Buu Nygren leads the nation

Can the Navajo Nation’s youngest-ever president improve the path of the largest reservation in the U.S.?

This is the place where the climb began. Window Rock — the capital of the great Navajo Nation, some 100 miles due south of the Four Corners. Here, atop a chestnut steed, with turquoise on his belt buckle, on his ring finger and on his wrists; with his traditional necklace rattling ’round his neck; and with a black, domed cowboy hat bobbing with each clip-clop, Buu Nygren declared what he’d long waited to declare: “My family, upbringing, education and experience have humbled me and molded me into the person I am today. It has prepared me to take this next step on my path and run for Navajo Nation president.” 

His words echoed through Veterans Memorial Park back in early April, bolstered by the 200-foot sandstone amphitheater behind him. This formation is where Window Rock, Arizona, gets its name: A 47-foot hole interrupts the otherwise flat orange wall, with the blue sky shining through like an azure eye. It almost appeared to stare down at Nygren and his 50-some supporters that day. As if the whole Navajo Nation was watching. 

They watched as Nygren, at only 35 years old, laid out his vision — one that’s been laid out again and again over the decades: Infrastructure. Education. Economic development. But why would he be the one to make good on such promises, when so many past leaders of the Diné, as the Navajo prefer to be called, haven’t? He relied on a one-two punch of a backstory for the answer. First, he grew up like many of his people: Financially poor, in a home without running water or electricity, born to a single mother who raised him Christian. He knew the struggles of the average Diné. But he also had the perfect background to bring about the desired changes: a bachelor’s degree in construction management from Arizona State; an MBA; a doctorate of education from USC, and a decade of work experience. 

Plus his campaign was predicated on firsts: He’d be the youngest leader of the Navajo Nation, and his vice president, Richelle Montoya, would be the first woman to serve as either president or vice president. And if he could achieve those firsts, why stop there? His critics call him naive, but so do his friends. Like Arlando Teller, a fellow politician who’s known Nygren for years. “I think naivete will be not only a breath of fresh air,” he says, “but also could be his (biggest) challenge.” 

Buu Nygren was elected president of the Navajo Nation in November 2022 at the age of 35. | Mark Owens for Deseret News

Nygren himself accepts that challenge. “There’s never been a person like myself, as young as I am, in this position,” he tells Deseret Magazine. “But I don’t think there’s ever been someone with the same experience in this position, either.” 

And that, Nygren believes, places his ultimate goal within reach: Deliverance from the conditions that have caused 36 percent of the Navajo Nation to live below the federal poverty line, compared to 13 percent of Americans overall. Deliverance from the oppression of what author Tommy Orange calls the “stray bullets and consequences” of colonialism that “are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.” Deliverance from a brain drain that’s sucking the best of the Navajo Nation off the reservation in search of opportunities unavailable there, leading to a culture teetering on the brink of erasure — with the Diné language imperiled, ceremonies forgotten and lagging standards of living. 

Only 66,229 citizens voted in November’s election — in a nation of some 400,000. Nygren beat his uber-polished opponent, incumbent Jonathan Nez, by just 3,551 ballots. For Nygren, this was vindication enough: With zero experience in elected office, he managed to defeat what he calls the Nez “political machine” in a major upset. “He had to prove himself — that he’s capable of doing this job. That he’s capable of being a leader,” explains Donovan Quintero, a Navajo Times reporter who covered Nygren’s campaign. “And even then, over 30,000 people chose otherwise, and even more people chose (to stay home). So the majority of the Navajos don’t really believe in him.”

But now, two months into his presidency, they’ll at least be watching. If his administration unfolds according to plan, they’ll have no choice. The presidential complex rests in direct view of Window Rock. The eyes of the nation are indeed upon Buu Nygren, and he believes they’ll like what they see. Now, like the Diné leaders of old, he just needs to make them believe, too. 

Many in the Navajo Nation leave the reservation in search of opportunities unavailable there, leading to a culture teetering on the brink of erasure.

