WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – Voters on the country’s largest American Indian reservation on Tuesday will choose a new president who will have to deal with rampant unemployment and a lack of infrastructure amid a widespread debate over the role of the tribe’s language.
The Navajo Nation election comes five months late, after a lengthy court battle that started with a question over a candidate’s fluency in the language.
The candidate eventually was disqualified, resulting in a race between former tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. and onetime lawmaker Russell Begaye.
Shirley has positioned himself as an experienced leader who will bring stability to the tribal government, while Begaye is counting on his short time in politics to gain an edge with voters. Some 120,000 Navajos are registered to vote.
Their campaigns have taken them across much of the 27,000-square-mile reservation, which stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Campaign signs sit atop hills, along highways where cattle graze and at community centers known as chapter houses, and the men push their platforms on the radio.
Among the top priorities for both candidates – and anyone who has sought the office – is creating jobs where half the workforce is unemployed and finding ways to bring running water and electricity to the tens of thousands who live without it.
The new president also could face tough decisions in securing water rights in the midst of a drought and on a proposal to develop the tribe’s land leading to the Grand Canyon.
Talk about the presidential election had focused less on the candidates than on the legal battles and legislative maneuvering that pushed it beyond Nov. 4.
Ben Shelly, who badly lost a re-election bid, is serving as president until a new leader is sworn in next month.
Shirley previously served eight years as president. In that time, the Navajo Nation settled a long-standing land dispute with its Hopi neighbor and established casinos.
But Shirley’s tenure also was marked by the shutdown of the Navajo Boys and Girls Club and the tribe’s Head Start program. He saw success in his final months pushing the only ballot initiative ever passed on the reservation. It reduced the Navajo Nation Council from 88 members to 24 and secured a presidential line-item veto.
Shirley, whose running mate is Dineh Benally, said he wants to build on previous efforts to reform the tribal government and laws that have been hindering economic development.
“At this point, we’re a mess. We’re a big mess,” he said. “We don’t have stability, we don’t have integrity, we don’t have transparency, we don’t have predictability.”
Begaye landed a spot on the general election ballot after Chris Deschene was disqualified for failing to prove he could speak fluent Navajo, sparking a debate over what role the language plays in politics and the tribe’s culture.
Navajos are set to vote this spring on a referendum that essentially would remove the Navajo language fluency requirement for the tribe’s top two posts.
Begaye served a year on the Tribal Council before entering the president’s race, but he believes his newcomer status will benefit him. His running mate is lawmaker Jonathan Nez.
Among Begaye’s ideas is setting up manufacturing plants on the reservation to put people to work and entice other businesses.
“Sometimes we overcomplicate things when the solutions are right before you,” he said. “We think out of the old box. We have yet to get out of that.”
The candidates see a proposal for an aerial tram at the east rim of the Grand Canyon differently. Begaye opposes it because of the division it’s created. Shirley doesn’t take a stance but says sacred sites can be protected when it comes to development.
Both men want to restart negotiations for water rights in the Little Colorado and lower Colorado River basins, but that won’t be easy.
Begaye was among lawmakers who rejected a settlement limited to the Little Colorado River, saying it included too many provisions for a coal-fired power plant. Shirley believes the tribe missed an opportunity.