Felicia Fonseca / AP

Election dispute highlights Navajo Nation divide over language

A battle over language fluency uncovers generational divides in the United States’ largest Native nation

A linguistic dispute in the run-up to the Navajo Nation’s presidential election is uncovering generational and cultural divides within the United State’s largest Native American nation.

The Navajo Nation Council, the tribe’s lawmaking body, on Thursday voted to pass an amendment modifying a Navajo language requirement for presidential candidates to allow voters to determine whether they view the candidate as fluent or not.

The dispute started in early September, when two former opponents of presidential candidate Chris Deschene filed a complaint against him, accusing Deschene of lying on his candidate application.

The qualifications for the Navajo Nation presidential candidacy required that he or she must understand and speak fluent Navajo. Deschene, who had said he was eligible for candidacy, and therefore fluent in Navajo, has said that he is learning the language.

The Office of Hearings and Appeals disqualified Deschene after he refused to take a fluency test, saying that he was not going to submit himself to a test that no other candidate ever had to take. The Navajo Supreme Court upheld the decision and, in its Thursday ruling, mandated the Election Administration to reprint ballots with the name of the next runner-up from the primary and to postpone the election.

On Thursday evening, Navajo Nation Council members narrowly approved an emergency legislative amendment aimed at appeasing those on both sides of the debate — it keeps the language fluency requirement but removes the possibility of candidates being required to undergo a fluency test by official entities, as Deschene was asked to do.

After hours of debate, the amendment passed with 11 in favor and 10 opposed. President Ben Shelly has 10 days to sign the legislation into law.

The election dispute, which has intensified in recent weeks, has electrified the Navajo political scene.

Deschene, a member of the Arizona State Legislature, a veteran and an attorney, is running against the former two-time Navajo president Joe Shirley Jr. In an August primary, Deschene won 9,831 votes, or 19 percent of the vote, while Joe Shirley Jr. got 11,052 votes, or around 21 percent.

Although those who initially filed the complaint against Deschene have said they simply wanted Navajo authorities to uphold the nation’s electoral law, the debate has centered on the importance of preserving Navajo language, the generational differences in linguistic ability and who gets to call themselves “fluent” in Navajo.

“It pulled off a scab on an old wound,” said Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Deschene campaign, referring to discussion about federal policies that sent Navajo children to boarding schools, where they were forcibly removed from their societies and distanced from their language and culture.

Gerald Hill, board president of the Indigenous Language Institute and member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, said that he has been following the dispute closely, as it could affect how other Native American groups view language, both culturally and politically.  

There are 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and when Europeans first arrived in the country, there were 280 languages, according to Lyle Campbell, a linguist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Today, around 150 are still spoken, but “all of them are endangered,” Campbell said.

Hill estimated that 50 of those languages are healthier than the others. “Navajo is, if not the healthiest, among the top two or three,” Hill said.

Census numbers have put the number of Navajo speakers at 170,000 — more than half of a total population of more than 300,000 Navajos.

Although the Endangered Languages Project classifies Navajo as an “at-risk” language, estimating there are 120,000 native speakers, the number of Navajo speakers far surpasses the number of people who speak other Native American languages. By comparison, Dakota has some 18,000 speakers, according to census numbers.

“The Navajo Nation is one of the luckiest tribal nations that was able to retain its language in such large numbers,” said Chase Iron Eyes, a Lakota Sioux attorney and the founder of Native American news site Last Real Indians.

Deschene supporters have argued that attacking him for allegedly not being fluent in Navajo disenfranchises young Navajos, who leave the Nation to study elsewhere and want to return.

“The message that’s being sent to young voters, that they’re not Navajo enough to lead, is totally unacceptable,” Pearson said.

Dominic Clichee, 27, an epidemiologist at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, spent seven years at university away from the Navajo Nation. Clichee is a founder of media company Tomorrow’s Here Productions, which recently released videos in support of Deschene.

“I’m not fluent, and I can relate to the backlash that he’s experiencing,” Clichee said.

Language loss is caused by human rights violations and repression, said Campbell. Assimilatory policies of the U.S. federal government, such as sending American Indians to boarding schools, lasted well into the 20th century.

“It’s not him not choosing to be fluent, it’s a product of [generations of Navajo] deliberately being punished for speaking the [Navajo] language,” said Clichee.

Buu Van Nygren, 27, volunteers for the Shirley campaign. He said he speaks Navajo fluently, having learned it from his mother and grandmother. He said young Navajos can learn the language from their elders if they are motivated.

Van Nygren thinks that the language requirement for the presidency is comparable to requirements for any other job. “The fluency is just for the president. It’s saying that 1 out of 300,000 plus people should speak fluently,” he said.

But “not speaking Navajo doesn’t make you any less Navajo,” said Van Nygren. “The whole thing is blown out of proportion,” he added.

Some say that the language row has diverted attention from more pressing issues in the Navajo Nation.

“I know [language] is of utmost importance, but I don’t think it should be the first priority in picking a new leader,” said Clichee.

Pearson said the discourse has shifted from the importance of preserving the language to talking about Navajo rights.

"This whole legislation is to protect the voter rights of our Navajo people,” said Danny Simpson at Thursday’s Council meeting. Simpson sponsored the legislative amendment removing the language exam requirement for presidential candidates.

He said that the language in the amendment protects both the sacred Navajo language and the rights of the people who have already cast ballots through early voting.

The Navajo Election Administration had already printed and sent out early voting ballots with Deschene’s name on them.

The Council’s opinions on the amendment were split.

“This amendment clearly attacks the Navajo language,” said Council Delegate Katherine Benally, while Delegate Leonard Tsosie called for “compromise with the younger generation who want to sit at the table.”

Delegate Lorenzo Curley suggested that the government sponsor programs to revitalize the language. “We ought to preserve the language through teaching it,” rather than requiring fluency through legislation.

The Indigenous Language Institute’s Hill said the debate has raised “the question of what importance is attached to heads of tribes having to know the language. It may give incentive to other tribes to redouble their efforts in revitalizing language and making their language healthy again.”

Where this this leaves the election is unclear. A member of the Navajo Election Administration, who asked to remain unnamed because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the nation has yet to decide what the legislature’s Thursday rulings mean for the Deschene campaign.

The Election Board has asked both the Council and the Supreme Court for clarification on their decisions before making any further moves on the ballots, the source said.

Deschene, meanwhile, has not given up on his bid for the nation’s top office.

“Thank you. Our campaign continues,” Deschene wrote in a post on his Facebook page on Friday morning. 

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