WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – Voters on the country’s largest Indian reservation are scheduled to choose a new president in a month, but they’re still not sure who will be on the ballot because of a battle over one candidate’s ability to speak Navajo.
The dispute involving Chris Deschene is playing out in the tribal court system and threatening to push the Nov. 4 general election into next year.
It stems from a Navajo Nation law that requires candidates for the tribe’s top elected office to be fluent in the language. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language.
Some say Deschene – one of two candidates to advance in the August primary – fails to meet the criteria. Two of his primary challengers filed grievances against him that now are before the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals.
On Friday, Deschene stood firm on a decision not to take a fluency test, saying it’s unfair and discriminatory for him to be singled out. He instead will submit to a deposition Monday where he’ll be questioned in Navajo to determine whether he meets a standard set by the tribe’s Supreme Court.
“What I’m learning is nobody wants to make a decision,” Deschene told The Associated Press after Friday’s hearing before the Office of Hearings and Appeals. “What I’ve said about the whole process is that we’re not trying to skirt the fluency issue. What I’m saying is I’m sufficient.”
The high court sent the case back to chief hearing officer Richie Nez last week after ruling the Navajo language is sacred and cannot be disregarded as a qualification for the presidency.
Nez earlier dismissed the grievances filed by Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne as untimely. The men contend Deschene lied in his candidate application and shouldn’t appear on the general election ballot.
For most Navajos, the language issue goes beyond the election. It centers on how to preserve what the federal government once tried to eradicate and what parents were ashamed to teach their children.
The Navajo language is a defining part of the tribe’s culture, said to have been handed down by deities. It’s woven into creation stories and ceremonies, and spoken during legislative sessions, in dinner conversations and during Miss Navajo pageants.
Of the Navajo Nation’s more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak the language, according to Census data.
“Yes, it’s part of the election, but it’s an overall big picture of us as a nation, whether we honor our clans, our language, how to incorporate that,” said tribal member Jaynie Parrish, 35. “This is a very big turning point for our community.”
No previous presidential candidates have been challenged on the language requirement, which was approved by the Tribal Council in the early 1990s.
Nez said he asked the tribe’s Department of Dine Education for help devising a test that would adhere to the high court’s ruling, which said candidates must smoothly and skillfully speak the language and be able to understand Navajo speakers and meaningfully engage in conversation.
Deschene declined to take it.
Justin Jones, an attorney for Whitethorne, said the questions for Deschene’s deposition will be open-ended and are meant to gauge his pronunciation skills, understanding of sentence structure and ability to convey his message, among other things.
A decision on Deschene’s qualifications might not come quickly enough to keep the presidential election on track. Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. go out Monday. Replacement ballots will have to be sent if Deschene is deemed unqualified, said elections official Kimmeth Yazzie.
If the language case doesn’t wrap up, appeals included, by Oct. 10, “there’s a good possibility the presidential position is going to be off the ballot,” said tribal elections director Edison Wauneka. A special election to pick the president, likely after the new year, would have to be set, he said.
For Navajo voter Michael Thompson, the fight over fluency and the possibility of Shirley gaining a third, non-consecutive term leaves him not wanting to cast a ballot.
“I’m discouraged, but I’ll still probably end up voting no matter what,” he said. “Probably just flip a coin or something.”