WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – One candidate in the Navajo Nation's presidential race promises accountability and staunch protection of tribal land. The other vows to build on the reservation's economic progress in the past four years.
But as incumbent Joe Shirley Jr. and challenger Lynda Lovejoy face off for the presidency Tuesday, the overriding issue is gender.
A win would make Lovejoy the first female leader on the largest Indian reservation in the United States, which extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
"She is a woman, and that is going to be an issue no matter what her stance on policy," said Dale Mason, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico's Gallup branch. "She represents something entirely new."
Lovejoy, a former New Mexico state lawmaker and current member of the Public Regulation Commission, hopes to unseat Shirley, 58, a former tribal council delegate who has been leading the tribe for four years.
"I can't control people making their decision to vote for me because I'm a woman," she said. "I certainly appreciate and welcome that. Any vote is important to winning this ticket on Nov. 7."
Shirley, who has focused on economic development in his campaign for re-election, acknowledges some people will vote based on gender, but he says he is hopeful that most won't.
Some traditional Navajos believe that women and men have distinct roles in society — women as caretakers of the home and of children, and men as providers and leaders, said Tommy Begay, a Navajo and University of Arizona doctoral student who is studying the evolution of cultures.
Although Navajo is a matriarchal society, traditional Navajos are likely to stick to the belief that only men should serve as president, Begay said.
"When you live your life in a very traditional way, the beliefs really dictate your action," Begay said. "They become sort of the boundaries of existence."
Less traditional Navajos either have not been taught those beliefs, dismiss them, or have a hard time maintaining them because of influence from the dominant society, Begay said.
Lovejoy has based her campaign on ensuring an open and accountable government, creating jobs, protecting land and natural resources and cutting down on unnecessary spending.
Shirley often participates in sweat lodges where he says he learns songs about the tribe's religion and culture and draws inspiration from the elders as they talk about how to regain the tribe's economic independence.
Many Navajos are poor, and unemployment hovers around 50 percent.
"We were fierce and very proud," Shirley said in a recent interview in the president's home, a simple ranch-style house with a white iron fence. "And now I feel my mission is to get us back to that. ... We need to do for ourselves."
The two candidates share that desire for their tribe, having been raised by grandmothers who they say encouraged them to be self-sufficient, get educations off the reservation and return to help the Navajo people.
As a child growing up in Crownpoint, N.M., Lovejoy said she often was grouped with three or four of her relatives to do chores such as chopping firewood, herding sheep, hauling water or cleaning the two-room hogan she shared with 12 others.
Shirley has been pushing projects that include the coal-fired Desert Rock Power Plant and the construction of six casinos — the first of which could be built next year, he said.
The president said those projects would bring in thousands of jobs and provide tribal members with basic necessities — a home, transportation and income.
"There's a fear that if she (Lovejoy) should somehow get elected, that a lot of these projects that we have been working on for days, for months, for years, are just going to die," Shirley said.
Not so, Lovejoy says. Although she doesn't support gambling and questions the safety of the power plant projects, she said she would continue them.
"If there is a development that starts before we take office, we certainly will make sure there are Navajo jobs and we will make sure it will be managed well," she said.