Woman candidate splitting Navajos
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 5, 2006
Would be 1st female president of tribe
Betty Reid


If Lynda Lovejoy wins Tuesday, she will be the first Navajo Nation woman president in the history of Arizona's largest tribe.

Some are saying it is going against cultural beliefs for a woman to reach this level of leadership. Others say it's a sign of changing times on the reservation.

More women are educated, are heads of households and want their voices heard.

Lovejoy, a New Mexico public utilities commissioner, edged out nine men to become a presidential contender during the Nation's primary election in August. On Tuesday, she will face incumbent Joe Shirley Jr., a veteran tribal lawmaker, for a post held by men since 1922 when the first tribal leader was chosen.

Because of the heightened interest in this race, an estimated 70 percent of the more than 100,000 registered voters are expected to cast a ballot. Normally turnout is about 60 percent.

More Navajo women live on the Nation, more are registered to vote and more go to the polls, but they have not used that voting power to elect women to office.

Navajo women have not been historically represented in the tribe's government. There are eight women, a record number, who serve on the 88-member Navajo Nation Council.

There are no polls to measure who is ahead in this race, but many political insiders predict this will be a close race. In the primary, which had 11 candidates, Lovejoy ended second, finishing 2,474 votes behind Shirley.

The 300,000-member tribe has been in a self-reflection mode since the primary because a win by a woman was unexpected.


Tribal history

Not only has debate focused on who should lead but more importantly, discussion has evolved about the roles of Navajo women and men.

This campaign has both genders rushing to tribal history, especially Navajo creation stories, for insight.

Some men were jolted by the primary election results, said Eddie Tso, program director for the Nation's office of language and culture. They believe a female leader is not part of the tribe's creation legend.

The men wanted reassurance from Tso, saying: "'Tsi'í dá doo á hó doo níilda," or this was never supposed to happen.

He reassured and reminded them this is a normal election process and they could vote Tuesday. But the intense interest continued.

What is this? What do you think about creation? What do you think about a woman leader? All are questions asked of Tso.


A matrilineal society

Changing Woman is part of the tribe's creation story and is a spiritual deity who gave life to Navajos. Thus, Navajos are a matrilineal society where property belongs to the women and a child's identity is aligned to a mother's clan.

Today, many Nation members belong to other faiths like Christianity while others continue to cling to the classic earth-based worship that tells them they are the children of deity Changing Woman.

It is said, when the Navajos made their journey in ancient timesfrom the belly of the Earth through four underworlds, there was a quarrel that split the genders. Though the group reunited, the result gave birth to a-woman-can't-be-a-leader mentality because they took a stand of, "we can live without men."

Some Navajos, especially among the older women, respect the legend because of the belief that a woman's leadership only brought chaos and confusion in the third world.

But at a recent political gathering in Ganado, 70-year-old Louva Dahozy tried to make the point that Navajo women have always been leaders in their families and that they shouldn't be held back from tribal leadership.

Dahozy, a cultural expert from Fort Defiance, held a spindle at a recent political rally to remind tribal members how previous generations of Navajo women earned money. They herded sheep and wove rugs to support kids.

"This is not a feminist thing that Hillary Clinton talks about. In America, God created man. In the Navajo creation story, Changing Woman gave us life," Dahozy said. "I heard a man say, 'When a Navajo woman, a Sáanii, becomes president, all life will come to an end.' I told him, 'A Navajo woman gave birth to you. You are very much alive.' "


Other theories

Navajo women scholars also challenge the oral legend, saying that before the tribe embraced a leadership patterned after a business council government formed in the 1920s, both men and women made decisions about the tribe's survival of the culture and society.

Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a historian and history professor at the University of New Mexico, said the reliance on the creation story is not a good enough reason to prohibit women from leadership.

"It (Navajo's first government) was founded on White patriarchal structure," Nez said. "Their structure already discourages women and people of color from leadership."

Genevieve Jackson, a former Shiprock, N.M., councilwoman and now an educator, said her parents encouraged her to be a leader. She blames costly political campaigns for keeping women from seeking high-profile posts. She and a handful of other Navajo women have gone after the top political job but never got past the primary.

Lovejoy says she spent $5,000 of her own money to launch her presidential campaign in March.


Lifestyles are changing

Jackson says there's more interest in politics among women on the reservation because they and their lifestyles are changing with shifting demographics on the Nation. More Navajos are going to college, and Navajo women are graduating in greater numbers than men.

The number of single Navajo mothers has increased. In addition, the Nation's unemployment rate is 48 percent with more women as breadwinners.

"Through no fault of their own, Navajo women became the major breadwinners because fathers are absent in a lot of homes," Jackson said. "Navajo women have seen their mothers struggle, and they redoubled their efforts to take care of themselves."


Political correctness

Strategies to launch a presidential Navajo campaign against a Navajo woman also demanded political correctness.

Raymond Maxx, 44, a Tuba City/Coalmine Mesa councilman, describes the campaign for Navajo president as "uncomfortable."

It's impossible to reveal a woman's shortcomings without being labeled a sexist or accused of discrimination, Maxx said.

"If Navajos identify themselves as a traditional, they are stereotyped as hating females," he said.

Lovejoy dismisses such comments, saying she doesn't want the campaign to be a gender issue.

"Determination and commitment drives me, and I want to raise the quality of life for my people," she said.

She also courting the urban Navajo vote by hiring youth and traveling to large cities like Denver and Phoenix.

Shirley has some thoughts on why more Navajo women attend colleges and graduate with degrees.

"Maybe they were treated as second-class citizens," Shirley said. "So you work harder at it, to get out of there."

If Lovejoy is elected, her next challenge is winning the support of the Tribal Council, which has the power to make financial decisions. The three-branch government reduced the Nation's leadership to a ceremonial figure in the early 1990s.

Ben Silversmith, programs/project specialist for the Navajo Nation's government development, said some councilmen worry about clashing with Navajo women's attitude. Leaders say women carry a demanding attitude of "sh'i'shizaadt'eiya danízin," which means only my voice matters, Silversmith said.