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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.