Female Leader Would Be First for Navajos

By Felicia Fonseca
Associated Press
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz., Nov. 6 -- One candidate in Tuesday's Navajo Nation presidential election promises accountability and staunch protection of tribal land. The other vows to build on the reservation's economic progress in the past four years.

But in the race between incumbent Joe Shirley Jr. and challenger Lynda Lovejoy, the overriding issue is sex.

A win would make Lovejoy the first female leader on the largest Indian reservation in the United States, which extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

"She is a woman, and that is going to be an issue no matter what her stance on policy," said Dale Mason, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico at Gallup. "She represents something entirely new."

Lovejoy, a former New Mexico state lawmaker and current member of the Public Regulation Commission, hopes to unseat Shirley, 58, a former tribal council delegate who has been leading the tribe for four years.

"I can't control people making their decision to vote for me because I'm a woman," she said. "I certainly appreciate and welcome that. Any vote is important to winning this ticket on November 7."

Shirley, who has focused on economic development in his campaign for reelection, acknowledges some people will vote based on sex, but he says he is hopeful that most won't.

Some traditional Navajos believe that women and men have distinct roles in society -- women as caretakers of the home and of children, and men as providers and leaders, said Tommy Begay, a Navajo and University of Arizona doctoral student who is studying the evolution of cultures.

Although Navajo is a matriarchal society, traditional Navajos will probably stick to the belief that only men should serve as president, Begay said.

"When you live your life in a very traditional way, the beliefs really dictate your action," Begay said. "They become sort of the boundaries of existence."

Less traditional Navajos either have not been taught those beliefs, dismiss them, or have a hard time maintaining them because of the dominant society's influence, Begay said.

Lovejoy has based her campaign on ensuring an open and accountable government, creating jobs, protecting land and natural resources, and cutting unnecessary spending.

Shirley often participates in sweat lodges, where he says he learns songs about the tribe's religion and culture and also draws inspiration from the elders as they talk about how to regain the tribe's economic independence.

Many Navajos are poor, and unemployment hovers around 50 percent.

Shirley has been pushing projects that include the coal-fired Desert Rock Power Plant and the construction of six casinos. The first could be built next year, he said.

The president said those projects would bring in thousands of jobs and provide tribal members with basic necessities -- a home, transportation and income.

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