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Navajo Nation President Nygren denies sexual harassment accusations made by tribe's vice president

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren has refuted accusations made by the tribe's Vice President Richelle Montoya that he had sexually harassed and bullied her.

In a press conference Tuesday, he denied any wrongdoing in his interactions with her.

In April, Richelle Montoya announced in a nearly 90- minute video that she’d been sexually harassed as vice president but didn’t name her alleged harasser.

At the press conference, Nygren said he himself was the one accused.

Nygren said the vice president was going through a difficult time in her personal life when he called her into his office for a meeting last August.

“I believe the president and vice president must support each other,” said Nygren. “And I wanted to extend that support.”

In her video, Montoya said she felt powerless.

“As your vice president, in the month of August of 2023,” said Montoya, “I had to write a statement because I was sexually harassed.”

She said she also felt objectified and unable to leave.

Nygren released a letter she signed at the time of the incident where she had accused him.

“I never sexually harassed or sexually assaulted the vice president or have disrespected her,” Nygren said. “Or have done anything she is accusing me of doing.”

Nygren said he supports the attorney general’s ongoing investigation but doesn’t know its status.

Arlyssa Becenti with the Arizona Republic has been covering this story, and she joined KJZZ’s The Show to talk more about it.

Hear Arizona Republic reporter Arlyssa Becenti with host Lauren Gilger on The Show


Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: So tell us first how this all came about. When did Montoya first make these allegations?

ARLYSSA BECENTI: Well, during the Navajo Nation spring session, which happened in April, after the vice president and the president gave their State of the Nation address — a day after that, actually — Vice President Montoya went on Facebook Live on her personal page, and she just basically said I was sexually harassed last August in 2023, and I wrote a statement about it.

But during that whole Live, when she was making these claims, she did not name who the person was that had sexually harassed her. So none of that was out until Tuesday’s press conference with President Nygren. That’s when it became clear that she was talking about President Nygren.

GILGER: That’s interesting. So he sort of was the one to bring that to light in this press conference yesterday. What did he have to say as he denied these allegations?

BECENTI: Well, when he denied these allegations, obviously, he he made a point to say that he’s going to strengthen the workplace sexual harassment protocols and just protect employees. And he was making it a point to say that Navajo Nation Council, as well as the personnel of the Navajo Nation, has to do their job as well in creating a safer place for employees.

And when he was denying this, he also emphasized that he was going to go through the peacemaking process with the vice president. Now the peacemaking process of the Navajo Nation is a form of mediation between two parties, and it’s basically just coming together as k’é, meaning family in Navajo, and just trying to find balance — or as he says Hózhó — and coming up with a solution together by talking it out or using some Navajo customs and practices with a peacemaking mediator.

GILGER: So that’s an official process. OK. That’s interesting.

BECENTI: Yes it is.

GILGER: So this is not happening in a vacuum though, right? Like there have been other allegations that the Nygren administration’s office has become, I think the quote was a toxic workplace. What’s that refer to?

BECENTI: Well, the Navajo Times has been reporting heavily on what has been going on within that office. Toxic workplace, other allegations of sexual assault and harassment. President Nygren also brought that to light as well, saying there was only one other claim of that, which ended to someone being terminated when they found out about this other sexual assault allegation.

So I think that’s what he was referring to. But there has been other reports about it, about, former employees coming out and claiming this type of toxicity within their workplace, whether it be sexual assault or harassment or just working in a really bad atmosphere within that office.

GILGER: So I have to ask here because it’s interesting to me that this is happening sort of within the same administration. Montoya is vice president to Buu Nygren. They ran as running mates. Were there any indications that there was dissension here?

BECENTI: No, actually. At the beginning when he chose her, no one really had anything bad to say? When they were elected, nothing was said negatively about their teamwork or their team. And it just seemed like it just came out of nowhere and from the outside looking in.

GILGER: Are there political ramifications here?

BECENTI: Right now, politically, I just think it looks bad. Right now, this is a week after. So we have 110 chapter houses within and within the Navajo Nation. These are just local governance of communities. And one of the largest ones is the Chinle chapter. And last week they held a chapter meeting where voters within that chapter house passed a resolution to request the council to put President Nygren on administrative leave and have an independent investigation.

Right now, the attorney general to Navajo Nation Ethel Branch has her own investigation going on. But the chapter house as well as council were wanting an independent investigation done on this. Right now, that’s the political ramification is that the community governance like the chapter houses are wanting to pass resolutions now to have an independent investigation.

GILGER: So how much of this you think distracts from what Nygren has been trying to do on the Navajo Nation? There are many and serious issues to be dealt with.

BECENTI: I think it’s distracting a lot because we’re still dealing with these fraudulent sobriety homes right now. And politically, there’s a lot of things that have been happening behind the scenes, like things that he’s accomplished so far. And I don’t think that’s really taking a precedence because this is right in the forefront.

GILGER: So what’s next here? You mentioned an independent investigation, that Nygren is calling for strengthening of protections for people in the workplace. What’s the timeline look like on some of these things?

BECENTI: Right now is the attorney general of the Navajo Nation, having her own investigation, and (Nygren) said that he doesn’t know the status of it right now. Right now also is him wanting to go through the peacemaking process with the vice president, and we’ll see if she agrees to that.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.