He's half-Navajo, admits he has a funny name, chose a woman as his running mate and has never served as a council delegate, but challenging the status quo worked for Buu Nygren and his campaign because on Tuesday, he was elected Navajo Nation president.
Nygren and his running mate, Richelle Montoya, received an unofficial total of 34,568 votes, enough to upset popular incumbent President Jonathan Nez, who was running for a second term. Montoya will be the first woman to serve as Navajo vice president.
"Breaking that glass ceiling is pretty cool for a woman," said Nygren about his new vice president. "It's one step closer to becoming president and I think it showed last night."
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
Nygren's victory was a surprising turn of events in a race where many people believed Nez would easily win reelection. Nez and his vice president pick, Chad Abeyta, received 31,069 votes, according to the Navajo Nation Election Administration.
"I was very ambitious," said a tired Nygren on Wednesday. "I was a young candidate. A young candidate with a funny name and who chooses a female vice president. I think we put a lot before the Navajo people to take in.
"You've heard the stuff like I'm not Navajo. I'm half-Navajo. You know stuff like that, so there was a lot on the line last night on where the Navajo people stand on certain things. I think those results were very promising that the Navajo Nation at the end of the day were like how can we be the most efficient and effective way to help our people."
Nygren said he found inspiration from past Navajo leaders, including one who followed a similar path, finishing second in the primary election before winning.
Deciding to challenge a popular incumbent
Nygren's first language was Navajo and throughout the campaign, that was the language he chose mostly to express his ideas and plans as Navajo president.
He is from Red Mesa, Arizona and had worked as a chief commercial officer for Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority. He attended Arizona State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in construction management and a master's degree in business administration. He also has a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California.
Four years ago, former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley picked Nygren to be his running mate. Nygren wasn't Shirley's first choice, but accepted after Shirley's first choice was disqualified because he wasn't a registered voter for the Navajo Nation.
Four years later, Nygren rode his horse into Window Rock with his wife, State Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, D-Red Mesa, to announce his candidacy for Navajo Nation president. He was the first candidate to announce.
"President Nez has a really strong presidency. He is a tough opponent when you think about (it)," Nygren said. "Just think how late people announce their run for president. People waited and I was the first to announce in April. Everyone didn't want to challenge the president because of how strong his presidency was. But me, I said if it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
Nez's leadership appeared strong, especially when COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation hard. For many outside the Navajo Nation, he was the picture of resiliency as he advocated for the tribe to obtain COVID-19 vaccines and federal funding. He placed strict mandates on Navajo residents and visited all 110 chapters to distribute food and supplies. The pandemic interrupted his term and his plans as president.
Nez took the traditional route into the presidency, first as a chapter official, council delegate, vice president and, finally, president in 2018. He was also on the Navajo County Board of Supervisors.
"Four years ago, we had the Nahat'a Plan developed and a lot of that was water, electricity, broadband roads, homes, infrastructure," said Nez in an interview while out on the campaign trail. "What we are telling the Navajo people is that continuity is important. COVID-19, we had three years of pandemic, we are still in a pandemic, we overcame that by working together, and we are looking forward to transitioning out of a pandemic and getting back to progress."
Twice Nez was able to beat a Shirley team, first as a vice president running mate and then again running as president.
Finding inspiration from others
Nygren said he takes inspiration from all past leaders, including Nez. He said he studied past leaders and asked for assistance from campaign organizers from the 1980s, 90s and 2000s for their insight on how to run a successful campaign because to go "blind into Navajo government, you'll be eaten alive."
"I felt like in order for me to be the next Navajo Nation President I should prove myself by winning a very tough election like this election," Nygren said. "One of the things that is apparent is that this was my campaign and I wanted to run it the way I wanted to run it. I've studied past leaders. I tried to learn from their mistakes and their successes. I wanted to incorporate that into my campaign. In order to win this election you had to be very strategic and motivated. If I only took the Shirley method it wouldn't have been enough."
The fact that Nygren had not held office as a delegate was something that many thought made his run for the presidency premature. But he said whenever he doubted himself, he looked to past leaders who had beaten the odds on their road to being Navajo chairman or Navajo president.
"One of the things that drew my motivation when I feel doubt, I thought of when Peter MacDonald ran against Raymond Nakai," Nygren said. "Nakai was seasoned, and then you had the young guy, Peter MacDonald, never been on council and he was challenging Nakai. He wasn't supposed to win, but he pulled it off."
He also found motivation in the late Navajo President Albert Hale's 1994 election against former Navajo Chairman and President Peterson Zah. Hale, too, was never on the council.
"When I think of those two situations," Nygren said, "how Albert Hale came in second in the primaries like how I came in second. But in the general, Albert Hale beat Peterson Zah, those are the scenarios I would think about."
Now with two months until he takes the oath of office, Nygren is hoping to meet with Nez to work out a collaborative transition and to get his input. He will also be looking to find the right people for his cabinet. One other important thing to do is to meet with the 25th Navajo Nation Council and establish an early rapport
"There's a big ambitious to-do list that I put before the Navajo people and in order for me to accomplish that I need to get myself organized with some really solid people," Nygren said. "I don't know who these people are, but people that really understand government, change and issues I've talked about, government reform, and building a strong economy. This will be the main thing for the next couple of months. It's going to be moving fast."