FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Navajos are deciding Tuesday whether to send a woman to the tribal president's office for the first time or give the vice president four years at the helm.
The candidates — New Mexico state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy and tribal Vice President Ben Shelly — represent a rarity in Navajo presidential races in that both are from New Mexico. Their running mates are from the Arizona side of the reservation.
Shelly and Lovejoy have crisscrossed the vast 27,000 square-mile reservation campaigning on typical election-year promises of lowering the tribe's more than 50 percent unemployment rate, ensuring Navajos have a voice in their government and making education more culturally relevant.
Lovejoy easily won the primary election in August and suggested the tribe bypass the general election and declare her the winner. She has been fighting assertions by Navajos who interpret Navajo tradition to mean women don't belong in the top job.
Shelly's campaign likely suffered a hit when he and his running mate were charged in a probe of Tribal Council slush funds just ahead of the election. Shelly has pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy and theft.
Anthony Lee, president of the Dine Hataalii Association, said a woman in the race is yet another sign that Navajo people aren't following tradition established by Navajo deities in which men are public leaders and women are the backbone of the matriarchal society. The association is made up of Navajo medicine men and women that collectively endorsed Shelly.
"It's just a contemporary way of thinking that has allowed women to be in various public offices," Lee said Tuesday.
Others, like 27-year-old Menell Herbert, said Navajo tradition cannot survive without adapting and that it's up to parents to make sure cultural teachings are passed down to children.
"A lot of it is trying to hold (Lovejoy) back," Herbert said. "Tradition is a part of our life, but we're moving forward."
Whoever wins will succeed Joe Shirley Jr., who was limited to two consecutive terms in office. Shirley did not make an endorsement in the race, nor did former Navajo leaders as they have in previous elections. Most of the other primary candidates endorsed Shelly.
Shelly said his 16 years as a tribal lawmaker and four as vice president would ensure stability in the tribal government that has been mired in political conflict. No other tribal vice president has been elected to the president's post.
Lovejoy said the Navajo Nation needs fresh ideas and change, which won't be accomplished with longtime tribal politicians.
Both campaigns have accused the other of ethics violations.
Lovejoy claims her opponent broke election and ethics laws in accepting campaign donations from labor unions, though Lovejoy would not produce copies of the complaints. Late last week, Shelly's campaign manager alleged that Lovejoy's running mate and his wife unlawfully received discretionary funds that are at the heart of a criminal investigation.
Each campaign said the allegations against it are smear tactics and unfounded.
Election officials are expecting a 50 percent turnout among the tribe's 111,000 registered voters.