February 16, 2023
Crystalyne Curley is the first woman to be elected Speaker of the Navajo Nation Tribal Council. (Photo Courtesy Crystalyne Curley)

First woman elected speaker of the Navajo Nation Council

KSUT | By Clark Adomaitis

Last November, the Navajo Nation elected its youngest president and the first female vice president to hold that position. Nine of the 24 tribal council members elected are women, including Crystalyne Curley as council speaker, the first woman ever to hold that position.

At 36 years old, Curley has recently worked in government as a public information officer for former President Jonathan Nez. Many Navajo people know her as the 2011 Miss Navajo Nation when she appeared at public events across the Navajo Nation.

On January 23, with the support of 13 Navajo Nation council members, Curley was narrowly elected as speaker.

"I grew up with no electricity, no plumbing," says Curley about her upbringing. "The only way to our home is through dirt roads, to this day, I still don't have broadband up there or cell service."

Curley grew up in Fish Point, Ariz., in a rural area in the middle of the Navajo Nation, which influenced her political career. While campaigning for tribal council last fall, Curley made access to infrastructure part of her platform. Bringing water, electricity, and broadband to remote parts of the Navajo Nation is one of her priorities as a council speaker.

"Our (Navajo) nation continuously faces lack of funding, putting a comprehensive plan or budget plan to get a lot of these communities built up with infrastructure, building that solid foundation," said Curley of her goals as speaker.

Also, Curley is close to current President Buu Nygren because they attended Arizona State University together.

“This is very ironic and wonderful to see each other both in the same space at the same time, what we used to talk about in college and implementing those plans that we used to talk about back then, I've always seen him as family, as a relative, I always just greet him as my little brother,” said Curley on her relationship with President Nygren.

However, navigating the complexities of the Navajo Nation government and various interest groups may strain their relationship. One researcher says tribal politics will almost certainly test the bond between the speaker and President Nygren.

"They say they're going to work together, in terms of historical trends, presidents and speakers end up disagreeing with each other and taking on opposing stances on important issues at some point, and I suspect that'll eventually happen, I don't think Buu or Curley are going to be able to escape that fact," said Andrew Curley, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

Andrew Curley says Crystalyne Curley’s elevation to the role of council speaker is significant. An unprecedented amount of political clout is in the hands of a woman.

“It is as important as electing a president, even though they're not as highly publicized as the president, so to have a female speaker in leadership is a significant advancement for the Navajo nation in terms of our gender politics,” said Andrew Curley.

When Crystalyne Curley was elected speaker, the legacy of Navajo women was on her mind.

“The first thing that came to mind was my grandparents, my great grandmother, their teachings of how a woman brings back hope, and love, and compassion, in a huge establishment like our council or legislators, I feel like it's that time to show that side of our governance and that type of leadership, guided through not only understanding but through love, and through hope and resilience,” said Crystalyne Curley.

Navajo culture is matrilineal. Matriarchs often play a strong role in families and community life. With Crystalyne Curley’s role as speaker of the 25th tribal council, Navajo people will learn if and how she can reshape tribal politics in Window Rock, Ariz.

Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau seeks to cover underrepresented communities in the Four Corners.

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