Window Rock, Ariz. Lynda Lovejoy walks past throngs of parade-goers in her traditional crushed velvet dress and moccasins, her campaign button on the sleeve. Speaking through a microphone, she says she’ll bring fresh perspective to the Navajo government if elected president.
Her supporters shout, “You go girl!”
Others at the parade in Window Rock clearly don’t want to see her at the helm of the country’s largest American Indian reservation. “I hope you lose,” one man shouts, then covers his mouth and ducks into the crowd. Another woman declares support for Lovejoy’s opponent: “We want Ben Shelly. Women belong in the kitchen.”
No woman has served as Navajo president, although the matriarchal society has strong reverence for women as caretakers and heirs to everything from home site leases to sheep. When introducing themselves, Navajos start with their mother’s clan name.
With Lovejoy garnering twice as many votes as any of the 10 men and a second woman in a recent primary, the Navajo Nation appears closer than ever to electing a woman as its leader. But that doesn’t mean Lovejoy’s candidacy is widely accepted as she and Shelly approach the Nov. 2 election.
The New Mexico state senator has been called an outsider who lacks experience in tribal government. More to the point, she’s been told she’ll ruin a tradition in which all previous top leaders have been men and that her presidency could portend an ominous future for the tribe. Some have even attributed damaging weather events to her quest for the leadership.
Still others have hope she’ll bring attention to social justice issues and increase job opportunities for younger people on the reservation. Some ask why not a woman considering the tribe’s struggles with men as leaders.
Sara Stevens, who works with domestic violence victims on the reservation, says perpetrators are running rampant, and women and children need help.
“She’s a woman like the rest of us,” said Stevens, of Crystal, N.M. “Hopefully that will pull at her heart strings.”
Men long have been the leaders of Navajo people and traditionally consulted with women in the communities as equals. Navajos see each person as having female and male aspects that create balance.
Philmer Bluehouse, a traditional peacekeeper, said those who believe women can’t be president likely are looking to a Navajo tale of a female who was given a leadership post but became angry and controlling.
But some fail to look beyond that story to one in which the deity White Shell Woman gives birth to the Twin Warriors, who rid the world of monsters such as greed, poverty and hate, Bluhouse said. According to Navajo lore, all Navajos can trace their ancestry back to her, and she’s considered to be the ideal woman.
Both Lovejoy and Shelly know the story but are quick to note they’re no experts in tradition. They are familiar, though, with “monsters” that come in the form of a more than 50 percent unemployment rate, the abuse of women and children, infighting in tribal government and neglected elderly.
At stake in the race is oversight of the 27,000-square-mile reservation, its economy, future use of natural resources and the fight to maintain tribal sovereignty.
Lovejoy grew up in Crownpoint, N.M., where flat-lying land opens up to wide country with a distant, rugged ridge line. She shared a two-room hogan with 12 others and spent her days chopping firewood, herding sheep, hauling water and speaking Navajo.
She left the reservation for college and spent a few years working for the Navajo government before entering state politics.
While raising her three children as a single mother, Lovejoy said she lacked the spirituality to be strong and an effective parent, so she turned to Catholicism but still practices the traditional Navajo way of life. She also has five stepchildren.