By Felicia Fonseca
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP)- Buu Nygren has ousted Jonathan Nez as president of the Navajo Nation, a position that wields influence nationally because of the size of the tribe’s reservation in the U.S. Southwest and its huge population.
Nygren defeated Nez in the nonpartisan race Tuesday, according to unofficial results from the tribe’s election office. Nygren positioned himself as the candidate for change and as someone who could get the ball rolling on long-awaited projects. He has a background in construction management but has never held political office.
“I’m used to being held accountable in every job,” said Nygren, a tribal vice presidential candidate in 2018. “I’m taking that approach. If I don’t perform, I have no business being here.”
Nygren’s win, along with his running mate Richelle Montoya, means the Navajo Nation will have a woman in the Office of the President and Vice President for the first time.
The Navajo Nation’s population of 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. It also has the largest land base by far of any tribe at 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) stretching into parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Nygren pledged to work more closely with the Navajo Nation Council that often is seen as more powerful than the tribal presidency. Newly elected leaders take office in January.
Nez is a seasoned politician who ascended to the presidency after years as a community leader, Navajo County supervisor, Navajo Nation Council delegate and vice president. He preached a message of continuity in the race, saying progress takes time.
He said more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding that the tribe has approved for infrastructure projects would help spur economic development and bring home Navajos who have left the reservation for jobs.
Tens of thousands of Navajos still live without running water, electricity and broadband. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted those inequities and thrust the Navajo Nation into the spotlight when it had one of the highest infection rates in the U.S.
The tribe has long relied on revenue from the coal industry to fund its government, but those revenues have been declining as coal-fired plants and mines shut down. While the Navajo Nation owns a stake in one coal plant and some coal mines, it’s been working to develop renewable energy sources.
Tourism also helps fuel the Navajo Nation’s economy. Towering rock formations in Shiprock, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly are international draws for tourists, as is the story of the famed Navajo Code Talkers who developed an World War II code that the Japanese never cracked.