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Pauly Denetclaw

It was early June and the intensity of the southwest sun was just beginning to heat up for what looked to be another hot, dry summer. Sheepsprings, New Mexico, is a one gas station community, an hour drive to the nearest grocery store going either way on historic U.S. Route 491, the Devil’s Highway.

Ethel Branch, one of seven Navajo women running to be Navajo Nation president, was wearing a sky blue velvet skirt that stood out against the backdrop of a barren landscape, with little vegetation and even fewer trees. Her little one is roaming and exploring the area. She kept a watchful eye on them.

The Harvard graduate had just gotten done with some community work for the Navajo-Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief, an organization she co-founded that raised millions of dollars in relief aid.

Under the shade of a cottonwood tree that was no doubt planted decades ago and cared for by Sheepsprings Chapter, Branch spoke with confidence and, at times, an ironic laugh about why she decided to run for Navajo Nation President. Tuesday is the nation’s primary election.

“Just seeing a government that was incapable of responding in an effective or quick manner,” Branch said of why she decided to run. “Out of the pandemic work that I've done, seeing local governments that have been able to respond adequately and quickly. I just have this sense of frustration that our people should be served by our government, but that's not happening. There are lots of resources that get to Window Rock and they just never get to the people.”

Ethel Branch, former attorney general for the Navajo Nation, is another Navajo woman running for Navajo Nation president. (Photo by Pauly Denetclaw)

The nation has the largest Indigenous land base in what is now called the United States. The Navajo Nation spans 27,000 square miles of high desert, forests, wind-swept mesas, and mountains across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Its population of 406,000 is second to only the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which has 420,000 enrolled citizens.

(Related: Indigenous candidates running in primary)

More than 122,000 Navajos are registered to vote, and the tribe generally sees around a 50 percent turnout for the primaries.

Branch, formerly the 11th attorney general for the Navajo Nation, early on was one of the top three candidates this election cycle. The other two being incumbent Jonathan Nez, a deeply admired but divisive figure, and the charismatic yet boyish, Buu Van Nygren. As the primary draws closer, Dr. Dolly Manson, a former Miss Navajo titleholder and educator, and the outspoken Justin Jones, an attorney and veteran, have also garnered support.

Fifteen candidates are vying to be the next Navajo Nation president this election season. More than a dozen candidates running for the position is common. Only the top two vote-getters in the Navajo primary will move on to the November general election.

  • Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch
  • Leslie M. Tsosie
  • Frankie Davis
  • Emily Ellison
  • Sandra Jeff
  • Buu Van Nygren
  • Greg H. Bigman
  • Dineh Benally
  • Earl L. Sombrero
  • Frank Dayish
  • Kevin Cody
  • Ethel Branch
  • Jonathan Nez
  • Dolly Manson
  • Justin Jones

Nearly half of the candidates are women, begging the repeated question if the Navajo Nation, a matrilineal society, is ready to elect a woman to lead the nation.

In the 2010 election, Lynda Lovejoy was one of the top two contenders, drawing criticism that it’s not traditionally a woman’s place to lead outside of the family. This perspective continues to impact Navajo women who seek to be elected to the Navajo Nation Council or president’s office. The 24th Navajo Nation Council has only three women on its 24-member council and a woman has never been president or vice president.

This is an issue in other Indigenous nations where women by culture or tribal code are discouraged or limited from running for elected leadership. An issue that the now Interior Secretary Deb Haaland had to grapple with in her own community of Laguna Pueblo.

“In my own Pueblo, I could never run for office there. It's like the throwback from colonization that has kept so many Native women from being able to lead their communities. I couldn't run for office in my Pueblo,” Haaland told ICT in 2019. “So I decided to run for Congress instead.”

Navajo women, and Indigenous women across the board, continue to run for office at the city, county, state, federal and tribal levels despite the cultural hurdles.

In Arizona, Jamescita Mae Peshlakai, Diné, is running for Arizona state House to represent the newly drawn District 6. She previously represented District 7 in the Arizona state Senate. She left that position in December to assume a role with the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

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Ginger Sykes-Torres was running for Congress before she was forced to withdraw. She didn’t have the required number of signatures to be on the ballot, a requirement in Arizona to run for office.

Other Indigenous people running for state office in Arizona include:

  • Victoria Steele, Seneca, for Justice of the Peace as a Democrat.
  • Myron Tsosie, Diné, for House District 6 as a Democrat.

Dolly Manson, Ph.D., is another Navajo woman contending for the Navajo Nation president’s office.

Her family was one of many relocated after the Navajo Hopi Land Dispute was settled in 1974 with a congressional act and thousands of Navajo families were forced to move away from their homelands.

She attended a federal Indian boarding school until the eighth grade when she transferred to Northfield Mount Hermon School, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts, where she graduated high school.

Manson attended Dartmouth College for a year and a half before financial burdens forced her to withdraw. She stayed home a year before the Miss Navajo pageant would offer her a way to go back to school. The winner of the pageant received a full scholarship to attend college. Manson was crowned Miss Navajo in 1981. She attended the University of New Mexico where she got her bachelor’s degree in psychology and then a master’s in special education. Finally, she obtained her Ph.D. from New Mexico State University in curriculum, instruction/education leadership.

With an impressive educational background and work in the community, even Manson thought she couldn’t or shouldn’t run for president.

“I thought, ‘I've only seen men run. I wonder what would happen to me. I wonder if they would bash me or I wonder if they would gang up on me or the people would start saying things to me,’” Manson said.

Then, she looked back to traditional Navajo epistemologies to make her final decision.

“Once upon a time, our Navajo women took care of things. Women were the leaders,” Manson said. “I thought about our Navajo creation stories, the stories of how we came to be, and thought about how women were always the ones mentioned being leaders and saving their people.”

With that, Manson decided to run to lead the Navajo Nation. She prepared herself to encounter a lot of folks who believe Navajo women shouldn’t be in the president’s seat but she has only encountered that a handful of times on the campaign trail.

“I think it has changed. Nobody really talks about it anymore. I have not encountered anybody really saying, 'No.' Or a group of people saying, 'No,'” Manson said. “Nobody is really screaming or jumping up and down like when Linda Lovejoy ran.”

Results from Tuesday’s primary election will bring a clearer picture of how much this mindset has changed, but ultimately it will show what Navajo voters look for in a presidential candidate.

Polls on the Navajo Nation are open Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mountain Time.

The Arizona primary is Aug 2. The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. local time. In Arizona, voters do have to bring proof of identity in order to vote. Here is a list of acceptable forms of identification.

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A previous version listed Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren as a candidate in Arizona. She left the race and was replaced by Jamescita Mae Peshlakai.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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