FLAGSTAFF – A candidate for tribal president on the nation’s largest Indian reservation lost another round in a language fluency dispute Wednesday, all but ending his bid for office.
The Navajo Nation’s highest court dismissed an appeal from Chris Deschene, making a disqualification order from a lower court final and enforceable.
The lower court had disqualified Deschene from seeking the tribe’s top elected post after he declined to demonstrate whether he is fluent in Navajo. Tribal law requires its presidential candidates to be fluent in the language, a defining part of Navajo culture.
Despite the long odds, 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. already have 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 probably will be postponed. The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors is scheduled to meet Thursday and likely will discuss it.
Henry said election officials are waiting for a Supreme Court decision on a petition in a separate but related case before considering any changes to the election. The supervisors have taken a stance of protecting the choice that Navajo voters made in the primary election.
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. The bill is written to apply retroactively to the 2014 election but is subject to amendments.
The high court did not rule on the merits of Deschene’s appeal. Instead, the justices dismissed it over lack of jurisdiction because Deschene did not include a copy of his disqualification order with his notice of appeal.
They ruled out any possibility to have the appeal reconsidered.
“Any litigant who is serious about his case will ensure that all of the court’s jurisdictional requirements are satisfied,” the justices wrote.
Justin Jones, an attorney for one of the men who challenged Deschene, said Deschene confused voters by not admitting that he couldn’t speak fluent Navajo.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Jones said. “A lot of people don’t know how to speak their own language, but there’s a law that you have to comply with.”
Deschene has said he is proficient in the language.
He came in second to Shirley in the August primary, but his campaign has been overshadowed by questions regarding his fluency in Navajo.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language. More than half of the Navajo Nation’s members speak the language.
Deschene refused to take a fluency test developed by the personnel in the tribe’s education department. He also declined to answer questions in a deposition or as a witness in the case against him. He said it was not right that he be singled out and tested on his language ability.
Richie Nez of the tribe’s Office of Hearings and Appeals said he had no choice but to disqualify Deschene after he failed to prove he could speak fluent Navajo.
Nez earlier dismissed the challenges as untimely. But the Supreme Court remanded the case to him after ruling that Nez must decide the challenges on the merits. It said the tribe’s language was too important to disregard as a qualification for the presidency.