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When he is sworn in as president of the Navajo Nation this January, Bu Nygren’s administration will make history on several fronts.
Her running mate, Rachel Montoya, will be the tribe’s first female vice president. Nygren, who was born in Blanding, will be the first Utah-born president since the tribal government was reorganized in 1991. He may even be the first Utah-born leader since the legendary Chief Manuelito, who died in 1893 after presiding over the tribe’s “long walk.”
And at 35, Nygren will be the youngest president to assume leadership of the Navajo Nation.
“When I crossed the Navajo Nation and went to meetings and met with leadership, I was always the youngest person in the room, even as a candidate for president,” he said Wednesday.
‘Thinking for the Future’
With a background in construction management, Nygren hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the office. He is a political newcomer who lost to Joe Shirley Jr. in 2018 to become vice president to his predecessor, current tribal president Jonathan Nage.
The son of a Vietnamese father and a Navajo mother, Nygren was raised by his mother and grandmother outside of Blanding and attended Red Mesa High School in Arizona. He married Arizona State Representative Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren and settled in Red Mesa, where the two live with their infant daughter.
His campaign centered on a promise to work closely with the Navajo Nation Council, which sometimes wields more power than the tribal president’s office, and a strong anti-poverty platform, pledging to improve access to broadband, electricity and running water.
“If you grew up the way I grew up, no running water, no electricity, I lost my mother to alcohol, I have relatives that we lost to alcoholism this year — this loss of hope, loss of identity and I feel everything, this sadness around me. . And as president, I want to do everything I can to make sure that our people have hope, that we’re not always going to be like that,” he said in a Zoom interview Wednesday.
Nygren will lead the nation’s largest tribal nation at more than 17 million acres and more than 330,000 members, a population rivaled only by the Cherokee Nation. Yet the reservation is home to fewer than 170,000 Navajo people.
Nygren, whose campaign slogan was “Yideeską́ądi Nitsáhákees,” or “Thinking for the Future” in Navajo, said a top priority is stopping the exodus of Navajo youth who leave the reservation after high school and never return.
“Some of the most talented Navajo people are outside the Navajo (Nation),” he said.
“And every year we send our brightest and smartest people out of high school to get an education and make something of themselves, but we have no way to bring them home and help us. … I’m going to work to build those pathways and try to get our professional people home, then at the same time help our people who live here with their basic needs.”
Nygren, who spent years in the private sector, hopes to lead by example.
“Coming from a really nice, executive job, and having that track record, I could easily go on with my life and not worry about the Navajo, because across the Navajo Nation, the wages are not good,” he said. “…That’s where, as president, I bring a unique perspective.”
Making life ‘convenient’
The “number one” way to make life on the reservation more attractive to young people, Nygren says, is to invest in essentials like Internet, running water and electricity.
According to the Navajo Nation, at least 30% of Navajo residents do not have access to running water and about 14% do not have electricity. Report. According to one, only 40% of Navajo households are online NPR reports.
“We have to make it convenient for people to live here. Especially if they are so used to living in the city and they try to come home, now they have to carry water? she said.
It’s a familiar feeling for many Navajo residents, at least on the Utah and Arizona side.
“I think they would have stayed if they had running water and electricity,” said Fred Castillo, speaking of his siblings and cousins who left their family home on the reservation in Denehotso, about 10 miles from the Utah-Arizona border. “I’m just hoping that the new president will think about us and not forget about us, especially here in the country.”
“I hope something changes, especially how we’re going to get more water,” said Melcita Stanley, who lives near Monument Valley. “There are many different choices for the government. And someone will start it, but no one will end it with the arrival of a new president.
One of the first steps Nygren hopes to take is to create a “one building environment” for the various departments and authorities that play a role in bringing utilities to residents.
“That way we can identify what the real hiccup is — is it us, the Navajo Nation government? Or is the US government holding us back? she said.
Bear’s Ears Controversy
The northwestern border of the Navajo Nation backs up to Bears Ears National Monument, an area of great cultural significance to tribes in the Four Corners area and the subject of a current lawsuit from Utah, which alleges that President Joe Biden abused the Antiquities Act when he re-established it. After former President Donald Trump reduced the monument’s boundaries.
Nygren hopes to see a more permanent solution, something “that stands the test of time,” he said. But above all, he thinks the Navajo Nation should be involved in the planning and see the economic benefits from the monument designation.
“You’ve got tourism, you’ve got all these benefits, and my No. 1 question is how much of that is going back to the tribes?” he asked. “…of the dollars that are going to be generated from these efforts, how much is going to people?”
When it comes to the Utah case, Nygren doesn’t necessarily dispute its merits. He agrees, like most leaders in Utah, that some permanent protection is needed. But before taking a public stand on the case, he said, he wants to meet both sides.
“I have heard good and bad from local community members. So I want to make sure that, at the end of the day, if anybody has an economic advantage, the Navajo should have a piece of it,” he said.
Boo Nygren will be the youngest president in Navajo Nation history
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