Navajo Nation presidential hopefuls gathered at Twin Arrows Casino on June 21 to answer questions about how they would address issues affecting the Navajo economy.
“I think it’s at the forefront of people’s minds,” Change Labs Executive Director Heather Fleming said of the topic. Especially since the Navajo Nation has received funding from the American Rescue Plan, and how it is being disrupted among the tribe.
“I think people want to know what the plan is,” she added. “We’re coming out of a pandemic (and) a lot of small businesses are in a depressed state. What are we gonna do to rebuild our economy?”
Eleven of the 15 Navajo candidates running showed up to the forum, and each of them presented different ideas on how they would approach various topics affecting the Navajo economy, but none of them had a direct plan set in place.
A few of the common themes among the 11 candidates focused on increasing the support for local Navajo businesses, finding better alternatives to extractive industries, and better ways for Navajo enterprises to support the Navajo people.
The candidates who participated included: Dr. Dolly Manson, Dineh Benally, Justin Jones, Buu Nygren, Emily Ellison, Frankie Davis, Leslie M. Tsosie, Ethel Branch, Greg H. Bigman, Frank Dayish, and Dr. Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch. The candidates who were not present included Earl L. Sombrero, Kevin Cody, Sandra D. Jeff, and current Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
An open poll was set up during the forum where community members could submit questions they wanted to be answered about the Navajo economy, and Fleming said she was really happy to see that a lot of the questions submitted were focused on small businesses and local initiatives.
Each of the candidates had a set time to answer questions submitted by the audience. The candidates drew from a jar to determine the order they would answer the question. Moderators read out the question in English and Navajo. Candidates were instructed to address their answers to the audience.
The first round was the longest of the forum; a majority of the candidates introduced themselves by sharing their chapter affiliations and clans, followed by a brief insight into their platform for the Navajo Nation presidency as well as the Navajo economy.
In the second round of questions, candidates had two minutes to answer, and they were all required to answer one question: The Navajo Nation has been dependent on fossil fuels for revenue and employment. Are you in support of the development of resource extraction and what ideas do you have to advance the economy?
This topic was divided among the candidates. There were some in favor of extraction industries continuing to work on the Navajo Nation, some against it because of the impact it has had on the Navajo people, and some saying it is time to look for other stable ways to support the Navajo economy.
Bigman said that about 40 percent of the Navajo Nation’s income relied on fossil fuels, so talking about eliminating it right now would have a huge impact on the Navajo Nation’s general fund.
“What this means is that we need to diversify the economy,” he said. One way he proposed to do that is by having the Navajo Nation invest in healthcare, including the incorporation of traditional medicine in the healthcare system.
Jumbo-Fitch said the Navajo Nation has experienced the benefits of fossil fuel industries in terms of revenue and jobs, but it’s also had long-term impacts in terms of the health of the Navajo people who have worked in the mines and plants.
“It has a long-term impact on our people and with that long-term impact it creates an issue for our Nation,” Jumbo-Fitch said. “We’ve seen the complications that this economy from fossil fuels is causing for our people. We have to be able to find other opportunities.”
One of those other opportunities purposed by Jumbo-Fitch includes working with the Navajo enterprises across the Navajo Nation.
“We have 16 enterprises that we continue to invest millions into and we need to start expanding those opportunities with our local governments,” she added.
Nygren spoke almost entirely in Navajo during the forum. One of his points during the second round of questioning included investing more in small businesses across the Navajo Nation.
“I really want to invest in our small businesses because they need access to funding,” he said. “Be sure that Navajo businesses come first.”
The third round of questions was what the hosts called “popcorn style” because each of the candidates was only given 30 seconds to answer one question. The question was: Do you think tribal enterprises help or hurt the Navajo economy?
This question got a mixture of reactions from the candidates, some in favor of how Tribal enterprises work on the Navajo Nation, and others talked about how they are only hurting the Navajo people and economy.
Many of the candidates talked about how the Navajo Nation’s enterprises have done well by being able to provide jobs within the community and that in turn helps the Navajo people.
Branch highlighted how the enterprises are already in place across the Navajo Nation and they are providing stable jobs for Navajo people.
“They’re already providing revenue to our communities,” she said. “I’m not in favor of destabilizing a strong economy and economic gains that our enterprises put into our community.”
But, Branch said she doesn’t agree with Navajo enterprises competing with small business owners across the Navajo Nation.
“We have to build our entrepreneurial path, that is the backbone of every economy,” she added. “We have to actively pursue diversification of our economy.”
