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Op-Ed | Lawmakers, let the people lead

Donovan Quintero and Krista Allen are the editors of the Navajo Times.

By Donovan Quintero and Krista Allen

Before 1953, the BIA was in charge.

The feds made it known to tribal leaders like the late Sam Akeah that it was in charge – every aspect of a Navajo’s life. And it did not hide the notion.

To support my claim, I offer you the sheep reduction program of the 1930s, which devastated the Navajo way of life and arguably ended the economic independence Navajo families had.

Since the BIA was in charge, the Navajo tribal government listened to them, not the Navajo people, who marched and argued in vain that reducing their flocks meant certain doom.

I often posit that if the leadership at the time had just decided to take a chance and listened to its people, the stock reduction might not have happened.

Sixty-nine years later, in 2022, a change was felt in the air. Perhaps, the COVID-19 pandemic might have influenced it in some way, or that maybe the Navajo men in leadership could not take the tribe any further, but whatever the reasons, a record number of Navajo women entered the tribal presidential campaign race to try and become the Navajo people’s first female leader.

Ultimately, it did not quite happen. Perhaps our people weren’t ready. While the Navajo voters did not vote a Navajo woman into the presidential office, they did vote into office as its first female vice presidential leader and the greatest number of women in the Navajo Nation Council to represent the people.

Now, our future is in the hands of 26 people to represent over 400,000 Diné, living off and on the motherland.

The Navajo voters also elected the youngest president, Mr. Buu Nygren, to lead the tribe for the next four years. He is the most prominent face of a generation of young Diné who want a break from the past.

The future seems exhilaratingly bright. We don’t stop in our tracks when the BIA says “no.” We won’t go to the Navajo public asking for donations to use for a tribal-government-related trip to Washington, D.C. – not anymore. Although, I commend our late tribal chairman Sam Akeah for doing such a thing when he wanted to go to D.C. to tell the feds the Navajo people want to dictate their future and to stop the reduction program.

Akeah was elected in 1946. He asked the BIA for funds so he could travel to D.C. and advocate on the people’s behalf. When they told him “no,” he went to the people who collected money for him.

In 2023, President Nygren, a highly educated 36-year-old man from Red Mesa, Arizona, took the oath of office in Fort Defiance. He gave a poignant speech that he’d given a thousand times since he announced his candidacy in April 2022. His words offered comity to the divided.

I think it’s safe to say the BIA won’t deny Nygren if, for whatever reason, he went to their office to tell them he intended to travel to D.C. and advocate and fight for the Navajo people. Although, “red tape” might. I digress.

He said in his inaugural address, “One of the things I promised to you is, if the president of the Navajo Nation goes to jail for bringing water to his people, so be it!”

Nygren and the 25th Navajo Nation Council are inheriting many problems left in the wake of their predecessors. At the same time, they are also inheriting the pathways that have been made since the tribal Council was created a hundred years ago.

So, what can stop them from making swaths of changes for a better life?

I understand 24 people were elected to the Council. Twenty-four different minds, goals, and values vastly different from most Diné. They must figure out how to immediately begin meshing together because the clock has never stopped ticking. Their time in the office is narrowing as each day passes, and that’s just how the adopted politics works.

And Nygren and Richelle Montoya, their time in the halls of power, has also begun to dwindle.

I don’t mean to come off as pessimistic. But let’s do the math here: how to create jobs multiply by how to create business opportunities, multiply by how to provide housing for people wanting to come to work, multiply by how to keep funding from dissipating or else the government crashes divide by how to do it in 48 months?

I’m sure the formula is much simpler, and I’m just making a simple thing into a rocket science project.

Nonetheless, I’m inspired by Chairman Akeah and what he did. He did it the old-fashioned way. He went to the people when the feds refused to help him. Ultimately, he made sweeping changes for the people.

But sweeping, far-reaching changes seem to be unlikely for our Nation. Many of our Diné leaders’ credentials haven’t led to better results in the past. Perhaps we need more educated naat’áanii with real extra initials fluttering their names. We would want our lawmakers in the Council Chamber to be a highly lettered lot.

Education is more critical today than ever. Yes, college has become a precondition for upward mobility.

The challenges our children face compared to their more fortunate counterparts are enormous. Our country is often hailed as a “land of opportunity,” where all children, no matter their background, have the chance to succeed.

But does a formal education make political leaders better at their jobs? Would it mean less inequality, lower unemployment in the Nation, and more homes for our people? Probably not.

Would it make any difference if we had more lawmakers with college degrees? Are they more productive and less likely to be corrupt? It’s hard to say. I believe the path to any executive-in-chief position starts with higher education.

Our leaders must devise proposals for those sweeping changes to curb our issues, stop buying pointless cattle ranches and save billions of dollars.

In fact, what’s the purpose of the Navajo Nation’s land and real estate buys? For instance, the ranches in Colorado, the tracts of land near Flagstaff, and land and the two structures in Washington, D.C.?

Perhaps our lawmakers need to step back and let the people lead. It’s an active process. It’s never too soon to let them be the bosses, who may not always be correct, but they are the bosses.


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