While Nygren had never held elected office, his wife Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren has served in the Arizona House of Representatives since 2021. | Buu Nygren campaign

This is the place the Diné call home: 27,000 square miles of mountains and canyons in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico — the largest Indian reservation in the United States. Yet the Diné, most scholars believe, haven’t actually lived in the Four Corners region all that long. They are not, like their neighbors the Hopi and Zuni, descended from the Ancestral Pueblo people who built the famed cliff dwellings. Rather, many modern scholars believe the Diné arrived in the Southwest sometime in the 1400s. Soon, though, the region permeated their spirituality, with creation stories placing their homeland between “four sacred mountains” in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. 

In the era of European colonization, the most famed and feared Navajo leader emerged from Bears Ears, Utah. His people called him “Holy Boy” or “Warrior Grabbed Enemy,” but the name that stuck was Manuelito. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, by the mid-1860s his people were in the midst of their own “Trail of Tears,” known as the “Long Walk,” where they were marched to Fort Sumner in New Mexico and held prisoner until the Treaty of 1868 allowed them to return to their homeland. Manuelito signed that treaty, and he eventually began to promote the American view of education as the “ladder” through which his people could regain their independence. He even sent two of his sons to a Pennsylvania boarding school — where one died, and one became sick and returned home, only to die soon after.

An irate Manuelito spent the last decade of his life certain he’d led his people astray. “He did voice a shift in his view about the necessity or the need for American education,” explains Jennifer Denetdale, a professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and a leading expert on Diné history. Still, his legacy is most often attached to education — including through the prestigious Chief Manuelito Scholarship program, of which Nygren was a recipient. 

Diné government of Manuelito’s day was scattered and regional, which made negotiations difficult for the U.S. government. The Department of the Interior changed that in 1922 by establishing the Navajo Business Council to arrange natural resource extraction on Navajo land. The council evolved into new iterations over the decades, until 1989 brought the advent of a three-branch system that closely resembles the U.S. government — though some constants remain. Namely, promises of modernization. “You can see them in documents from the 1880s,” Denetdale says.

Over time, Navajo leaders have fallen back on familiar excuses when they haven’t delivered. “What they say … is, ‘Well, it just takes a long time because of the Navajo Nation’s relationship with the federal government,’” Denetdale explains. And they’re not wrong. The Navajo Nation is supposed to be sovereign, but in practice, red tape abounds. “The bureaucracy is just incredible,” she adds. “It’s just this crushing machine that never goes anywhere.” 

Nygren has listened to these frustrations at events across Navajo Nation — channeling a more modern Manuelito. Nygren wasn’t born in Bears Ears — but he was born in Blanding, Utah, making him the first Utah-born leader of the Diné since Manuelito himself. And even if Manuelito wavered on his belief in education as a ladder, Nygren climbed anyway, hoping to prove that it can be more than a ladder alone. 

‘Ms. Tsosie,’ he’d tell her time and time again, ‘I’m going to be Navajo Nation president someday. You just watch.’

This is the place where the ambitions began. A 14-foot travel trailer down a jowl-rattling road in Yellow Rock Point, Utah. You’d struggle to find this place on any map. It’s not a city or a municipality — but it’s where Nygren grew up. His father was South Vietnamese, which is where his name comes from, but the younger Buu Nygren never met him. His mom raised him here, alone. Facing difficult circumstances, she never discouraged his pursuits. And young Nygren showed an aptitude for many things. 

In middle school, he was a quarterback on the football field and a pitcher on the baseball diamond. In high school, he helped the Redskins (the mascot isn’t controversial here) of Red Mesa High to a runner-up finish at the state cross-country meet during his junior year. A trophy case in the school’s lobby still bears Nygren’s signature, along with a promise: “Next year.” He also started a skateboarding club and helped secure an in-school skatepark. That undertaking introduced him to the grinding pestles of bureaucracy, and its aversion to change. “I found out real quickly,” he says, “that people really looked down on people who skated.” So he proposed a literal contract to the school’s administration: “We’ll make sure we maintain good grades and make sure that we stay out of trouble,” Nygren recalls. In return: “You guys just let us skate.” 

