Fluency requirement for elected Navajo leaders in question with July 21 referendum vote

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Navajo Nation people will vote on a controversial question from the last election July 21 deciding whether to change the fluency requirement for the office of the president and vice president.

Currently, the Navajo Nation requires that each candidate for the two top offices to understand and speak fluent Navajo and read and write English. The special referendum vote will allow voters to decide whether to amend that language giving voters the right to decide what fluency means by their vote.

The legislation reads that "this ability shall be determined by the Navajo voter when he/she casts a ballot."

The fluency of candidates during the last presidential election on the Navajo Nation caused a five month delay in the election for president of the Navajo Nation, with board of election supervisors held in contempt of court after they refused to remove Chris Deschene's name from the presidential ballot. Deschene was ultimately disqualified from running for president because he refused to answer questions to the office of hearings and appeals proving that he could speak Navajo fluently.

During the heat of the election campaign when the Navajo Nation Council changed the fluency requirement, and before the Navajo Nation Supreme Court overturned that vote, Deschene said he supported the legislation because it would give voters a chance to choose their leadership.

"I am very happy, very pleased and grateful that council has voted to pass legislation to support the people's right to choose their leadership," Deschene said in October last year.

Legislation sponsors insist that the change does not take fluency off the table - that the ability to speak and understand Navajo is still required for all candidates.

"The whole legislation is to protect the voting rights of our Navajo people and to let them decide who's going to be their leader," Council Delegate Danny Simpson said last year.

The original legislation passed by the Council said in part that the Navajo people have continually encouraged young Navajos to "climb the ladder" of education and to return to help the people after getting their education. However, many of them have had to leave the reservation to support themselves and their families. The loss of fluency in the Navajo language was one result.

The legislation referred to two prominent Navajo leaders who overcame a language barrier, Navajo Chairman Chee Dodge and Navajo Interpreter Jesus Arviso, who took a major role in the development of the Navajo Nation.

"During the time of Chairman Dodge and Interpreter Arviso, the Navajo language was the primary language; however as time progressed and the Navajo Nation has more interaction outside its boundaries, the communication is now in the English language, including our laws, regulations and rules," the legislation said.

Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly originally vetoed the legislation stating that he believed the legislation should be brought before the Navajo people to decide.

"The decision to amend the language requirement in Title 11, the Navajo Nation Election Code, must be brought before the Navajo people through a referendum vote," Shelly said last year. "This decision is far too important and it is one the people need to decide on. We are a nation of laws. I took an oath to uphold the law."

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court issued a ruling last year saying that the law that says presidential candidates must be fluent in Navajo was enacted to "preserve, protect and promote self-determination, for which language is essential."

The court said that as Dine, the Navajo people are the image of their ancestors and are created in connection with all creation and they are identified by their: Dine name, clan, language, life way, shadow, footprints and therefore they are called the Holy Earth-Surface-People.

"Different thinking, planning, life ways, languages, beliefs, and laws appear among us, but the fundamental laws placed by the Holy People remain unchanged," the court said.

They ruled that the requirement for fluency in the Navajo language is a reasonable regulation of a candidate's right to participate in the political system and there was no evidence to show that the law was intended to discriminate against the young person who may not be fluent and who may aspire to be a leader.

With more than 120,000 registered voters, the referendum only requires a simple majority to pass and would be effective in the 2018 election.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on July 21.

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