On the other hand, fellow candidate Jones agreed that the Navajo enterprises do provide jobs but what he thinks is more important is how they are hurting the Navajo economy.
“They’re a monopoly, people,” he said.
Jones claimed that the Navajo Tribal enterprises are unregulated and they often create regulations for themselves.
“We have to stop that,” he said. “We’ve got to regulate them.”
For the final round of questioning, each of the candidates was given two minutes to answer a question of their choice. They had to choose from three questions:
- What is your knowledge of accessing capital for business development on the Navajo Nation?
- What way are your priorities going to lead towards sovereignty and economic stability?
- Will you rely on extractive industries to create a Navajo economy?
A majority of the candidates chose to answer question two, what way are your priorities going to lead towards sovereignty and economic stability?
The answers gave the audience a little more insight into how the candidates think when it comes to tribal sovereignty and the Navajo economy but it was hard to identify a common theme among them.
Overall, finding ways to diversify the Navajo Nation’s economic standing is what the candidates continued to talk about as the forum was coming to a close. Whether it was working closely with federal entities or making sure leaders invest in local initiatives more.
More than 200 people showed up to hear the candidates talk about the economy, and the forum was hosted by Change Labs and the Navajo Entrepreneurship Coalition as part of their “All Roads Lead to Chaco Canyon” conference.
“The Navajo Entrepreneurship Coalition is a unified effort by Navajo volunteers from Native-led organizations advocating for culturally appropriate business and economic development policies and laws on the Navajo Nation,” their website states.
Change Labs is a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of services to help Navajo and Hopi entrepreneurs succeed in their business ventures.
The forum was the finale of the organization’s two-day conference on the unique landscape of the Navajo Nation’s economy.
Fleming, the executive director for Change Labs, said they wanted to host a forum for the candidates that focused specifically on the Navajo economy because there’s never been this type of forum before.
“I think it’s important that we create opportunities for there to be a focus on the economy,” Fleming said, and that includes more conversations about small Navajo-owned businesses, local Navajo businesses as well as the grassroots economic development initiatives.
Fleming said when conversations are usually presented about the Navajo economy it focuses on the larger initiatives happening on the Navajo Nation, like gaming, extractive industries, and corporations.
This forum was a chance for each of the candidates to be asked questions that are about entrepreneurship, nonprofit leadership, and what type of change can be developed within communities from an economic perspective, Fleming said.
Moderator and Change Labs Director of Business Incubation Jessica Stago said the questions that came in from the audience were impressive and she was proud to know that people are thinking about the Navajo economy.
The economy can mean many things, Stago said, which is why she thought it was a really good experience for audience members to hear from the candidates.
“It feels good to know that the candidates have the economy on their mind,” Stago said. “We heard some great ideas.”
She hopes that hearing from all the candidates will help some of the Navajo voters decide who they want to vote for.
“I think there were some stark differences in the ideas of some of the candidates,” Stago said. “I hope that they (Navajo voters) were able to narrow down their choices to at least align themselves with those candidates that have similar values or similar ideas about the economy.”
With 15 candidates running this year for Navajo Nation president, Stago said she hopes the forum was able to give voters a clear choice.
Navajo woman Dianna Nez, 65, drove out to the forum with her family from Gallup, N.M.; she’s a registered voter with the Coyote Canyon Chapter in New Mexico. She said she was impressed by some of the answers the candidates presented, mostly from Justin Jones and Buu Nygren.
She did have to admit that she was a little disappointed in a few of the candidates’ manners during the forum. She claimed one even stepped on her foot without apologizing and she was surprised to see another wearing a hat throughout the forum.
But, nonetheless, Nez said she looks forward to seeing what the candidates do because “there is a lot of regulations in Window Rock and the president has the right to change it.”
She said she hopes the candidates will consider making some changes because a lot of the regulations the Navajo Nation government operates by were set in place in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“They can change it,” Nez added.
After hearing from all the candidates during the forum, Fleming said she hopes that they’ll create an economic platform because she understands that a lot of candidates aren’t familiar with the Navajo Nation economy.
“It’s clear to me that some of the candidates are running without necessarily a focus on what they’re gonna do for the economy or even understanding what economic development is,” Fleming said. “I feel like we need to expect that from our candidates at this stage. I would love it if there was always a forum dedicated to the economy going forward every year.”
So far three presidential candidate forums have been held and the next forum will be hosted at Diné College in Tsalie, Arizona on June 28.