Education & Service 

Leading a nation with passion and purpose

NAU alumni President Jonathan Nez and First Lady Phefelia Herbert-Nez led the Navajo Nation in a massive effort to combat COVID-19.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navajo Nation was behind only New York and New Jersey in the number of new cases—and had far fewer resources to fight the virus. With unwavering determination, President Jonathan Nez (BA Political Science, ’02; Master of Public Administration, ’05) and First Lady Phefelia Herbert-Nez (BA Political Science and BS Criminal Justice, ’05)—both recipients of Honorary Doctorates in 2021—made a heroic effort to flatten the curve.

Responding to crisis

President Nez took decisive action against the virus. His government implemented curfews, aggressive testing, and contact tracing, while mandating mask-wearing and physical distancing. They carried the message door-to-door. It was a huge challenge to mount such a massive public health offensive, as the Navajo Nation spreads over the largest land area of any Indigenous population in the United States. But while the Navajo Nation has suffered more deaths per capita than any US state, their offense against the virus worked. The case numbers soon dropped, and stayed down. This achievement is testimony to the collective will of the Navajo community.

“It’s not me who did this. It’s the people,” Nez says. “We continue to move forward for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for our homeland.”

It’s not me who did this. It’s the people. We continue to move forward for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for our homeland.

Stringent public health measures remain in place, as a resurgence is always a possibility. Chronic health problems, the result of systemic economic and healthcare inequalities, have made Native American populations particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. But with strong leaders like Nez and Herbert-Nez to lead their community, the Navajo Nation has become a success story in stopping the virus.

“People are asking, ‘How did the Navajo do it?’” Nez says. “There’s no secret formula. We just followed the guidance of public health professionals. But we also relied on our Way of Life teaching. We framed it in a way to say, ‘You need to wear your mask because you’re protecting our elders, the ones who hold the teaching for our future.’”

Sharing a journey

Growing up, First Lady Phefelia Herbert-Nez saw firsthand the complexities of tribal politics, and knew she wanted to take an active role in transforming words into action.

“My dad always used to tell us, ‘The whole world is your home.’ He didn’t limit us within the four sacred mountains,” she says. “But he did say, ‘Wherever you end up living, you need to make sure you become aware of the issues, the needs that are there, and choose to help.’” Her answer was to bring her passion for enacting change to NAU.

President Jonathan Nez also felt driven to make an impact from a young age. Born in Tuba City, he is the grandson of Council Delegate H. T. Donald, and grew up hearing stories of his grandfather’s impact on the lives of others. As a high school student, he would often attend chapter meetings. At 24, Nez became a council delegate in his own right—and the youngest elected official in Navajo Nation history.

“I wanted to be the most effective leader I could become,” he says.

To do that, he knew he needed to expand his education, and enrolled at NAU, just a stone’s throw away from home. But the university offered far more than proximity; it had a mission and purpose that spoke to his heart. “I was grateful for the opportunity to study at a university that has actual compassion for Native American people.”

Discovering connection

It was Herbert-Nez’s roommate at NAU who first introduced the couple. “She said there’s a Navajo guy in the Master of Public Administration program,” the First Lady says. “I wasn’t sure, but then I met him and we got to talking. It turned out he was the TA in Professor Joel Olson’s political theory class.”

As Nez rose in the ranks of tribal government, the couple worked side by side, relying on their shared knowledge and deep faith to navigate the challenge of leading a nation. In 2019, he was elected President of the Navajo Nation with a resounding 67 percent of the vote.

Nez says one key to his leadership journey has been knowing how to adapt what he learned at NAU. In the Master of Public Administration program, for example, he had coursework in “alternative dispute resolution.”

“But it’s not alternative for us,” Nez says. “It’s what we call peacemaking. Effective leadership in tribal communities is using what you learn in the university and blending it with our teachings. And that’s very powerful.”

Herbert-Nez brings a focus on childhood development to her role as First Lady. “Besides political science, I also studied criminal justice, and the bottom line of criminal justice is everything stems from a person’s childhood,” she says. With a seat on the Regional Partnership Council for First Things First, Herbert-Nez looks to provide a better beginning—and better outcomes—for every child in Arizona.

Working together for a better future

While continuing to be vigilant about the Navajo Nation’s immediate healthcare needs during the pandemic, the President and First Lady are also looking toward the future. They’re hoping to address the enduring infrastructure issues that exacerbated the virus’s spread by expanding access to water, electricity, housing, and technology. They’re also looking for ways to strengthen the Navajo Nation through partnerships with their alma mater. From its location inside the Native American Cultural Center, NAU’s Office of Native American Initiatives seeks collaborations off campus and a culture of support for Indigenous students.

Read more in Pine, the alumni magazine of Northern Arizona University.