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First Navajo Woman Runs For Congress

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Arizona’s newly drawn Congressional District 1 includes more Native Americans than any other district in the country. That sets the stage for a historic first — an American Indian woman serving in Congress.

Two women are running in the Democratic primary for the CD 1 seat — former Representative Ann Kirkpatrick and Navajo attorney Wenona Benally Baldenegro.

In this new District, which includes 12 of Arizona’s tribes, Baldenegro may seem a favorite. But a traditional Navajo belief may be one thing standing in her way. Baldenegro has heard it explained this way:

"When it comes to particularly to making decisions about going to war, women are not permitted to make those decisions because we’re the life-givers," Baldenegro said. "We are actually the individuals in society who are supposed to bring and protect life and therefore we cannot make decisions that run contrary to that."

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, warriors and leaders. Baldenegro said this is no longer a belief held by the majority of Navajo people.

But two years ago when New Mexico state lawmaker Lynda Lovejoy ran for Navajo Nation President, she said she lost because of her gender.

"It certainly turned out to be that way, which is extremely sad," Lovejoy said in a 2010 interview.

Some even believed a woman running for office would bring on natural disasters. A medicine man blamed Lovejoy for a tornado that touched down on tribal land.

"I’ve always told people I’m not running because of my gender," Lovejoy said. "I’m running because of my qualifications. And that’s the only thing that should matter."

Baldenegro is also qualified. She has a law degree from Harvard, two master’s degrees and several years spent as a public policy analyst and advocate for Arizona’s Indian tribes.

Still, Navajo women have held office on the Reservation in the past. In 1951, Annie Wauneka was the first female delegate on the Navajo Council. Today there’s only one woman on the 24-member Council.

This gender bias doesn’t seem to be an issue with non-Native women candidates. Navajos supported Janet Napolitano when she was elected Arizona’s governor and Hillary Clinton when she ran in the Democratic presidential primary against Barack Obama. And Navajo traditional beliefs didn’t stop Kirkpatrick from winning their vote in 2008.

"Personally I have never felt that my being a woman was any way a barrier in terms of representing them," Kirkpatrick said. "I’ve always had a very good relationship with them."

The Navajo society is a matriarchal one. When introducing themselves Navajos start with their mother’s clan name, and women are heirs to property leases and to sheep.

But they do not lead in all aspects of life. Albert Brent Chase teaches Navajo language and culture.

"It has always been the men who would be the 'natani,'" Chase said. "'Natani' has the leadership position. They would plan for the people’s welfare as a whole."

Though these days he says some Navajo members are fed up with the men who have led the tribe, and Chase says a woman’s experience as head of the household or hogan could benefit the tribe as a whole.

"You wonder how a woman would be to be a leader for us," Chase said. "Would she use her nurturing spirit that she uses in her hogan? Would she have more respect because of that?"

In fact, despite the resilience of traditional beliefs, the Navajo Nation Council has endorsed Baldenegro in this primary. It may not be enough. Kirkpatrick has the bulk of the money, and political observers say she is still the likely winner of the Aug. 28 primary election.