ARIZONA

New president, first female vice president take oath of office on the Navajo Nation

Arlyssa D. Becenti
Arizona Republic
Navajo Nation President Buu Van Nygren takes the oath of office Tuesday as his wife, former State Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, and their daughter look on.

FORT DEFIANCE — After taking his oath of office Tuesday, new Navajo Nation President Buu Van Nyrgen addressed the large crowd inside the Window Rock High School sports center in Fort Defiance, and said he is looking forward to working with the incoming 25th Navajo Nation Council, whose members had also taken their oath of office. 

“One of the things I’ve always said was a united Navajo Nation leadership is going to be strong, it's going to move things forward and we can stop talking about the basic needs of our Navajo Nation,” said Nygren, 36, the youngest-ever Navajo Nation president.  “We have one mission: Let's  get basic service to the Navajo people. We need water, roads, broadband, we need better public safety.”

He said the decisions he makes as the president of the Navajo Nation will be simple but effective, and will be based on whether they will move the nation forward and to get it out of “third-world poverty conditions.”

“We have 50% of our people ready to work,” said Nygren. “I’m tired of hearing about unemployment, but we have some of the best people in the world, educated lawyers, doctors, carpenters, welders, plumbers, electricians, entrepreneurs and it's about time we believe in you. We are tired of moving off the Navajo Nation. It's about time the grass is greener on the Navajo Nation.”

Nygren won the presidency in November against incumbent Jonathan Nez with 34,890 votes, more than 3,500 more than Nez.

Originally from Red Mesa, Arizona, Nygren recently worked as a chief commercial officer for Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority. He attended Arizona State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in construction management and a master's degree in business administration. He also has a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California. He is married to former Arizona state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren.  

Navajo Nation President Buu Van Nygren, left, and Vice President Richelle Montoya, second from right, prepare to take the oath of office Tuesday in Fort Defiance.

Another celebratory milestone for the new administration is that the Navajo Nation will have its first female vice president. Before taking the oath of office, Richelle Montoya, from Torreon, New Mexico, reflected on the Navajo ancestors who endured the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo in 1864, where they were held captive until 1868. 

“It’s sad the stories that were passed down by our ancestors that were led to Bosque Redondo but their prayers, positive thoughts, their way of being is why we are here today,” said Montoya. “We are here today, standing on the shoulders of our ancestors.”

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It had long seemed taboo for women to run for president, although many tried. In the new 25th Navajo Nation Council, nine of the 24 delegates are women. In a previous interview, Nygren said Montoya "as vice president was breaking that glass ceiling, and although she isn’t president, it's one step closer.

“Gentleman, give me a few moments to take this moment in with my matriarchs,” Montoya said. “The women of the Navajo Nation. The grandmothers. The grandchildren. The mothers. The aunts.”

After council members introduced themselves and mentioned the chapters they would be representing, former Speaker LoRenzo Bates addressed the crowd and told them four years will go by fast.

Outgoing Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez (center) with his wife, outgoing First Lady Phefelia Nez, in the audience at Fort Defiance as the new president takes the oath of office.

“As leaders of this great nation you will have the awesome responsibility of protecting our sovereignty,” said Bates. “Ensuring that the federal government is adhering to their federal trust responsibilities as outlined in the Treaty of 1868. You will be ensuring that our Diné people are protected and given the resources to strive from our dear children to our elders.”

Former leaders in attendance included outgoing President Jonathan Nez, former Presidents Joe Shirley Jr., Ben Shelly, and former Chairman Peter MacDonald.

During his last COVID-19 town hall on Monday, Nez said he doesn’t know what the Nygren-Montoya administration has in store for mask mandates or how they will deal with the ongoing pandemic, but said people should continue wearing masks.

“We got to stay the course and wear our masks when there are a lot of people,” said Nez. “Social distancing, vaccination is key. Not just your COVID-19 vaccination, but for our children's measles, mumps, rubella vaccinations. Getting your flu shots is important.”

Navajo Nation Vice President Richelle Montoya takes her oath of office Tuesday as the first female vice president for the Navajo Nation, as her husband, Olsen Chee, stands beside her.

It was only a year and two months after Nez was sworn in as president that COVID-19 was reported on the Navajo Nation. For the remainder of his term, dealing with the pandemic was his priority. 

He reflected on the mandates imposed on the Navajo people to keep them safe from the pandemic, such as weekend lockdowns, closure of businesses and schools, mask mandates and many more, and he said they were strict but he would do it again if it meant keeping people alive. His office's work advocating to the Biden-Harris administration, and congressional leaders to get the vaccines, test kits, and funding were successful. 

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“Look at us now, we received over $4 billion to the Navajo Nation, money going directly to the Navajo Nation, some going to Indian Health Services, some going to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, some going to the states,” said Nez. “$4 billion for infrastructure development so that we are better prepared if a pandemic comes to the Navajo Nation.”

He also noted that during his administration, over 2,000 people were able to get water and electricity to their homes, laying 3,000 miles of high-speed fiber internet cables across the Navajo Nation. 

“Homes are being built,” said Nez. ”Homes will be built, so that multiple generations don't have to live under one roof. Infrastructure is important for any nation. Some countries put billions of dollars in infrastructure and now 20 years later they are prospering and that's the vision we have for the Navajo Nation. We just want those projects to get completed.”

After the inauguration, the new 25th Navajo Nation Council convened at the Navajo Council Chamber for the first time together to select a Speaker Pro Tem to perform limited duties from Tuesday through Jan. 23, or whenever the Navajo Nation Council confirms a new speaker.

Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to arlyssa.becenti@arizonarepublic.com.

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