Why President Obama is speaking Navajo on the campaign trail

President Barack Obama uses the Navajo greeting 'Ya'at'eeh' in a radio spot encouraging Navajo voters to support US Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.

John Locher/AP/File
Students and faculty say the Pledge of Allegiance during an assembly at the Crystal Boarding School in Crystal, N.M. on the Navajo Nation, Sept. 26, 2014.

On the airwaves of a popular Navajo radio station, President Barack Obama uses the Navajo greeting "Ya'at'eeh" and implores tribal members to get out and vote for Democrats.

The party is trying hard to hang on to the seat held by US Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and needs Navajo voters who lean Democrat to turn out in droves in what is one of the hardest-fought congressional races in the country.

Kirkpatrick has learned to speak the Navajo language, regularly appears at the tribe's legislative sessions, and has sponsored fairs and rodeos. She has touted transportation and infrastructure projects, and funding for the Head Start education program and for reservation schools that don't have a tax base.

Her Republican opponent, Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin, has been to the Navajo Nation several times, including speaking at a Navajo Code Talkers event at the tribal capital. He has accused Kirkpatrick of failing Navajos when it comes to veterans' health care and protecting jobs in the coal industry.

To Kirkpatrick, the Navajo vote is a main reason why she was elected in 2012. She previously was elected to Congress in 2008, then lost in 2010 and came back two years later in a redrawn district that includes the Navajo and other Indian reservations and stretches from Flagstaff to the northern Tucson suburbs.

"Let's not forget 2012," said Kirkpatrick's spokesman, D.B. Mitchell. "Everyone thought Ann had lost, until the Navajo vote came in and she gained thousands of votes that ultimately led to her decisive victory."

Tobin spokesman Bill Cortese sees it a little differently. He said the Republican candidate in 2012, Jonathan Paton, simply underperformed in areas of the district that favor Republicans. Tobin believes his many trips to the reservation will pay off, Cortese said.

"We're not going to cede any part of this district to Ann Kirkpatrick," he said.

Navajos will vote for their congressional representative the same day they vote for tribal lawmakers and statewide and local contests. The tribe's presidential race has received national attention after one candidate was disqualified for not meeting a requirement to speak fluent Navajo. The tribal Supreme Court has ordered the presidential election postponed, but election officials haven't acted on the order.

The turmoil in the presidential race is not expected to affect turnout on the Navajo Nation, which usually is very strong. Turnout in the 2010 tribal elections was about 58 percent.

Many tribal members travel from afar to reach polling sites, where candidates serve traditional Navajo food like mutton stew and frybread, and grill hamburgers. The tribal government typically gives employees four hours or more off to vote.

"Here's a time where people are gathering. There's still last-minute campaigning going on," said Manley Begay, a Navajo and professor in applied indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University. "There's a certain amount of fervor related to that event. It almost becomes celebratory in a way. It's where you meet family, meet friends. It's a hub of activity."

The potential of tens of thousands of votes from the Navajo Nation, which stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, isn't lost on candidates for other offices, either.

In New Mexico, the race between Republican Sharon Clahchischilliage and Democrat Harrison Todacheene for a legislative seat representing mostly Navajos will help decide which party controls the state House. The secretary of state and land commissioner races in New Mexico also are close.


Associated Press writer Barry Massey in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

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