50 Years Ago

Navajo history kind to tribal leaders running in primary

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

May 22, 2014

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A half century ago, the then chairman of the Navajo Nation, Raymond Nakai, was still seething about what happened in the 1958 primary and was working to make changes to the primary system to make sure that what happened to him in 1958 would never happen again.



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For the first 20 years of the Navajo tribal election process, the Navajos operated under a unique type of primary in which people voted in the chapter houses and based on these votes, chapters would cast one vote for who they wanted to run for chairman.

The reservation was divided into four districts and each district would count up the chapter votes and the one that got the most votes would be chosen as the district winner. The candidates who won the most district votes would then run in the general election.

The system had problems from the beginning, with the incumbent being able to sail through the primary and little-known candidates pretty much being ignored. But it wasn't until 1958 that people began realizing that something needed to be done.

Nakai had wanted to run in 1958 and although he came out on top of a number of chapter votes during the primary, Jones managed to get enough chapter support in each district to be selected the winner.

All four of the tribe's election districts voted for the incumbent so under the rules in place at that time, the only name on the election ballot for chairman in the general election was Jones.

This would lead in the 1960s to massive changes in the election process as Nakai argued that the system then in effect disenfranchised thousands of Navajo voters.

So the district system was thrown out and a new system was put in place where the two candidates with the most popular votes would go on to run in the general election.

But one thing has not changed.

In the old system as well as the current primary process, no incumbent elected chairman or president has had any problem in making it to the general election. Never once in the 80-year history of the tribal government has someone elected chairman or president fail to make it to the general election.




Incumbents have lost in the general election - to name a few, Jones, Nakai, Peter MacDonald, Peterson Zah, and Kelsey Begay - but they all made it through the primary in flying colors.

The reason for this is simple. A person who gathers a big enough political base to win the top spot in the tribal government is able to keep much of that base in the next primary.

Another thing that Navajo political history has shown is that tribal leaders who amass a political base can depend on that base for many years after leaving office. The base will shrink over the years as elderly supporters die off and some supporters are persuaded to back other candidates but that main core of support will be there come primary time.

A good example of this is Nakai.

He defeated Jones in 1962 and won re-election easily four years later but his base was not large enough to overcome MacDonald's popularity in 1970. But Nakai continued to have enough support to make it through the primary in 1974, although it had diminished, and he lost to MacDonald again in the general election.

As the 1978 election loomed, everyone wondered if Nakai would be able to gather enough support to make it through one more primary, especially since Dr. Taylor McKenzie, the first Navajo physician, decided to throw his hat in the ring.

MacDonald's campaign staff made it clear that they would rather face a weak Nakai in the general election than a surging McKenzie.

The MacDonald campaign argued that McKenzie was needed more as a Navajo doctor than he was as a tribal leader and there were reports that some MacDonald supporters decided to help the campaign by voting for Nakai in the hopes of getting him enough votes to make it through the primary.

On that Wednesday morning after the election, as the staff of the Navajo Times was preparing the front page, the headline read "MacDonald, McKenzie win primary." But as the last remote chapters totals came in, the election swung in Nakai's favor and he would once again challenge McDonald in the general election. And once again lose.

By 1982, with Zah finally deciding to run for chairman, it was obvious that Nakai's political life was over. His support had continued to decline and everyone knew he wouldn't be able to make it through the primary.

But while his support was nowhere near as much as it once was in the 1960s or even in 1974, he still maintained enough followers that McDonald set aside their political differences and convinced Nakai to endorse his candidacy. But even Nakai's support wasn't enough to stop Zah and McDonald lost in the general election.

This situation is again raising its head in this election as Joe Shirley Jr. will be hoping that the support he had when in office just four years ago remains intact, just as it was for Nakai when he ran four years after getting out of office.

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