Navajo language threatens candidate's presidential bid

Chris Deschene faces disqualification over lack of fluency.


Update: Oct. 9 the OHA disqualified Chris Deschene from the Navajo presidential election. Deschene reportedly refused to answer questions in a formal test intended to determine his fluency.

Update Oct. 3: At today’s hearing, Richie Nez of the Office of Hearings and Appeals declined to dismiss the case or make a ruling on it. Instead, the OHA decided Deschene must either take a test or testify to demonstrate whether he's fluent enough in the Navajo language. Officials are expected to continue examining the issue next week. 

The Navajo Nation’s Office of Hearings and Appeals is meeting this morning to determine whether presidential candidate Chris Deschene is fluent in the Navajo language. Their findings will decide whether or not he will compete against Joe Shirley on Voting Day, Nov. 4. Deschene, who is 43 and a seasoned politician, finished second place in a crowded primary race this past August, behind Shirley, a 66-year-old two-term Navajo president. Both candidates bring political clout to the election trail, but the issue of fluency could draw the matter to an early close.

Chris Deschene addresses the audience at a Navajo Nation presidential candidate debate in Tempe, Arizona, in early August. AP Photo by Ross D. Franklin

Navajo law requires the president be fluent in the language. Manley Begay, Jr., a professor of Applied Indigenous Studies at the Northern Arizona University, says Deschene’s questionable command over the language brings into focus the necessity of the tribal government to enforce the law. The issue goes beyond legality, though. Begay says the importance of the language is also being called into question, as the number of fluent speakers declines year after year. The current situation brings up a critical question: “Are we at a crossroads, where the language is not as important for the Navajo nation?”  

In essence, the Navajo Supreme Court ordered the Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) to answer this question within a week. On September 5, Dale Tsosie, a former presidential candidate, filed a complaint to the OHA, insisting Deschene not be allowed to run for office. The OHA dismissed Tsosie, stating he didn’t file his complaint on time, but the tribe’s Supreme Court remanded the decision last Friday, effectively ordering the OHA to determine Deschene’s fluency. “The qualification for fluency in the Navajo language is a reasonable regulation to a candidate’s right to political liberty,” the court said in its order.

Shirley, meanwhile, is — according to his campaign manager, Patrick Sandoval —“very fluent” in Navajo. The tribal government conducts its meetings in English, but it is common for only Navajo to be used at the local government level, he says. The ability of the tribal leader to speak the language goes beyond practicality; it is paramount to tribe’s cultural identity, an identity the president should embody, Sandoval says. “The only way the Navajo people will be here 500 years from now…will be because we maintained who we are.”

Not everyone sees fluency in such absolute terms, though. “There is a pretty elaborate rhetoric about the state of the Navajo language, and it paints a much rosier picture than reality would support,” says Deborah House, who teaches at Diné College in Shiprock, New Mexico. House is not Navajo, but she has taught at the tribal college for decades and wrote a book on the Navajo language.  

In the August primary, Deschene grabbed “a majority of the youth vote” according to the Navajo Times. Regardless of the outcome, Professor Begay says this conflict has encouraged cultural reflection among Navajos. “It’s putting us in the spotlight….every Navajo person should begin to think about where they are culturally and linguistically.” And Deschene is a good example of this, Begay says, with his demonstrated commitment to know more about the culture and language.  

Neither Chris Deschene nor his staff responded to requests for comment. However, several news organizations and Deschene’s campaign website report that he grew up in Southern California. His mother had been sent to a boarding school there, where the language was more or less expunged, and she taught her children English only. Deschene made it clear in his campaign that he was learning the language. It’s now up to the OHA to decide how he did. 

 Wyatt Orme is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @wyatt_orme. 

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