He showed an interest in carpentry and construction, working with his uncle to build houses. It’s a wonder he had time. The ride from Yellow Rock Point to Red Mesa High School, just across the Arizona state line, is about 40 miles by car, but the route was never direct. Nygren and his sister caught the bus each morning around 5:30 and didn’t arrive on campus until about two hours later. He often returned home after cross-country practice around 7, in time to do his homework by the flicker of a kerosene lamp. “It was just normal. I didn’t really know the difference,” he says. “But now, I think about it, and I don’t know if as an adult I could handle that.” Perhaps his lengthy commute explains why, when asked in his senior yearbook questionnaire who his favorite bus driver was, he wrote “none.”

That yearbook offers many clues about the mythology of Buu Nygren. It tells of a young man well-liked by his classmates: He was voted toughest, most likely to succeed and “best body,” complete with a snapshot of shirtless flexing. He was his junior class representative in student government, his sophomore class president and graduated as valedictorian. And his advice to those who’d come after him proved prophetic: “Start looking and apply to colleges early. Think BIG!”

He certainly did that himself, according to his college counselor, Alvina Tsosie, who still works at Red Mesa. She remembers Nygren as extremely ambitious, with an interest in math and science. He spoke fluent Diné bizaad — better than her, she admits — and was always a natural leader. Tsosie also remembers he set a clear goal for himself throughout his years there: “Ms. Tsosie,” he’d tell her time and time again, “I’m going to be Navajo Nation president someday. You just watch.”

His campaign’s triumph was, therefore, no surprise to her. But as Arizona Republic reporter Arlyssa Becenti observed following his victory, he also won by “running the campaign his way.” Sometimes, that meant stepping back onto a skateboard at a parade and performing a pop shove-it. Sometimes it meant stopping to take videos with voters at gas stations, as he did with his old PE teacher’s niece. Henrietta Haven recently pulled up that video on her phone and beamed. “Special shoutout to Ms. Haven! Good morning!” he says toward the end. “I’m staying healthy and fit like you told me!” But most of all, it meant remembering what his mom taught him. 

She died of alcoholism in December 2020, and she always told Nygren that life would be difficult. “But as long as you put in the work,” she added, “and have a good attitude, the results should be good.” Results to her didn’t mean the accumulation of wealth or power, but simply to “be good and be kind,” according to a Facebook post Nygren published on the one-year anniversary of her death. “I think about that when I think of mom,” he wrote.

He believes in balancing the old and the new. In bringing the outside world in without sacrificing everything that makes the Navajo people unique.

This is the place where Buu Nygren chose to celebrate his victory: The “Wildcat Den,” a first-rate gymnasium on the campus of the Navajo Nation’s Chinle High School, for a community college men’s basketball clash between Eastern Arizona College and the College of Southern Nevada. The game had been scheduled months earlier, with absolutely no thought given to the presidential election taking place the day before. But shortly after Nygren was declared the winner, his people contacted Eastern Arizona’s people, telling them he wanted to make an appearance.

Stories of Nygren’s hustle became legendary. “Throughout the campaign,” recalls Allie Redhorse Young, a Navajo activist, “I saw him in every, single, community.” So his stop at the basketball game felt like more of the same — and the crowd of some 1,200 loved it. “He walked into the auditorium,” recalls Eastern Arizona President Todd Haynie, “and really, the mood changed dramatically.” A line of people wanted selfies. Nygren obliged. Others just wanted to talk and he engaged. This was his campaign distilled: He knew Nez, his opponent, was polished in a way he was not. So his approach was to make himself available, personable. To be different. Always with one eye toward the Navajo Nation, and one eye toward its place in the larger world. 

