WINDOW ROCK, Arizona (ABC4) – Jonathan Nez is the youngest President to take office in Navajo Nation history. He tells ABC4’s Jordan Verdadeiro, if there is one thing he wants people to know about the nation, is that the residents are resilient.
Shonto, Arizona, population 600. It sits on a lonely ribbon of road about a two-hour drive northeast of Flagstaff.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez grew up in Shonto, an area known for its canyons, red rock cliffs, and ancient sandstone dwellings.
Jonathan’s family lived off the land and cared for livestock, but, early on, his life seemed preordained for politics.
“My grandfather was a lawmaker, actually sat in the chambers, the council chambers here in Window Rock, for our community in Shonto, Arizona,” says Nez.
Nez’s grandfather left his mark on Navajo Nation, but, more importantly, on his grandson.
“Probably one of the youngest community members to be sitting in chapter meetings, in my teens, late teens, early twenties,” says Nez.
He went to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff so he could be close to home. He would quickly follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“Got my bachelor’s degree, and they said you know what, they said ‘we need you here in Window Rock, we want you to be our council member’ – that’s the lawmaker – ‘of the Navajo Nation,” says Nez.
It’s the largest reservation in the United States. It’s more than 27,000 square miles, roughly the size of the state of West Virginia.
Much like the topography, the socio-economic issues on the reservation are vast and varied.
The 2010 census reported close to 175,000 people live in Navajo Nation, and basic necessities are far from basic.
- 35% of residents do not have access to running water
- 15,000 do not have electricity
- 43% live below the poverty rate and the unemployment rate is 42%
Another obstacle in the Navajo Nation is alcohol abuse – a disease that once riddled many reservations across the U.S. and a disease Nez’s father battled throughout his life.
While the hardships are many and may demoralize most, President Nez embraces the struggle and uses it as motivation.
“Hopefully, inspire those that are watching, that it doesn’t matter how you grew up, if you just put your mind and soul to it, you can accomplish anything,” says Nez.
This is the mindset he is trying to instill with the citizens of the Navajo Nation. It’s referred to as t’aa hwo aji t’eego meaning ‘self-reliance and self-sufficiency’.
President Nez is also working toward strengthening the tribe’s relationship with the federal government.
He points to the Navajo Treaty of 1868 when leaders of the Navajo Nation were able to convince General Sherman and the federal government to allow their members to return home.
He recently brought up the treaty to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden on her visit in April.
“I think, over time, we have seen the federal government come into where we have been so dependent on the federal government, from that treaty signing back to where that support has been given and we kind of forgot that bootstrap mentality of t’aa hwo djit’eego ‘ self-reliance and self-sufficiency,’” says Nez.
It’s been 20 years since President Nez devoted his life to public service and, pretty soon, he plans to move onto the next chapter of his life. But before he steps down, President Nez will continue to instill self-determination.
“That’s the biggest challenge of the years of colonialization, of dependency, trying to retrain our minds, and our people to think more self reliant and, I think, the era of self-determination is here and you saw that through this pandemic,” says Nez.
Nez says he believes despite the loss of many lives and elders due to the pandemic, the people that make up the Navajo Nation have been a prime example of resiliency.
“The vision should be, that Navajo Nation people shouldn’t have to leave the nation to get their goods and services, I want to see one day in the future, non-Navajo people coming onto the nation, to shop,” says Nez.
But Nez says it’s important for the current presidential administration to follow the obligation of the Treaty of 1868, to keep its promises to his people of ensuring harmony within their lives, which is what he plans to do for the rest of his term.
Mr. Nez says if you want to help improve the lives of the Navajo Nation people, to contact your local senators and representatives.