Nov 3 5:00 PM

From Navajo Nation to Alaska, Indian Country votes

Felicia Fonseca / AP

Tomorrow, voters in the Navajo Nation will head to the polls to elect congressional representatives, governors, tribal council members and school board representatives. But, two races will be conspicuously absent from their ballots: the president and vice-president of the Navajo Nation.

Due to a row over ex-candidate Chris Deschene’s ability to speak the Navajo language, the tribe’s presidential election has been indefinitely delayed. The turmoil started when Deschene’s former opponents filed a complaint against him, claiming that he lied on his candidate application. The Navajo electoral law requires that candidates speak fluent Navajo, and the plaintiffs argued that Deschene couldn’t adequately speak the language.

The Navajo Nation’s Supreme Court ordered Deschene off the ballot and postponed the election last month. A little over a week ago, the Navajo Nation Council voted in favor of a legislative amendment that would have removed the language requirement for the president. Then, just a few days later, incumbent President Ben Shelly vetoed the legislation. But despite the veto, the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors refused to reprint ballots without Deschene’s name on them. Then on Friday, the Navajo Supreme Court found the board in contempt of court, the Navajo Times reported. The court ordered the removal of the electoral board and again postponed the election until new ballots could be printed.

As complaints from all sides mount, the election for the head of the country’s largest tribe has been delayed with no election date set, and Deschene has suspended his campaign — a result Andrew Curley argued in an Al Jazeera opinion piece narrows opportunities for young Navajos.

But, if Navajos are discouraged from going to the polls, there will be other causes besides the lack of a presidential ballot. With a population of about 170,000 on the reservation alone, the tribe could be a significant voting bloc, particularly for Democratic candidates in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. But, on the vast 27,000 square mile Navajo Nation, getting to the polls often requires long drives on partially paved roads.

Navajos are not alone. Around the country, the Native American voter turnout is hindered by issues of access.

In South Dakota, Rose Cordier has worked every election cycle for 20 years to register voters on the 2000-square mile Rosebud Sioux Tribe reservation. Native American votes are a significant bloc in the state, but Cordier knows that Native American participation is complicated by long distances, the lack of resources to invest in getting to the polls and what seems to be a disconnect from politics.

In Alaska, Native groups have enough political heft to sway close elections. Yet in Alaska, too, Native language is at the center of the voter turnout debate. Ahead of the August primaries, voters who mainly speak Yu’pik, the Native Alaskan language among the most commonly spoken languages in the state, were not provided with pamphlets in their language. Even after different attempts to make sure Yu’pik speakers knew what they were voting for, some argue that many elders may end up voting blindly. Among the measures that may affect life in Alaska Native communities is Ballot Measure No. 2. If the measure passes, it would make the use and sale of marijuana legal in communities that ban the sale of alcohol under a local option.

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