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In a press conference streamed via Facebook and Zoom on Tuesday afternoon, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren pushed back on the sexual harassment accusation made against him by Navajo Nation Vice President Rochelle Montoya. Both Nygren and Montoya were inaugurated 16 months ago, on January 10, 2023.
 

The sexual harassment accusation stems from a meeting held on August 17, 2023.

The president addressed a statement written by Montoya on August 24, 2023, one week after the alleged incident occurred. 

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Montoya’s statement read: 

“I am writing this statement to let the Office of the President know that he made me uncomfortable in his office during a conversation. I felt powerless to leave his office. He prevented me (verbally) from leaving his office four times. I felt objectified. This happened with just him and I in his office. President Nygren sat across from me at his round table in his office. He sat back in a casual manner and just stared at me. I was uncomfortable enough to try and not have eye contact with him. His tone of voice was not business or friendly; it was strange.”

On August 17, Nygren called Montoya into his office. She had recently announced she and her husband had separated. Nygren said at Tuesday’s press conference that given the level of trust he thought they had with each other, he was disappointed he heard of Montoya’s separation indirectly.

Nygren said he assured Montoya that he would be equally transparent with her and that he wanted to extend support.

“Last August, I asked the vice president to meet with me because I had learned that her marriage was ending. Given the level of trust I believed that we had, I was disappointed that I heard about this indirectly. I did this not to pry or invade her privacy, but to offer my support and to emphasize that as a team, it is important for us to know what is going on,” Nygren said at the press conference.

The accusation is being investigated by the Navajo Nation Attorney General’s office. Nygren says he welcomes the investigation.

“I am deeply offended that I have been shamelessly slandered about this meeting,” Nygren said at the press conference. “This has led to unnecessary confusion. The vice president’s statement last August did not support these accusations in any way. Her stories have been inconsistent and have changed over time.”

In her statement, Montoya writes that Nygren told her four times when she asked if she could leave, “No, just sit there.” During the intervals, she writes that they discussed a list of items she had brought to the meeting with her. She also said they discussed her need for a better government-issued vehicle. 

Montoya’s account does not allege there was any inappropriate physical contact. She did say he gave her a hug once she was free to leave the president’s office.

“I put one arm around her shoulder and gave her a partial side hug to show my support for her, as I have many times before,” Nygren said at the press conference. “We have always embraced and addressed each other in the spirit of k’eì as ‘naliì. She is my naliì (paternal granddaughter) by clan. She has never suggested to me that this gesture is in any way unwelcome or offensive to her.”

Nonetheless, the vice president made allegations before the Navajo Nation Council following the State of the Navajo Nation Address on April 16, 2024. The next day, in a lengthy Facebook Live post on Montoya’s personal page, she expressed her feelings of being uncomfortable. That resulted in both Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley and Nygren calling for an investigation into the allegations.

“As President of the Navajo Nation, I support and welcome an independent, fair, and transparent investigation, and one that the Navajo people can have full confidence in, Nygren said in an April 19 press release. “This is a unique and unprecedented situation brought forth by my Vice President, who publicly made social media statements on her personal platform that has led to Speaker Curley’s statement.”

On April 19, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch announced that because of allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and mistreatment at the Navajo Nation Office of the President and the Vice President (OPVP), she had engaged the law firm of Rothstein Donatelli “to immediately commence a thorough and comprehensive preliminary investigation regarding complaints of impropriety, which is underway.

On her Facebook Live post, Montoya assured listeners she was not hurt or injured.

At today’s press conference, Nygren asserted that nothing close to harm occurred at the meeting with her last August.

“There was no assault, and there was no sexual content or advances of any nature, he said. “I am deeply disappointed and offended that this interaction has been taken out of context. It was only out of concern for her wellbeing. She claims I told her she could not leave. This did not happen.”

It is extremely disrespectful to my grandmother, my sister and nieces, my late mother, my wife, and my daughters to falsely claim that I would abuse women. I did not disrespect the Vice President nor any other woman in my administration.”

As he spoke about his late mother, Nygren choked up and then composed himself. 

Nygren said Montoya’s comments and the resulting public condemnation well before the investigation he sought was concluded were disrespectful to his family.

Moving Forward

Nygren said his administration is well aware that women especially feel unheard, unacknowledged and their feelings are invalidated by those they seek help from.

“Many people, especially our women, have stated that they have been harassed in the workplace, he said. “They feel that no one is listening. Men and women all over the Navajo Nation deserve better protection. They deserve a workplace that is free of harassment.”

To address this, he said he would take four immediate steps. One would be to enact a Workplace Safety Policy for the Office of the President and Vice President. He said he would ask the Navajo Nation Council to strengthen workplace safety laws and revise the Navajo Nation personnel policies manual. Finally, he said he would create a Commission on Workplace Safety.

“Abused workers need to be heard, he said. “This is especially true of our Navajo women. Many women feel that they have been the victim of workplace abuse and that no one will listen to them. I will direct the Commission to have town halls around the Navajo Nation, which I will personally attend. My role there will be to listen to the victims of workplace abuse tell their stories.”

To address the allegation that OPVP is a hostile or “toxic environment, Nygren acknowledged instead that each position is highly rigorous, requiring a strong work ethic of each employee.

“The fact is, working in my office is a highly demanding job, he said. “It requires people to make many personal sacrifices. When you look across all tribal offices, my staff are some of the first to arrive on the job and some of the last to leave. They work weekends and holidays. When it comes to work ethic, I demand excellence every day. The Navajo people deserve no less.”

He said the office employs 20 women and ten men ranging in age from 20s-70s, and all are highly educated and highly experienced.

“Let me be clear: we do not act on jinii (gossip), he said. “I am only aware of two actual complaints within my office.”

One was a sexual harassment complaint made by an employee against another employee who was terminated. That case was turned over to law enforcement. The other complaint came from the vice president, he said.

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Levi Rickert
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Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].