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Tso ’12 elected to serve on Navajo Nation Tribal Council

Tso ’12 elected to serve on Navajo Nation Tribal Council

Charlaine Tso ’12

Before she made the final decision to attend Doane College in 2008, Charlaine Tso ’12 did what a lot of prospective students do and talked about it with members of her family, including her grandmother. Their conversation, however, took place in their native Navajo language.


Tso is Naadáá Diné (The Corn People Clan), born for Bit’ahnii (Within His Cover Clan), Táchii’nii (Red Running Into The Water People Clan) and Kinłichíí’nii (Red House Clan). To go to Doane, Tso would have to leave her Arizona home on Navajo Nation territory to live in an unfamiliar state where she was not only the sole member of her tribe, but also the lone Native American on campus at the time. She drew inspiration from her grandmother, who persevered during the Depression Era even after witnessing the slaughter of much of her family’s sheep herd at the hands of U.S. government officials carrying out a livestock reduction program.


“We come from a strong line of women,” Tso recalled her grandmother telling her, “and whatever you want to do, I support you.”


Tso chose to go to Doane, where she majored in English and theater. In Crete, her writing often focused on her home. Sarah Begay, associate director of Doane’s College to Career Center, recalled that Tso’s senior project was a play written in Navajo about the challenges her grandparents faced while raising 11 children set against the backdrop of the reduction program.


Tso said this month that it had been years since she thought about the play, though the story remains elemental to her. She recounted it during in an interview this past summer on a podcast called “21st Century Native American Leaders.” At the time, she was campaigning to become one. Now she is.


In November, Tso, 28, was elected to serve on the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, where she will represent the Aneth, Mexican Water, Red Mesa, Teec Nos Pos and Tólikan Chapters of the 27,000-square mile territory. When inaugurated in January, she will become the youngest member on the council, and one of three women elected to a governing body that has long been comprised mostly of men.


Begay, whose husband, Lynnferd, is Navajo, said she hopes there will be time for her to return to Crete to share her story with current Doane students.


“I’d love in the next couple of years while she’s serving to bring her back to campus and have her talk on campus,” Begay said. “I think that would be amazing.”


Presently, Tso’s schedule is quite full. Since her election, Tso has spent much of her time visiting schools and community centers across her sprawling district, listening to the concerns of her new constituents. Tso’s Doane experience led her to an internship with National Geographic and on to teach English in Spain, but she said she knew before she enrolled that she would return to the Navajo Nation at some point in her future. She wanted to help, but did not know what form that would take.


At 25, it crystallized for her following a near-death experience. Tso said she survived a head-on car collision with a drunk driver, and began delivering motivational speeches about the experience. An aide for Joe Shirley, Jr., a former Navajo Nation president long associated with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, approached her after a speech and asked her to speak at a Shirley campaign rally. She did, and recalled feeling as though something overtook her as she spoke.


“That one meeting for one campaign rally -- that’s where it all started,” Tso said.


She’s since worked on several campaigns, including Shirley’s and Hillary Clinton’s, before filing to run for office. While her foray into campaigning was inspired by a personal experience, her decision to run was motivated by the death of an elder.

Tso grew up in a rural home without electricity or running water. Her family’s home got on the grid while she was away at Doane, but she said too many of the Nation’s 350,000 members live without basic infrastructure. Such was the case with the elder.


“(She) passed away because she did not have the resources to keep herself warm in the winter,” Tso said. “She froze. She didn’t have food. She basically starved and froze. This is a 79-year-old woman. Where are our leaders? Where is our change? We should have infrastructure.


“That story broke my heart,” she said. “At that point, I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’”


As she did in advance of her Doane decision, Tso consulted with her grandmother and prayed. She said she asked God “that you let me be the leader that our people need me to be.”


Tso drew inspiration to lead from her mother, Sadie, who also inspired her to enroll at Doane. Sadie Tso earned her masters in curriculum and instruction through a program that Doane created on the Navajo Nation.


“My mother was an educator for 30 years,” Tso said during the “Native American Leaders” podcast interview. “She was a school board member. To have her juggle that and work on her degrees, and raising me and my three older brothers and just attending to family life and home and, you know, traveling back and forth an hour and 30 minutes every day from work, and tending to us children -- that was the greatest example, my mother. She told me: ‘Whatever you want to do, I will support you. But remember -- you have people here that need you. Are you going to do something about it?’”


Tso said that while she was at Doane, Sadie advised her to strengthen her grasp on the Navajo language. By the time she was answering Peter Deswood III’s questions on the “21st Century Native American Leaders” podcast, she was responding fluently in both English and Navajo as the two discussed many challenges that young leaders face.


“People that are very young -- it intimidates people,” Tso said on the podcast. “It does. especially people in politics right now. But it shouldn’t. Rather, they should be proud and embracing us, and accepting that change, because if we don’t have any change if we don’t have any leaders taking over, our people are never going to move forward.”


Tso ran against three men for her position on the council, including an incumbent. She said that negative comments about her age and inexperience during her campaign “was the fuel to my fire” and that her difference in leadership style would benefit the council.  


“I’m a new voice,” Tso said on the podcast. “I have a different way of thinking. I’m a woman. I have compassion for all. People have different levels of compassion. People have different levels of understanding. People have different perspectives. People have different teachings. But, give me a chance, and have faith and hope in me.”


For elders, she promised to promote efforts that passed down language and cultural teachings to new generations, saying that speaking Navajo should be enforced in schools. She also supports development of elderly care facilities on tribal land, so elders aren’t sent to nursing homes in Albuquerque and Denver in the final years of her life. Tso’s 100-year-old grandmother still lives in Sweetwater, Arizona, and Tso celebrated with her on election night.


For young voters, Tso promised to support technological advancements -- better cell phone coverage and greater internet access across the 27,000-square mile territory -- and to amplify their voices, saying that they should not allow others to talk down to them. She said her campaign encouraged hundreds of young people to register to vote for the first times in their lives. Their support swung the election, Tso said.


Tso will be inaugurated Jan. 15, and then she will begin her first four-year term in office. She said that the keys to her time on the Navajo Nation Tribal Council will be honesty and the capacity to listen. She said she intends to expand educational and life opportunities for her people, and that she knows she can be a leader that enacts it.  


“There’s no boundaries,” Tso said. “Women have the capacity and power to set out and do what they want to do. There’s no limits.”