 from the Nation’s casinos. After the (tribal members) submitted the petitions, the Legislative Council voted to terminate Eaton, but Pesata reversed the decision.”

There are approximately 4,000 enrolled tribal members. Many members of the nation have moved to urban areas and feel they are no longer connected to the community. But candidate Jennifer Muskrat, who lives on the Jicarilla reservation in Dulce, New Mexico, said that it is time to change the way things that affect a presidential election on the reservation are done.

“One of the interesting things about this election is that with social media we’ve gotten to the point where there’s no reason why you can’t still be involved no matter where you are. You’re rights as a (tribal) member and your rights as a part of the community and the culture should not leave when you leave the reservation. We’ve come to a point in our nation’s history where the balance of power has gone so far that we live in a police state,” said Muskrat. 

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Harlan McKosato is a former host of Native America Calling and has served as an adjunct professor of journalism at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 2005 McKosato was recognized by his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, as a “Distinguished Alumnus of the Gaylord College of Journalism.” He received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Mass Communications (Radio/TV/Film) from OU in 1988. Harlan is a citizen of both the United States and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.

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