NPR logo Navajo Presidential Race Shaken By Language Gap

Navajo Presidential Race Shaken By Language Gap

Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene greets supporters ahead of a hearing in Window Rock, Ariz., to determine whether Deschene is fluent enough in Navajo to qualify for the presidency. Felicia Fonseca/AP hide caption

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Felicia Fonseca/AP

Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene greets supporters ahead of a hearing in Window Rock, Ariz., to determine whether Deschene is fluent enough in Navajo to qualify for the presidency.

Felicia Fonseca/AP

According to Navajo law, Navajo Nation presidents must speak the Navajo language to hold office. Chris Deschene is a strong contender for the position, but there's a problem: He's not fluent in the language.

The challenge to Deschene's candidacy has become a window into how the Navajo Nation views itself and its cultural future, as well as how Native people continue to define themselves in the face of cultural change.

In August, the Navajo Nation held primaries for candidates hoping to become the next Navajo president. The two men with the most votes were Dr. Joe Shirley Jr., a two-time former president; and Deschene, a military veteran and member of the Arizona State Legislature.

However, within weeks of clearing the nation's primaries with 19 percent of the vote, Deschene was challenged by another candidate who hoped to have him disqualified for lack of language competence.

Fifty years ago, almost 90 percent of Navajo first-graders spoke Navajo fluently. Now, just over 7,000 tribal citizens are monolingual Navajo speakers, and fewer than 30 percent of first-graders can claim some level of language fluency.

Today, the Navajo Nation, much like the rest of Indian Country, faces the prospect of language loss. While the Navajo language is still spoken widely across the Southwest, it's threatened, and Deschene has come to represent that fact for people on both sides of the language divide.

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"It's a really personal issue to me," says Melvatha Chee, a Navajo language instructor at the University of New Mexico. "I would like to vote for [Deschene], but I feel like I'm voting against myself if I support him. If I support a nonspeaker, I feel like I'm voting against my own work."

Others feel that they can support their language and Deschene's candidacy.

"If Deschene is told that he can't be president because he's not Navajo enough because of language, that's like telling a lot of young Navajo people that they're not good enough either because they don't speak the language," says Meredith Moss, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University who has focused her studies on Navajo language and sociolinguistics.

At the heart of the matter for Deschene, according to Moss, is the need to use English in the context of being a representative to other nations and groups, but also being an authentic, trustworthy voice at home who can represent the positions of the Nation's elders. It is a struggle between an older generation that is genuinely Navajo and a new generation of tribal members who may see themselves more closely represented by Deschene than by his opponent.

"I think many feel that the youth are being told they're not good enough," said Moss. "They're not Navajo enough, and supporting Deschene is kind of like moving toward the new guard and saying, 'We really are Navajo; we can have that authenticity while moving forward together.' "

For many, language is the embodiment of culture, and tribal languages contain history, cosmology, traditional values and identity. Supporters of the language requirement argue that without tribal languages, Native Americans are lost, and distant from the ancestors who came before them.

But for much of history, this loss of language was not a choice. For centuries, the policy of churches, educators and government officials has been to stamp out tribal languages, through education, abuse, and any other way possible. As the saying went: Kill the Indian, save the man.

By federal government standards, there's no question that Deschene is Navajo, regardless of language. He is a citizen by blood quantum standards. He was born, raised and lives within the borders of the Navajo Nation. He is a participant in cultural events, from social dances to ceremony.

Deschene is also a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Marine Corps veteran. He has earned a law degree. Yet his lack of fluency in the Navajo language may disqualify him from becoming the next president of the largest Native nation within the United States. And people like Chee think that's fine.

"How do we approach teaching Navajo language to children so that we can actually produce speakers?" said Chee. "If I support a nonspeaker then I'm saying, 'You're invalid because Navajo language is not needed.' That there's no reason for it. It's not used."

Deschene himself has spoken out about efforts to disqualify him. "These decisions have sent a message to our young saying despite all your accolades, success and everything you've done to help our people, you're not welcome," he said. "It's separating, dividing and isolating ... and the people deserve better."

As of now, Deschene has been officially disqualified as a candidate by Navajo officials after a series of closed-door hearings. However, election officials have refused to remove his name from the ballot, and early voting is already in full swing in the Navajo Nation. A spokesperson for Deschene says it is unlikely the situation will be cleared up before Nov. 4 and that it's unclear what will happen should Deschene win the majority of votes for Navajo Nation president.

"The people get to decide what their standards are," said Deschene. "For me, as an individual, I know I'm a member of the Navajo Nation. I know I'm a member of our people."

Navajo Nation Changes Language Law

Supporters of Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene gather outside an administrative court in Window Rock, Ariz. Questions about his fluency in the Navajo language have dogged his campaign. Felicia Fonseca/AP hide caption

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Felicia Fonseca/AP

In the space of a few months, the quest for one candidate to become the next Navajo Nation president has become intertwined with the changing culture of Indian Country. It has turned into what could be described as a political thriller with a distinctly Navajo hue.

Here's the set up: Navajo law states that Navajo presidents must speak the language to hold office. Forty-three year-old Chris Deschene received enough votes in the first round of presidential voting to make it to the final Nation's ballot. But later, a series of complaints and lawsuits accused him of not being fluent in Navajo.

Efforts to have Deschene disqualified culminated on Thursday in the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. By a 2-to-1 vote, the court ordered that Deschene be removed from contention, and that the election be postponed in order to reprint the ballots with the name of another candidate.

However, just after midnight Thursday, the Navajo Nation Council voted to adjust the language requirement for presidential candidates. "The bill keeps the current Navajo language fluency requirements intact," reports the Farmington Daily Times. "But adds that the language proficiency 'shall be' determined by the people voting in favor of the candidate."

In other words, the bill acknowledges the importance of the Navajo language for presidential candidates, but also recognizes the right of voters to decide who best represents them. It wasn't an easy sell, though. The bill passed narrowly – 11 to 10.

The close decisions in both the judicial and legislative branches underscore the divide in the Navajo Nation over how important language and identity are to tribal members. Many citizens have been concerned that electing a leader without language fluency would undermine Navajo identity, while others – especially a growing number who are not fluent in Navajo themselves – say that they finally feel represented in the Nation's political sphere. In 2007, researchers estimated that around 30 percent of Navajo first graders spoke the language fluently, compared to around 90 percent in 1968.

Deschene says he's prepared to represent the Navajo Nation. "As an element of our culture, things like our land, things like our traditions and customs, including our language, are priority," he says. "I've conveyed to our people that those unique characteristics, identifiers, elements of our culture, make us separate, unique and special to the rest of the world. They are the foundation of sovereignty."

There are over 300,000 Navajo citizens spread across the Navajo Nation – an area just slightly smaller than the country of Panama – as well as across the United States and the world. Navajo efforts to stop language loss have ranged from partnerships with companies like Rosetta Stone to translating films like Star Wars into Navajo.

Provided that current Navajo president Ben Shelly signs off on the new language policy, Deschene will face Dr. Joe Shirley, Jr. – a two-time former Navajo president – for the Nation's top post on November 4.

"I'm Navajo and because of that I have the right to participate in my government, especially when I see that my government is in trouble," said Deschene. "So if that message carries throughout Indian Country, and if people are qualified and willing and able, they should be afforded the same opportunities to help their own people."