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Native Language Fluency at Center of Navajo Nation Crossroads

The Navajo language is one of the most difficult to learn and it may be the deciding factor in the Navajo Nation’s presidential election.

In the Navajo language, there are 70 different verbs used to describe the activity of eating. Leave out one high tone or glottal stop, and the entire meaning of the word changes.

The verb-based, highly descriptive language is one of the most difficult to learn, especially for native English speakers, and it may be the deciding factor in the Navajo Nation’s upcoming presidential election.

Chris Deschene, one of 17 candidates vying for the title of the tribe’s top executive, earned 19 percent of the votes in the Nation’s August 26 primary election. He came in second to Joe Shirley Jr., the tribe’s only two-term president, and the two will face off during the November 4 general election.

Yet Deschene, who won voters’ support with a resume that includes graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, service in the Marines and a law degree, is missing a crucial accomplishment. The 43-year-old does not speak fluent Navajo – a requirement for presidential candidates.

When individuals sign up to run for president – and pay a $1,500 fee – they attest to being fluent in the language. Those documents are taken at face value, largely because the Nation does not have an official definition of “fluency.”

Deschene, who encountered some difficulty with the language while on the campaign trail, has claimed fluency is a matter of opinion and that he’s working to master the language.

“I’ve made a commitment to the language, and I’ve stated a number of times that my personal goal is to be completely fluent by the end of my first term,” he said in a statement.

Shirley, 66, is fluent and did much of his campaigning in Navajo.

Following the primary election, several Navajo citizens and former presidential candidates filed grievances against Deschene, saying he lied about his qualifications and that his name should not appear on the November ballot.

The tribe’s Office of Hearings and Appeals dismissed the challenges, saying they were untimely and lacked standing, but petitioners appealed the decision to the tribe’s Supreme Court.

The high court on September 26 found that fluency is a “reasonable requirement” for the president and remanded the decision back to Hearings and Appeals, which has yet to issue a final decision. Meanwhile, the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors voted to move forward with the election as planned – with Deschene and Shirley contending for president.

The offices of president and vice president are the only two positions requiring candidates to be fluent in English and Navajo. The qualification does not apply to positions in the tribe’s legislative or judicial branches.

LoRenzo Bates, speaker pro tem of the Navajo Nation Council, is not fluent, but he understands the logic behind the law.

“As president, you need to be able to communicate with the people regarding the Navajo Nation,” he said. “If you’re in the heart of Navajo, it’s going to be very difficult to communicate without knowing the language.”

Bates, who also is the chairman of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, said English is just as important as Navajo. As with many tribes, leaders need to demonstrate versatility in language to meet demands of tribal members and outside governments.

“Outside of the Navajo Nation, all the business done at state and federal levels is conducted in English,” he said. “There are certain words in English that don’t translate at all into Navajo – words like investment or portfolio. To be an effective leader, you really need to know both languages.”

The language issue is indicative of a larger concern on the Navajo Nation, said Manley Begay Jr., professor of applied indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University.

“Really, the Navajo Nation is at a crossroads right now,” he said. “Our culture is changing and we have questions about adherence to a fundamental law that is on the books.”

On one hand, Begay faults the election process for failing to disqualify Deschene; on the other hand, however, Begay acknowledges the changing demographics of the tribe and language usage that is on the decline. About 169,000 people spoke Navajo in 2010, down from 178,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In this case, the rules are not being enforced,” said Begay, who favors a president who speaks fluent Navajo. “But we have a young candidate who is charismatic and has a lot of energy and who has the younger group following him.”

The question of fluency is proving to be divisive on the 27,000-square-mile reservation where the Navajo language is most commonly spoken among the elders, but where the largest population is 25 and younger. Yet Begay believes there is more at stake than syntax.

“The Navajo culture demands a particular kind of relationship between leaders and the people,” he said. “If you don’t understand the language, it’s tremendously hard to understand the culture. If you don’t understand the language, you’ll lose much of what makes Navajo, Navajo.”