FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. - Buu Nygren was sworn in on Jan. 10 as the next president of the vast Navajo Nation, a job that will test his ability to make good on promises to deliver water, electricity and broadband to tens of thousands who don’t have it.
Nygren beat out incumbent President Jonathan Nez in the tribe’s general election by about 3,500 votes. The office heavily intersects with the federal government, as do other tribes that receive federal funding for services like housing, health care, education and public safety. The Navajo Nation also owns property in D.C.
Nygren has said he’ll largely keep his focus local.
"We’re not here for notoriety, we’re not here to be in the spotlight," he told The Associated Press during election season. "We’re here to get to work and make sure out elders can live out the rest of their lives with the necessities they need."
Nygren, 36, will be the youngest to hold the tribal presidency and has never held political office, though he was a vice presidential candidate in 2018. His vice president, Richelle Montoya, will be the first woman in the position.
"I never thought this wasn’t my place, that this wasn’t something I couldn’t do," Montoya said after the election. "This feeling will continue with the generations after me as they make a decision to lead the nation."
The inauguration will take place at an indoor arena in Fort Defiance, just north of the tribal capital of Window Rock. It will be followed by a public luncheon at the fairgrounds in Window Rock, a gospel celebration, a song and dance, a comedy show, a pow wow and an inaugural ball.
The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. at 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers). It stretches into parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Its population of around 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Nygren brought an energy to the presidential race that resonated with voters, campaigning with his wife, former Arizona state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren. He had a flair for rising and falling speech and created a signature look with his hair tied in a traditional bun, a wide-brimmed black hat, blue trousers and a lighter blue, long-sleeved shirt.
Nygren is half Vietnamese but never knew his father. He was raised on the Utah portion of the reservation by his late mother in a home without electricity or running water, he said. He has a background in construction management and has said he expects tribal citizens to hold him accountable as president.
Nygren pledged to work closely with the 24 members of the Navajo Nation Council who also will be sworn in Tuesday along with other elected officials. About one-third of the council will be women — a record number.
Some of the women delegate’s priorities include infrastructure, addressing social ills and generational trauma, bolstering law enforcement, managing a budget and ensuring a continued focus on the epidemic of missing and slain Indigenous people.
"I know that most of us as women are going to have that natural indication to love our people, to put our people first, to understand there’s a stronger responsibility to protecting our homes, meaning the Navajo Nation," said Shaandiin Parrish, who was elected to the council.
Returning Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said she’s looking forward to having difficult conversations where tribal lawmakers can confront problems, learn from shared experiences and examine the challenges that lead to families being victimized and services not delivered to Navajo people.
One thing should not be expected of women leaders, she said.
"Although nurturing is part of our teaching, we cannot hold the emotional baggage of others," Kanazbah Crotty said. "What I mean by that is the expectation shouldn’t be that as women leadership, we’re here to fix all the issues."
Nez and the previous council laid the groundwork for infrastructure projects using money the tribe received in federal coronavirus relief aid. But Nygren has said those decisions may need to be revisited. Nez is worried any changes would jeopardize the tribe not meeting deadlines for spending the money.
In one of his last actions, Nez vetoed legislation Monday to expand oil and gas exploration and development, including for helium, on the reservation. He said the affected communities hadn’t reached consensus, and concerns over profit-sharing and health went unresolved.
Fonseca covers Indigenous communities on the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: @FonsecaAP