Should the president of the Navajo Nation speak Navajo?

A play-by-play of an election that poses big questions about fluency.


The Navajo Nation’s presidential election is three weeks late and counting. It was postponed from Nov. 4 because first-time presidential candidate Chris Deschene, who placed second in the primary — earning about 19 percent of the vote — was disqualified from the general election. Doubts arose as to whether or not he speaks the Navajo language fluently, which is a legal requirement for the presidential candidate. His disqualification is highly controversial among Navajo voters and High Country News has been watching closely the events surrounding his fight for candidacy. Here’s a play-by-play to date.   

Aug. 26: Deschene, along with two-term president, Joe Shirley, emerge from the primaries. Two unsuccessful presidential-hopefuls file a complaint against Deschene to call into question his fluency in Navajo — a skill he swore having when he began competing in the primaries. No legal process for determining “fluency” exists for the Navajo Nation.

In this Oct. 3, 2014 file photo, Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene greets supporters ahead of a hearing in Window Rock, Ariz., to determine whether Deschene is fluent enough in Navajo to qualify for the presidency. Associated Press.
Tribal bureaucrats begin to wrestle anxiously over Deschene’s candidacy. The Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) throws the original complaint, stating it wasn’t filed on time. But the Navajo Supreme Court intervenes and orders the OHA to determine if Deschene can indeed speak the language.

A test is scheduled. Deschene’s supporters argue it’s biased, and he refuses to participate.

Oct. 9: The OHA disqualifies Deschene from the presidential race, citing his refusal to be tested. Yet ballots have already gone to print for the general election with his name on them.

Navajo Nation Council delegate Leonard Tsosie submits a bill to change the election code, allowing voters to determine whether or not the candidate they prefer is proficient enough in the language. Deschene’s requalification is contingent on the success of Tsosie’s legislation.

Many voters see the commotion as a maneuver by nepotistic insiders to reject fresh political leadership. At 43, Deschene is more than 20 years Shirley’s junior and was born off the reservation. He received a degree from the prestigious Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, served in the Marines, and holds law and engineering degrees. He is also the grandson of a Code Talker, one of the World War II soldiers who used indigenous language to subvert Japanese espionage. Deschene’s mother went to boarding school where the Navajo language was actively exterminated and she, like many Navajos of her generation, insisted her children speak only English to survive in an English-speaking world.

Oct. 28: Tsosie’s legislation to change the election code is halted when Navajo President Ben Shelly vetoes it.

Nov. 4: Voting Day on the reservation is rife with confusion and anger. Deschene technically has been disqualified and the election postponed, but his name is still on the ballot, along with Shirley’s. Navajo voters in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah vote in state elections and for other tribal positions, but are instructed not to vote for a presidential candidate. Rumors circulate about poll workers tearing up ballots after voters mistakenly vote for their president.   

Nov. 13: The Navajo Nation Council votes down Tsosie’s attempt to override President Shelly’s veto. Deschene’s disqualification stands, and for now, language fluency will continue to be a requirement for future Navajo presidents.

The Deschene issue struck a chord with many Navajo voters — both those for and against the requirement for the tribe’s president — by raising questions about both cultural identity and every-day practicality. Use of the language has been declining for the past century, but much of the reservation still speaks it. Local political meetings are still largely conducted in Navajo. Many voters can’t fathom having a president that can’t communicate with the elders. Still, critics of the language requirement say it alienates Navajos, like Deschene, who have been born and educated elsewhere and want to bring their expertise back to the reservation.

Russell Begaye, who placed third in the primaries, has taken Deschene’s place in the presidential race. Johnny Nez — young, educated, fluent — will be his vice presidential running mate. Indian Country Today has reported that the new presidential election will take place in 2015.

Wyatt Orme is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @wyatt_orme. Correction: An original version of this story stated that the presidential election had been postponed to Dec. 23. According to today's news reports, that original reschedule date has been postponed again, to 2015.

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