[Lgpolicy-list] [lg policy] Arizona: Navajo Nation Changes Language Law

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Oct 28 14:36:44 UTC 2014

 Navajo Nation Changes Language Law

by Tristan Ahtone
  October 27, 201411:13 AM ET
  [image: Supporters of Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene gather
outside an administrative court in Window Rock, Ariz. Questions about his
fluency in the Navajo language have dogged his campaign.]

Supporters of Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene gather outside
an administrative court in Window Rock, Ariz. Questions about his fluency
in the Navajo language have dogged his campaign.
 Felicia Fonseca/AP

In the space of a few months, the quest for one candidate to become the
next Navajo Nation president has become intertwined with the changing
culture of Indian Country. It has turned into what could be described as a
political thriller with a distinctly Navajo hue.

Here's the set up: Navajo law states that Navajo presidents must speak the
language to hold office. Forty-three year-old Chris Deschene
<http://www.deschene2014.com/> received enough votes in the first round of
presidential voting to make it to the final Nation's ballot. But later, a
series of complaints and lawsuits accused him of not being fluent in Navajo

Efforts to have Deschene disqualified culminated on Thursday in the Navajo
Nation Supreme Court. By a 2-to-1 vote, the court ordered that Deschene be
removed from contention, and that the election be postponed in order to
reprint the ballots with the name of another candidate.

However, just after midnight Thursday, the Navajo Nation Council voted to
adjust the language requirement for presidential candidates. "The bill
keeps the current Navajo language fluency requirements intact," reports
the *Farmington Daily Times*. "But adds that the language proficiency
'shall be' determined by the people voting in favor of the candidate."

In other words, the bill acknowledges the importance of the Navajo language
for presidential candidates, but also recognizes the right of voters to
decide who best represents them. It wasn't an easy sell, though. The bill
passed narrowly – 11 to 10.

The close decisions in both the judicial and legislative branches
underscore the divide in the Navajo Nation over how important language and
identity are to tribal members. Many citizens have been concerned that
electing a leader without language fluency would undermine Navajo identity,
while others – especially a growing number who are not fluent in Navajo
themselves – say that they finally feel represented in the Nation's
political sphere. In 2007, researchers estimated
<http://www.ethnologue.com/language/nav/view/***EDITION***> that around 30
percent of Navajo first graders spoke the language fluently, compared to
around 90 percent in 1968.

Deschene says he's prepared to represent the Navajo Nation. "As an element
of our culture, things like our land, things like our traditions and
customs, including our language, are priority," he says. "I've conveyed to
our people that those unique characteristics, identifiers, elements of our
culture, make us separate, unique and special to the rest of the world.
They are the foundation of sovereignty."

There are over 300,000
Navajo citizens spread across the Navajo Nation – an area just slightly
smaller than the country of Panama – as well as across the United States
and the world. Navajo efforts to stop language loss have ranged from
partnerships with companies like Rosetta Stone
<http://www.rosettastone.com/endangered/projects> to translating films
like Star
into Navajo.

Provided that current Navajo president Ben Shelly signs off on the new
language policy, Deschene will face Dr. Joe Shirley, Jr.
<http://www.drjoeshirleyjr.com/> – a two-time former Navajo president – for
the Nation's top post on November 4.

"I'm Navajo and because of that I have the right to participate in my
government, especially when I see that my government is in trouble," said
Deschene. "So if that message carries throughout Indian Country, and if
people are qualified and willing and able, they should be afforded the same
opportunities to help their own people."


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