It’s no secret that newly sworn-in Vice President of the Navajo Nation Richelle Montoya has made history. Every time you search her name, you see her groundbreaking accomplishment: the first woman to take on that helm.
Still, there’s so much that lies beyond the title. Montoya is a woman with a whole life of public service behind her. She’s a mom, a wife and a University of New Mexico Alumnus.
Montoya’s a proud member of the Ta'neeszahnii clan, in Torreon, New Mexico. With her father’s guiding hand, she attended and advocated at chapter meetings from a young age.
“My dad was strong in leadership in my community, so as we grew up we always participated in one way or another in the meetings, even if it was just to help my dad serve coffee and pastries,” Montoya said.
His passion for leadership was instilled upon Montoya and her two siblings– so much so she wanted to be a police officer, and began a role in volunteer firefighting.
“As we grow older, you know, you overhear what's happening. The information was just coming, and after a while, it was a big concern of mine, especially when I became a mom,” she said.
Although she dedicated so much to this chapter at the very beginning, Montoya is a firm believer her home stretches beyond one area of the Nation, and that connection should withstand anything.
“I knew about Navajo and that's who I am. That's what I grew up with, but my interest was in all Indigenous cultures and tribes, not just in the United States. There's Indigenous tribes in Mexico. There's Indigenous tribes in Australia, just different parts of the world,” she said. “It really, really opened my eyes to how we all have had struggles to be resilient and to remain here on Mother Earth. It just made me want to be an advocate, not just for Navajo, for all Indian Country.”
The next chapter of her life proves exactly that. Following her diploma at Cuba High School, and a bout of jobs to make ends meet, Montoya pursued her college education. From San Juan College to the then Navajo Community College, now Diné College) to Central New Mexico Community College, to finally UNM, she sought a large expanse of knowledge.
“I have loved UNM since I was a little girl. You know, it's always been the Lobo. It was a really good experience,” Montoya said.
Montoya studied human services, criminology, psychology, sociology and Native American studies. With UNM having one of a handful of Indigenous Studies programs in the country, she did not pass up the opportunity to expand her understanding of all tribes.
“I feel that my education really has prepared me for this position that I have now, because my concentration through this administration is social services, and working with local government and working with our veterans. So, with psychology and sociology, it’s really interesting what you learn when you get into those specific categories when you're in college.”
It may seem like a random selection of majors, but Montoya hand picked each of them. It’s a decision she would not trade for anything.
Rising to the occasion
After school, the Torreon Chapter welcomed Montoya into leadership with open arms. In addition to raising her children, serving on the Na’ Neelzhiin Ji Olta’ Inc. board, and assisting with the Miss Indian New Mexico pageant, she became the official Torreon Chapter President.
“Our elders do their very best to trust in our leadership, and they instill that in us as their children, as their grandchildren,” Montoya said. “But I feel that education really opens your eyes to different ways I can really contribute, how I want to be a leader and also how to be a better mom and a better spouse.”
As if her plate was not full enough, in early 2022, Montoya began her avid, dedicated campaigning for now Navajo Nation President, and her future running mate, Buu Nygren.
“I always tell my family that we have to trust our gut. We have to trust something that's inside of us if there's a big decision that needs to be made. Nygren and I had a conversation, and that feeling was there,” she said.
With her father’s words in mind, her hand was guided towards submitting a resume, a letter of interest and a video, when Nygren hosted an open call for Vice President applications.
“Before he passed away, my dad called all of my siblings together. He was telling us, you know: ‘this is the life that I've led. You've all seen my life and I can't do it anymore. One of you has to start. One of you has to continue this because your people need you, your community needs you,’” Montoya recalled.
Never once in one of the most important job interviews of her life, did Montoya realize what her selection could mean.
“The thought never crossed my mind that this was not something for me because I'm female,” she said. “It kind of crossed my mind that I wasn't experienced as a lot of Navajo politicians, but one thing that my husband told me was: ‘that's a plus, because you don't follow the common ground of a Navajo politician. You don't have it set in your mind that this is how it's done. You want change.’”
You fully understand the warmth and care Montoya has for her people and the challenges they face, when you hear about her past.
Montoya was a victim of domestic violence in a previous marriage. It’s a horrible situation her mother and grandmother, and many other women on the Navajo Nation also endured. According to the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, Native American women experience domestic violence at rates 50% higher than the national average.
“I saw what my grandmother went through. I saw what my mom and my dad put each other through. When I started to experience it and I put an end to it, I shared that with my daughters,” Montoya said. “I shared that, you know, red flags come up. If you don't listen to that and if somebody doesn't help you wade that flag a little bit more, you'll be in a situation where you might not be here anymore because of it.”
Montoya wishes that her own trauma, and openness about it, makes a difference in at least a single woman’s life: to speak up and act, for years to come.
“I really hope so. I feel that the generation after me, my daughters, my sons, are more outspoken about things that are happening in their lives than I was when that was happening in my life,” she said.
Obstacles also lay in front of her when it came to her own children’s lives. Montoya tragically lost one of her sons in a car accident in 2016. Another one of her sons faced school policies negatively impacting Native American boys, like limits to hair length. It was an issue she had to confront the school board with, as well as for her grandson, in Texas.
“That was one of the first things that I had to advocate for. This is who we are. One of the things that I want to be able to work on is that when our off-reservation Navajo citizens that need assistance get it wherever it is that they reside across the world,” she said.
Past, present and policy
These difficult experiences are testament to Montoya’s sheer strength and positivity. Each issue, from treatment of Native children in non-reservation schools, to domestic violence, to maintaining the Diné language on the Navajo Nation, is of the utmost importance to the current administration.
It’s not just policy and change Montoya aims to instill during her tenure. One of the most important things, she emphasizes, is collaboration, especially within the Navajo Nation branches of government.
“We need to pray for one another. We need to bring back the concept of teamwork. The way our tradition, our culture is taught is within a community teamwork. We all work together to make a certain task a little bit lighter and to do it positively,” she said. “That's always been my goal in anything that I do. It's just a matter of getting to know one another and learning how to work together.”
Listening, Montoya says, is instrumental as well–both from a leadership level, and from a personal level. Just a simple email reply to a concerned constituent can make all the difference.
“If you come to the office and I'm not in a meeting, or I'm not doing something that is already in progress, I will be more than happy to meet with you,” she said.
Montoya’s willingness to truly understand the issues facing her people, is a skill she wishes nothing more for current and future UNM students to acquire. Her own daughter is now also a UNM alumnus, beginning work in physical therapy. That’s why her biggest piece of advice for Lobos is this:
“This is the best place to learn. UNM was an amazing experience for me, so UNM students and future Lobos just open your arms and make sure you take everything in. Take everything in– from the good, the bad, the ugly, and in the end, you walk away with your degree and a good attitude towards life.”
With a record youth voter turnout in the election that got her to Vice President, Montoya has high hopes for the future of the Navajo Nation, and the role elders will serve.
“Do your very best to experience life on your own in a positive, healthy way, but listen to your elders, because that can save you a whole lot of heartache, a whole lot of disappointment,” she said. “You know, it may sound like a lecture, but in the end, they do it because they love you.”
If the road gets tough, which is often a when for many people, Montoya wants members of the Navajo Nation and beyond to keep their heads held high.
“As you are growing up in life, there's probably a lot of things that happen that are going to hinder a positive outcome,” she said. “It happens. You pick yourself up, you keep going, and maybe one day you'll be Navajo Nation Vice President or President.”