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Final Decision on Navajo Fluency Put to Vote July 21

Navajo voters on July 21 will put to rest a question that has divided the Nation for nearly a year – language fluency.

Navajo voters on July 21 will put to rest a question that has divided the Nation for nearly a year.

In a special referendum election, voters will decide whether to amend language requirements for the Nation’s top two elected posts. The election code currently mandates that all candidates for president and vice president be able to understand and speak Navajo fluently, and read and write English.

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An affirmative vote July 21 means the voter wants a say in determining whether a candidate’s language proficiency qualifies as fluent. Should the referendum pass, the election code would be amended to require that candidates for president and vice president be able to speak and understand the Navajo and English language, and that “this ability shall be determined by the Navajo voter when he/she casts a ballot.”

“This allows voters to determine for themselves whether a candidate meets the qualifications,” said LoRenzo Bates, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council. “When individuals begin the campaign, they’re obviously going to speak Navajo at whatever level they’re at. If the referendum passes, it will be up to the people to decide whether or not that candidate is, within their minds, qualified to be the next president.”

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Questions over language fluency exploded after last August’s primary election, during which 17 candidates squared off for a chance to be the Nation’s eighth president. Former two-term president Joe Shirley Jr., and political newcomer Chris Deschene came in first and second, respectively.

But Deschene was disqualified following a lengthy legal battle that began when two former presidential candidates complained that he didn’t speak fluent Navajo. The dispute ultimately pitted the Navajo Supreme Court against the Board of Election Supervisors and the Navajo Election Administration. The Navajo Nation Council also got involved, seeking to pass last-minute legislation amending election code.

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Russell Begaye, the third-place finisher in the primary race, triumphed in a delayed general election in April. He took office in May and has opposed a change to the language requirements.

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“Out of thousands of jobs (on the reservation) only two positions require the ability to speak Navajo – the office of president and vice president,” Begaye told ICTMN in April. “We are a nation, and like every nation around the world, these two positions should require the ability to speak Navajo.”

Bates, who favored the amended language during Navajo Nation Council discussions, said it simply gives more power to the voters. The amendment also could pave the way for leaders with advanced college degrees and substantial career experience to run for office even if they struggle with the Navajo language.

“One of the misconceptions is that this amendment does away with the Navajo language,” Bates said. “It doesn’t. The people just decide whether or not the level of Navajo fluency is acceptable or not to them. If there’s a person who barely speaks Navajo, but brings a lot to the table, that person could be the next president.”

More than 120,000 Navajo citizens are registered to vote, said Edison Wauneka, executive director of the Navajo Election Administration. If the referendum passes with a simple majority, it will be effective in the 2018 presidential election.

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