SHIPROCK — Earlier this week, Crystal Chapter resident Alroy Lilly stood at the microphone and directed his question to Navajo Nation presidential candidate Edison J. Wauneka.

Lilly, 28, earned an associate degree in computer information systems from Diné College in 2008.

"It's been six years since I have not been able to get a job with the Navajo Nation," he said. "How would you enforce the Navajo Preference (in Employment Act)? Hopefully, one day, I will work for the tribe and put my degree to use."

In response, Wauneka said the problem exists with enforcing the tribal law, adding that such compliance would take place if he were elected.

Sammy Ahkeah, of Shiprock, writes down a question for the Navajo Nation presidential candidates on Wednesday before a candidate forum at the Shiprock
Sammy Ahkeah, of Shiprock, writes down a question for the Navajo Nation presidential candidates on Wednesday before a candidate forum at the Shiprock Chapter house in Shiprock. (Alexa Rogals / The Daily Times)

"We will ensure that Navajo preference is enforced, so our young people can get the positions that they are educated for," he said.

After listening to the answer, Lilly said he thought that wasn't good enough but he will continue applying for employment.

"I put up with it because I choose not to leave the reservation," he said.

Employment opportunities were among the topics discussed during the Diné Youth Forum on Wednesday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

The purpose of the forum was to create a dialogue between Navajo youth and the 17 individuals running for the tribe's top office, according to Janene Yazzie, one of the event organizers.

It was also an opportunity to focus on the different perspectives and approaches on the issues facing the tribe, she said.

Candidates who participated in the event were Wauneka, Edison "Chip" Begay, Russell Begaye, Donald Benally, Moroni Benally, Carrie Lynn Martin, Myron McLaughlin, Cal Nez, Joe Shirley Jr., Dan Smith, Dale E. Tsosie and Duane "Chili" Yazzie.

Absent from the event were Chris Deschene, Kee Yazzie Mann, Kenneth Maryboy and Hank Whitethorne.

The forum was divided into two rounds of questioning, with the second set of questions being asked by young Navajos.

Andrew Curley speaks with the Navajo Nation presidential candidates on Wednesday before a candidate forum at the Shiprock Chapter house in Shiprock.
Andrew Curley speaks with the Navajo Nation presidential candidates on Wednesday before a candidate forum at the Shiprock Chapter house in Shiprock. (Alexa Rogals / The Daily Times)

Throughout the event, the candidates were reminded to frame their answers with the youth in mind.

Questions ranged from natural resources, like uranium mining and fracking, to addressing social issues like teen suicide.

During the first round, Shirley was asked if he agreed with the tribe's purchase of Navajo Mine. Before launching into an answer, Shirley said he was not part of the negotiation to purchase the mine, but he does not support closing the mine.

"I think jobs are very important, revenue is very important," Shirley said. "We need to continue having an income stream."

An 18-year-old female asked Yazzie if he thought the $1,500 in tribal scholarship money is enough to fund a college education.

"That is not enough money for a college education today," Yazzie said, adding the tribe needs to reform its system to provide funding for students who are "strong academically."

A young Navajo man asked Smith whether, if elected, he would decline the presidential salary of $55,000 a year.

"Yes, I would work for you for free," Smith said.

In an earlier answer, Smith gave credit to the youth by saying, "They're very smart in what they want and how to get it."

Among the youngest participants to ask a question was 9-year-old Wanbli Ota W. Johnson from Black Mesa, Ariz., who asked Moroni Benally what he would do to protect the Navajo Aquifer.

"We need to assert our authority over the waters on the Navajo Nation," Benally said. "We need a comprehensive water policy across the Navajo Nation."

The forum started with a work session attended by 18 youth, who spoke about the issues facing them and their peers. Among those who attended the session were Kino Benally, 22, of Shiprock.

One topic Benally's group talked about was the colonization of public education and its lack of focus on indigenous studies.

"I can tell you about the Greeks. I can tell you about all kinds of things. ... Yet, I know nothing about the four sacred mountains or about the Holy People," he said.

The group decided this lack of representation in the education system is a matter for the future tribal president to handle.

Before stepping away from the microphone, Kino Benally told the candidates, "If you are too scared to do it, maybe you shouldn't be a leader."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.