This strategy was on display during his halftime speech. “He wasn’t dressed in a three-piece suit,” Haynie recalls. Nygren, in contrast, wore his distinctive domed cowboy hat. He often pins an eagle feather to the band, to symbolize safe travels. He also wears his long, black hair in a traditional way, with a headband made from arrowheads, symbolizing protection. Everything about his wardrobe, he insists, is deliberate at a time when few Diné still wear traditional jewelry. “We can still be modern, but also not forget where we’ve come from,” he says. “We can seek the education, we can seek the jobs. But at the end of the day, let’s not forget who we are.”

Nygren frequently connects with his constituents via social media. | Buu Nygren campaign

Nygren’s tried to do that by making Diné cultural identity a core part of his messaging. “He really was doing it differently,” says Tyson Yazzie, a Navajo prosecutor who attended Arizona State at the same time as Nygren. “And I think that really speaks to the future of the Navajo Nation. The people are ready for a change.” What that will look like in terms of policy proposals, and whether those proposals will pass the Navajo Council, is still very much in flux. Aside from electing a new kind of president, the Diné also recalibrated their legislature; two-thirds will be new members. Nygren says the most difficult challenge awaiting him will be learning the strengths and weaknesses of each delegate, and figuring out how to work with them. Though he’s already something of an expert on compromise.

Given his Christian upbringing, he says advisers pressured him to declare his allegiance to Christianity throughout his campaign. Nygren refused. “When it came to religion,” he says, “I never really entertained it, even though I did grow up Christian.” He means no disrespect toward Christians, nor to members of the Native American Church. But on a personal level, he’s more interested in worldly questions than eternal ones. “We’re all in it together,” he says. “We’re all up against poverty. We’re all up against washboard roads. We’re all up against family members that have been asking for water and power for decades. And we’re all up against not having adequate public safety. ... That’s what I’m against, and that’s what I believe in.”

In short, he believes in balancing the old and the new. In bringing the outside world in without sacrificing everything that makes the Navajo people unique. “(He’s) the bridge,” Yazzie says, “between two worlds.” 

The eyes of the nation are indeed upon Buu Nygren, and he believes they’ll like what they see. Now, like the Navajo leaders of the old, he just needs to make them believe, too.

This is the place Buu Nygren now calls home. He built it himself, down a dirt road near Red Mesa High School. He just moved here in December. Nygren used to run trails in this area as part of his cross-country regimen; he used to look up at the vast open spaces and, if his college counselor is to be believed, he saw in those red rocks, brown meadows and blue skies what the Navajo Nation could become. And that vision remains central. “He is blowing back into the politics on Navajo a refreshed concept of, ‘Come home. Let’s do something together. Let’s fix home,’” Teller explains. 

That’s where his vision starts: With economic reforms that’ll make opening businesses in the Navajo Nation easier, to bring the best of the Diné back to their ancestral lands. But that’s in service of something bigger. “Our own senator, our own congressional representative,” he explains. “Maybe even the president.” At the very least, he wants the nation to be a place a U.S. presidential candidate must visit during a campaign. He wants his homeland to have that kind of clout. That kind of hope. 

View Comments

Perhaps his critics are right that he’s naive. Even his most optimistic supporters would agree that the future he wants is a long way off. “I’m not gonna lie, he has a huge challenge in front of him,” says Young, who endorsed Nygren despite having worked extensively with Nez. “There’s been a lot of talk about change and vision for change. And it’s been a little bit slow,” she adds. “And I have no idea what’s gonna happen with Buu. I don’t have any idea if he’ll be able to make the changes that he was talking about in his campaign.”

But his embrace of education — not as a tool of assimilation, as it was wielded by the American government in the days of Manuelito, but as a way to learn practical skills that can benefit his people — could be just the tool the Navajo nation needs to inch its way back from the brink. 

“We’ve got a lot of attorneys. We’ve got a lot of engineers. We’ve got a lot of business people that haven’t come back together to really build a future that we can all enjoy,” Nygren says. “Fifty years from now, it’d be nice for my grandkids to say, ‘I’d rather live on Navajo.’”  

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.
Join the Conversation