A question of fluency on the Navajo Nation

A cultural debate leaves the presidency in limbo.

  • Supporters of the fluency requirement for the Navajo presidency demonstrate outside a tribal Supreme Court hearing in Tuba City, Arizona. The court demanded Deschene’s language abilities be determined.

    Nick Cote

Several days after Election Day, Janene Yazzie sat in the sand with her 3-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Seleste, between the towering red rocks outside Lupton, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Her husband, Kern, their 5-year-old son, and her friend, Kim Smith, the self-titled “responsible auntie,” took turns firing a .22 at a target propped up by a soda can several hundred yards away. The group was enjoying a respite from tribal politics. On Nov. 4, Navajo voters at the polls had been instructed not to select a president. Though candidate Chris Deschene’s name was on the ballot, he had been disqualified for not speaking Navajo fluently, a formal requirement for office. A special presidential election was planned, but had not yet been scheduled.

Both Smith, 30, and Yazzie, 27, who are community organizers, fully support the fluency requirement. “I don’t think it is radical to require the president of our tribal nation (to) understand the language of the people he’s aspiring to lead,” Yazzie said, as Smith took aim at the target.

The tribe lacks any legal precedent for determining language fluency, and the months of procedural drama left many feeling disenfranchised. The controversy, however, was more than an institutional debacle, as voters found themselves in a fierce debate over cultural identity and ideal leadership. Fluency is steadily declining as more and more Navajos leave the reservation. Deschene, a well-educated 43-year-old former Marine, was popular with many voters, especially younger ones, eager to abandon the tribe’s old guard. His opponents, though, found the language question insurmountable.

As Smith, Yazzie and others see it, Navajo leaders should have a deep understanding of the tribe’s unique traditions and values. Yazzie is tired of hearing that English is as relevant as Navajo. “We don’t have problems with our communication with Washington, or the state, or the feds,” she said. “We have problems with the communication … to our own communities.”

Yazzie, who grew up in Lupton, attended high school in Hawaii and college at Columbia University in New York, where she met her husband. She spoke Navajo with her grandmother as a girl, but the skill faded with time. Smith, meanwhile, has spent her whole life just up the road in St. Michaels, apart from college at Northern Arizona University and a year of international work with the U.N.’s indigenous peoples’ branch. She, too, grew up speaking Navajo. Neither woman considers herself fluent, though both are determined to become so.

When Smith thinks of a leader, she told me, she pictures an elder — someone perhaps in their 80s or 90s, with “that last grasp of what true Diné (Navajo) philosophy is.” She believes Deschene’s disqualification was warranted, but added that his case has inspired a useful public debate. “The only cool part of this,” she said, “is that it gets people pumped.”

Deschene entered the crowded presidential primary this summer on the condition that he was fluent in Navajo. He placed second in the Aug. 26 race, thereby advancing to the general election with Joe Shirley Jr., who served two consecutive terms as president from 2003 to 2011. Two losing candidates filed a complaint with tribal officials, however, questioning Deschene’s fluency. Following some complicated legal maneuvering, the tribal Supreme Court ordered Deschene to take a fluency test. Deschene refused, arguing that the test was biased because his opponents’ attorney was the one asking the questions. He was thus disqualified, and now third-place primary finisher Russell Begaye will take his place on the ballot. Deschene, who continues to raise funds to cover fines and legal costs, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. 

It’s hard not to see Deschene’s case, and all it represents, as a sign of the times.

The language requirement disqualifies nearly half of all Navajos from running for president, for example, unless they speak fluently — a hard thing to quantify. According to 2011 census data, the language has approximately 169,471 “speakers” among the Navajo Nation’s more than 300,000 members; in 2007, there were 170,717. Deschene’s own story is typical: He was born in Los Angeles to a mother who, like many Navajos of her generation, had been sent away to a boarding school where native language and culture were systematically eradicated. She insisted her children speak only English to succeed in an English-speaking world. The family moved back to the reservation when Deschene was young, but he left to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After serving in the Marines, he returned to Arizona and earned both law and engineering degrees.

Many of the most fluent speakers are growing old, and, while the language is still heard widely on the reservation and in the communities just over its borders, the decline continues. “We’re at a transition point,” Northern Arizona University professor and tribal citizen Manley Begay told me during the Deschene controversy. The Navajo Nation, he said, is moving into an era of “nation building” and is reformulating its political and economic systems as it redefines what it means to be Navajo. “The culture in many ways is still very, very strong, very much alive,” Begay said. But with unemployment on the reservation around 44 percent, many tribal members have left, prompting widespread self-examination. “We’re in rebuilding mode,” Begay said, “and are wrestling with these issues that are critical to our long-term welfare.”

Benny Whiterock, who is 74, voted for Deschene, drawn by the candidate’s youth and life experience, as well as his newness to tribal political office. “We can’t go backwards,” he told me. “We got to go forwards.” He was forgiving of Deschene’s language difficulties. “My kids, they’re not taught good Navajo, just like him,” he said.

Smith, however, says it’s misleading to frame the current debate as one between progress and regression. To her, the question remains one of identity. “It’s either like we’re going to give up and say, ‘Oh, we’re losing our language,’ ” she said, “or we’re going to fight for it.” 

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