FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. (AP) — Buu Nygren was sworn in Tuesday as the next president of the vast Navajo Nation, a job that will test his ability to make good on promises to deliver water, electricity and broadband to tens of thousands of residents who don’t have it.
Nygren beat out incumbent President Jonathan Nez in the tribe’s general election by about 3,500 votes. Nygren was joined by his wife Jasmine, daughter Evelyn and grandmother Marilyn Slim as he took the oath of office during a ceremony that highlighted the challenges he grew up with and, later, academic and business successes that helped him ascend as the youngest person to hold the tribal presidency.
Nygren stood amid hand-woven Navajo rugs and blankets as he addressed the crowd in a mix of Navajo and English, saying his administration’s mission is simple: bring basic services to Navajo people so they can do more than survive.
“I will not hesitate. I will do whatever it takes to make sure that our people have a chance, our people have an opportunity to make something of themselves.” he said. “That’s all they want.”
He added that, growing up, someone believed in him and he wants Navajos to know he also believes in them.
Nygren, 36, had never held political office before now, though he was former President Joe Shirley Jr.’s vice presidential candidate in 2018. Current Vice President Richelle Montoya is the first woman to hold that position.
Montoya, who was the elected leader of a small Navajo community, took a moment to pay tribute to women on the Navajo Nation Council and in the matriarchal society, holding her hand to her heart. She encouraged tribal members to speak the Navajo language and always think seven generations ahead.
“For the next four years, I will give you my very best,” she told the crowd.
The inauguration took place at an indoor arena in Fort Defiance, just north of the tribal capital of Window Rock, and featured an all-women color guard. Thousands attended the ceremony, many donning turquoise and silver jewelry, moccasins, crushed velvet or ribbon skirts, or business attire.
Young girls sang the national anthem and recited the pledge of allegiance in Navajo. Montoya’s relative, Chishi Haazba Montoya, coursed through Navajo history in poem, weaving in traditional elements, reviling western greed and declaring that Navajo sovereignty will be restored and any monsters defeated.
Nez and his vice president, Myron Lizer, sat in the front row along with Shirley, former Navajo President Ben Shelly and former Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald.
A public luncheon at the fairgrounds in Window Rock, a gospel celebration, a song and dance, a comedy show, a pow wow and an inaugural ball followed the ceremony.
The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. at 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers). It stretches into parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Its population of around 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Nygren brought an energy to the presidential race that resonated with voters, campaigning with his wife, former Arizona state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren. He had a flair for rising and falling speech and created a signature look with his hair tied in a traditional bun, a wide-brimmed black hat, blue trousers and a lighter blue, long-sleeved shirt.
Nygren is half Vietnamese but never knew his father. He was raised on the Utah portion of the reservation in a home without electricity or running water, he said. He has a background in construction management and has said he expects tribal citizens to hold him accountable as president — a point he emphasized in his speech Tuesday.
Cheryl R. Benally said Nygren’s words about being disciplined reminded her of what she heard from her own mother as she grew up around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico: wake up early, greet the rising sun and pray. Benally’s daughter, Mya Benally, 18, said Nygren’s words on making water and education more accessible appealed to her as a college student who wants to return to the reservation.
“He’s helping me think ‘I can do more,’ she said.
Julian Begay, a 36-year-old school board member and farm board president in Many Farms, said he sees a sense of faith and belief in Nygren that his promises to the Navajo people will be fulfilled.
“He’s coming down to the people’s level, but I’m curious to see what he’s going to do about the economy,” Begay said. “We can’t keep shopping in border towns forever.”
Nygren pledged to work closely with the 24 members of the Navajo Nation Council who also were sworn in Tuesday along with other elected officials. About one-third of the council will be women — a record number. The council often is seen as more powerful than the presidency and is the path through which big agenda items have to move.
Some of the women delegate’s priorities include infrastructure, addressing social ills and generational trauma, bolstering law enforcement, managing a budget and ensuring a continued focus on the epidemic of missing and slain Indigenous people. A handful of people stood at an intersection holding signs Tuesday urging action on some of those same topics.
“I know that most of us as women are going to have that natural indication to love our people, to put our people first, to understand there’s a stronger responsibility to protecting our homes, meaning the Navajo Nation,” said Shaandiin Parrish, who was elected to the council.
Returning Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said she’s looking forward to having difficult conversations where tribal lawmakers can confront problems, learn from shared experiences and examine the challenges that lead to families being victimized and services not delivered to Navajo people.
One thing should not be expected of women leaders, she said.
“Although nurturing is part of our teaching, we cannot hold the emotional baggage of others,” Kanazbah Crotty said. “What I mean by that is the expectation shouldn’t be that as women leadership, we’re here to fix all the issues.”
Nez and the previous council laid the groundwork for infrastructure projects using money the tribe received in federal coronavirus relief aid. But Nygren has said those decisions may need to be revisited. Nez worried any changes would jeopardize the tribe not meeting deadlines for spending the money.
In one of his last actions, Nez vetoed legislation Monday to expand oil and gas exploration and development, including for helium, on the reservation. He said the affected communities hadn’t reached consensus, and concerns over profit-sharing and health went unresolved.
Fonseca covers Indigenous communities on the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: @FonsecaAP