The youngest president-elect in Navajo history talks access to water, the Bears Ears debate and keeping young people on the reservation
When he’s sworn in as president of the Navajo Nation this January, Buu Nygren’s administration will make history on a number of fronts
When he’s sworn in as president of the Navajo Nation this January, Buu Nygren’s administration will make history on a number of fronts.
His running mate, Richelle 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 restructured in 1991. He might even be the first Utah-born leader since legendary Chief Manuelito, who died in 1893 after presiding over the tribe during the “Long Walk.”
And at 35 years old, Nygren will be the youngest president to ever take the helm of the Navajo Nation.
“As I crisscrossed 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 told the Deseret News on Wednesday.
‘Thinking for the future’
With a background in construction management, Nygren hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the office. He’s a political newcomer who lost to his predecessor, current tribal President Jonathan Nez, in a bid to be Joe Shirley Jr.’s vice president in 2018.
The son of a south-Vietnamese father and 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 Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren and settled in Red Mesa, where the two live with their infant daughter.
His campaign centered around a promise to work closely with the Navajo Nation council, which is sometimes thought to yield 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, with no running water, no electricity, I lost my mom to alcoholism, I have relatives that we lost to alcoholism this year — there’s this loss of hope, loss of identity and I feel all this sadness around me. And as president, I want to do what I can to make sure that our people have hope, that we’re not always going to be like this,” he said Wednesday in a Zoom interview.
Nygren will take the helm of the largest tribal nation in the country at over 17 million acres and more than 330,000 members, a population rivaled only by the Cherokee Nation. Yet the reservation is home to less than 170,000 Navajo people.
Nygren, whose campaign slogan was “Yideeską́ądi Nitsáhákees,” or “Thinking for the future” in Navajo, says 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 of Navajo (Nation),” he said.
“And every year we send our brightest and smartest group of people from high school to go get an education and make something of themselves, but we don’t have pathways to bring them home and help assist us. ... I’m going to work on trying to build those pathways and bring our professional people home, then at the same time help our people that live here with their basic necessities.”
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 have easily just continued to live my life and not worry about 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 appealing to young people, Nygren says, is to invest in necessities like internet, running water and electricity.
At least 30% of Navajo residents lack access to running water, and about 14% don’t have electricity, according to Navajo Nation reports. Just 40% of Navajo households are online, according to an NPR report.
“We’ve got to make it convenient for people to live here. Especially if they’re so used to living in the city and they’re trying to come home, now they have to haul water?” he said.
That’s a familiar sentiment 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, talking about her siblings and cousins who left their family’s home on the reservation in Dennehotso, about 10 miles from the Utah-Arizona border. “I’m just hoping that the new president thinks about us, and doesn’t forget about us, especially out here in the country.”
“I hope something changes, especially with how we’re going to get more water,” said Melcita Stanley, who lives near Monument Valley. “There’s a lot of different choices for the government to make. And someone will start it, but no one finishes it with new presidents coming in.”
One of the first steps Nygren hopes to take is create a “one building environment” for the various departments and authorities that play a role in bringing utilities to residents.
“That way we can truly identify what the hiccup is — is it us, the Navajo Nation government? Or is it the U.S. government that’s holding us back?” he said.
The Bears Ears debate
The northwest border of the Navajo Nation backs up to Bears Ears National Monument, an area of vast cultural significance for tribes in the Four Corners area and the subject of a current lawsuit from Utah, which alleges President Joe Biden abused the Antiquities Act when he reestablished the monument’s borders after former President Donald Trump reduced them.
Nygren hopes to see a more permanent solution, something “that stands the test of time,” he said. But above all else, he thinks the Navajo Nation should be involved in the planning, and should see the economic benefits from the monument’s designation.
“You got tourism, you got all these facilities, and my No. 1 question is how much of that is coming back to tribes?” he asked. “... Out of every dollar that’s going to be generated from these efforts, how much is going to people?”
When it comes to Utah’s lawsuit, Nygren isn’t necessarily opposed to its merits. He agrees, like most of Utah’s leaders, that some permanent protections are needed. But he said before he takes a public stance on the suit, he wants to meet with both sides.
“I’ve heard pros and cons from local community members. So I definitely want to make sure that, at the end of the day, if there is economic benefits to anybody, Navajo should have a piece of it,” he said.