Navajo Nation Council passes emergency language requirement repeal

Navajo Nation Council passes emergency language requirement repeal

In this Oct. 3, 2014 file photo, Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene greets supporters in Window Rock, Ariz. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca, File)
In this Oct. 3, 2014 file photo, Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene greets supporters in Window Rock, Ariz. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca, File)

Shortly after midnight last night, the Navajo Nation Council voted to scrap the longstanding requirement for the tribe’s president to be fluent in the Navajo Language.

The eleventh-hour vote, approved 11-10 with one abstaining, clears a path for Chris Deschene to remain on the ballot. His qualifications had been challenged over his admittedly limited ability in speaking the Navajo language.

The legislation passed early Friday morning says that Navajo presidential candidates’ proficiency in the Navajo language will be seen as sufficient, whatever ability it is, as a result of Navajo voters nominating them.

Tom Platero, executive director of the Navajo Nation’s office of legislative services, said the bill, passed with an emergency clause, has not yet been sent to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley. He will have 10 days to decide whether to sign or veto the legislation once it reached his desk.

The bill would essentially invalidate the requirement that a candidate for Navajo Nation president must speak the native language by declaring that the language proficiency is determined by the vote of the people.

On Thursday, the top court on the largest American Indian reservation had ordered tribal election officials to postpone the Navajo Nation’s presidential election and immediately reprint ballots without the name of a candidate who was disqualified in a language fluency case.

Democrats were worried that postponing the Navajo presidential election would impact voter turnout on the reservation in the hotly contested race for Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, where incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick is facing Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin in the November election. Navajo voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats, and the Navajo vote is key to Kirkpatrick’s campaign.

The Navajo Supreme Court’s decision comes after a lower court blocked Chris Deschene from seeking the tribe’s top elected post because he refused to show whether he could speak Navajo fluently, a requirement for presidential candidates under tribal law. His campaign has been overshadowed by a debate about the role the Navajo language plays in the tribe’s culture and tradition.

Deschene appealed his disqualification, but the high court dismissed Wednesday because he failed to file the proper documents.

The presidential election was scheduled for Nov. 4, but the Supreme Court said it must be postponed to ensure valid results. Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. have already gone out, and early voting is underway.

An attorney representing a group of Navajos who support Deschene sent a letter to the board Thursday threatening a lawsuit if the Nov. 4 election is stopped or the official ballot is changed. The group said a general election can be postponed before it begins but not halted once Navajos begin casting ballots.

Election officials asked attorneys Thursday for clarification on the Supreme Court order, including whether the entire general election should be postponed or just the presidential election. The order requires that the third-place finisher from the presidential primary be moved up to replace Deschene.

The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors was scheduled to reconvene Friday.

“This really has set the stage for a battle between the legislative and the judicial branches, and certainly Chris is hopeful that the legislative branch enacts a fix, and he prevails,” Deschene spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said.

Deschene has said he’s proficient in the language. He refused to take a fluency test or answer questions in a deposition and a hearing, saying it was unfair that he be singled out and tested on his language ability.

The Navajo language is a defining part of the tribe’s culture. More people speak it than any other single American Indian language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of the tribe’s more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.

Inclues information from the Associated Press