Navajo nation presidential candidate rejected: How well can he speak Navajo?

The Navajo Nation's top court rejected an appeal from presidential candidate Chris Deschene after a lower court disqualified him for refusing to demonstrate proficiency in the Navajo language.

Felicia Fonseca/AP
Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene speaks to supporters in Window Rock, Ariz, Oct. 9. Mr. Deschene has lost another round in a language fluency dispute, all but ending his bid for office. The tribe's high court on Wednesday, upheld a ruling from a lower court that said Deschene is not qualified to seek the top elected post because he doesn't speak fluent Navajo.

A candidate for president of the Navajo Nation has lost the latest in a series of legal battles that have questioned his candidacy due to insufficient evidence that he can speak the Navajo language. 

On Wednesday, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court dismissed Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene's appeal of a lower court ruling, which had disqualified him from the race because he refused to take a Navajo language proficiency test. The high court did not rule on the validity of the fluency claim, but dismissed the appeal because Mr. Deschene failed to file the necessary paperwork with his appeal. The ruling stated that subsequent appeals would not be entertained, effectively ending his bid for office.

The lengthy legal battle began shortly after the Aug. 26 primary when two former candidates filed grievances claiming that Deschene had lied about being fluent in Navajo on his candidacy application.

Tribal law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in Navajo as well as English. A defining part of the tribe's culture, Navajo is spoken often among members, says Manley Begay Jr., a professor in the department of Applied Indigenous Studies at Northern Arizona University and a member of the Navajo Nation. Profesor Begay notes that it's common to hear the language in personal conversations, at family gatherings, and in Navajo media.

A major concern is that Deschene might not be able to converse with older tribal members who may speak only Navajo and who have little to no English language skills, Begay says.

"If you don't know the language or speak the language you don't understand the cultural pieces of policy or the cultural pieces of various types of legislation," Begay says.

The language obstacle faced by Deschene, he says, is like that of any country's political candidates contending with requirements to be eligible for office.

"We're not unlike any other country in the world. French people prefer to speak French," he says.

And yet, among younger members, that trend is shifting, says Tiffany Lee, an associate professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, who is also Navajo. 

Professor Lee, who studies the revival of language among members of the Navajo tribe, says that in some communities English has become the main language for children. That's troubling, she says, because Navajo is the basis for expressing kinship between tribal members. 

"It is something that's of much concern," she says. "This election highlights the need for language revitalization." 

Deschene's actual language skills are still unclear as he has not submitted to a formal evaluation of his knowledge of Navajo. The tribe's lower court had disqualified Deschene from seeking the top elected post after he declined to demonstrate fluency. 

His campaign website features a video of Deschene speaking in Navajo to thank voters for their support in the primary and urging them to support him in the general election. 

Deschene said he is holding out hope that election officials and tribal lawmakers will provide a way for him to remain on the ballot.

"Certainly the campaign is committed to moving forward," his spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said.

It wasn't immediately clear where the decision leaves the presidential election. The disqualification order requires that election officials move up the third-place finisher from the primary election.

However, absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley, Jr. have already gone out, and early voting is under way.

Levon Henry, an attorney for the Tribal Council and election officials, has said the Nov. 4 election will likely be postponed. The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors is scheduled to meet about it Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation Council has a bill on its agenda this week to make voters the sole decision-makers when it comes to determining a presidential candidate's fluency.

Lee, for example, says she believes Navajo leaders should be able to speak the tribe's language. But she also says this qualification should be decided by the Navajo people, around 300,000 members in total. "We shouldn't leave it up to the Supreme Court to decide," she says. 

Anyone who is a member of the Navajo Tribe with an enrollment number and is at least 18 years old can vote in a Navajo election. 

On his Twitter page, Deschene urged tribal members to support the Council bill. 

According to the US Census Bureau, more people speak Navajo than any other single Native American language. More than half of the Navajo Nation's members speak the language.

-Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. 

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