When Navajo Council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty took the oath of office in January, she agreed to spend the next four years working almost exclusively with men.
Crotty, 36, is the only female delegate on the 23rd Navajo Nation Council. All 23 of her colleagues in the Nation’s legislative branch – delegates elected by voters across the 27,000-square-mile reservation and representing about 200,000 people living in 110 chapters – are men.
“I don’t know if intimidating is the right word,” Crotty said. “It’s a humbling experience. Being the only woman on this Council, that’s been interesting so far.”
The Navajo are traditionally a matriarchal society. They have a culture that celebrates strong women who participate in all aspects of Navajo life, including central roles in decision-making.
Crotty, a political newcomer who represents seven chapters in New Mexico and Arizona, finds her minority status on the Council ironic.
“I come from a strong matriarchal family,” she said. “My campaign was driven by matriarchal leaders, and I was hoping to see more women counterparts.”
Crotty, of Sheepsprings, New Mexico, comes to the Council with a background in American Indian history and law. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, with her master’s thesis focusing on Navajo blood quantum.
Crotty worked with the Dine Policy Institute at Dine College, where she researched topics like government reform, brain drain and intellectual property law. Her resume also includes a stint as a policy analyst for the Navajo Nation Council, where she worked on additional issues like capital improvement and water rights.
A former Girl Scout and troop leader, Crotty has a long history of empowering girls and women, and of calling for more women in tribal government.
“I advocate for the power of girls and women in any setting,” she said. “Not just traditional roles, but to push the boundary of expectations.”
Crotty may be the sole female voice on the Council, but she’s not alone in her position. Since the Navajo people voted by referendum in 2009 to cut the Council from 88 delegates to 24, only two women have been elected.
Crotty is the second woman to face the same odds. Katherine Benally, who left office in January, was the only woman on the 22nd Council, which served from 2011 to 2015.
“I became the token female voice,” Benally said. “There were legislations for women and families and the other delegates would say, ‘OK, let’s see what our mother has to say.’”
Benally, 57, was raised by her grandmother, a firm but gentle matriarch and a widow who presided over an extended family until she died at age 105. From her grandmother, Benally learned the traditional way of life, which included deep respect for women.
“Her teaching was so profound that everything I know and do and say is because of her,” Benally said of her grandmother. “She told me I had eyes, ears, nose and brain. She told me to figure things out. That was her teaching to me, and I give her a lot of credit for my critical thinking.”
When her grandmother made a decision, she called the family together and discussed it with them, Benally said.
“That was a government at home, and it ran smoothly,” she said. “I think those teachings transferred into the tribal government.”
But gender equality hasn’t yet made that transfer. The Nation has never elected a female president or vice president, and women were outnumbered on the Council even when there were 88 delegates.
Benally, who served two terms on the Council before it was reduced to 24 delegates, advocates for a more even balance.
“Of course there should be more women,” she said. “I wish it was half and half. I wish the law said 12 must be women and 12 must be men. How far advanced would we be then?”