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Oct 24, 2014 3:22 PM

Navajo election at standstill amid confusion

The Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) With their presidential election less than two weeks away, Navajo Nation officials are weighing how to proceed with a race that has become increasingly embroiled in confusion amid a debate involving the tribe's language.

Navajo election officials began meeting Friday to consider following an order by the tribe's top court to postpone the Nov. 4 presidential race.

The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors meeting came hours after the tribe's council voted to effectively erase a law requiring that candidates for tribal president be fluent in Navajo.

Two primary contenders had challenged Chris Deschene under that law, alleging he lied on his candidacy application. A lower court disqualified Deschene from the race after he refused to demonstrate his ability to speak Navajo.

On Thursday, the Navajo Supreme Court rejected Deschene's appeal and ordered him off the ballot.

The tribal council convened soon after to consider an emergency bill that would let voters decide who is fluent. Council members debated the measure for five hours then voted 11-10 early Friday to approve it.

The legislation is written to apply retroactively to the 2014 election, though it's unclear whether it could undo the Supreme Court's order to remove Deschene from the ballot.

The measure now goes to President Ben Shelly, who will have 10 days to sign it. He previously voiced support for the legislation.

If Shelly signs the measure, Deschene will file a motion with the high court based on the new law, Deschene spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said.

"Last night was a major victory, not just for this race but for the Navajo people in general," Pearson said.

The presidential race largely has been overshadowed by the debate over the language's role in Navajo culture and tradition.

In its decision Thursday, the Supreme Court included a plea to members to protect the language, believed to be handed down by deities.

"Because we were colonized through assimilation, we have started losing our language and it has become difficult to speak; we want to keep our Navajo way of life, our language, our prayers and songs, alive," the justices wrote in Navajo, according to a translation. "Even though it seems we have made enemies of one another, we will not lose our ways."

Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. went out earlier this month.

An attorney representing a group of Navajos who support Deschene sent a letter to the election board Thursday threatening a lawsuit if the 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.

Meanwhile, election officials asked attorneys for clarification on the Supreme Court order, including whether the entire election should be postponed or just the presidential race. The order requires that the third-place primary finisher be moved up to take Deschene's place.

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 he was being unfairly singled out.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people speak it than any other single American Indian language. Of the tribe's more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.


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