Oct 3, 2014 2:44 PM
Tribal candidate must testify or take Navajo test
The Associated Press
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) A Navajo Nation presidential candidate must take either a test or the witness stand to demonstrate whether he's fluent enough in the tribe's language to qualify for its top elected post, an administrative court officer said Friday.
Richie Nez, chief hearing officer of the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals, is listening to arguments in a case that alleges Chris Deschene lied on his candidate application and is violating a tribal law that says presidential candidates must speak fluent Navajo.
Deschene says fluency is hard to define but that he has communicated well in Navajo with voters on the campaign trail.
On Friday, Nez rejected requests to dismiss the grievances filed by two of Deschene's challengers in the primary election. But he also declined to rule in their favor, which would keep Deschene's name off the ballot.
Instead, Nez said he must first decide the candidate's language ability according to a standard set by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. The high court last week sent the case back to Nez, saying the Navajo language is sacred and cannot be disregarded as a qualification for the presidency.
Outside the hearing, Deschene's supporters marched carrying a large campaign banner and listened to the proceedings via a live Internet stream. Seating inside was limited to about three dozen people.
For most Navajos, the language issue goes beyond the election. It centers on how to preserve what the federal government once tried to eradicate and what parents were ashamed to teach their children.
The Navajo language is a defining part of the tribe's culture, said to have been handed down by deities. It's woven into creation stories and ceremonies, and spoken during legislative sessions, in dinner conversations and during Miss Navajo pageants.
More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Yes, it's part of the election, but it's an overall big picture of us as a nation, whether we honor our clans, our language, how to incorporate that," said tribal member Jaynie Parrish, 35. "This is a very big turning point for our community."
The appeals office previously dismissed the grievances against Deschene as untimely. But the tribe's Supreme Court said the office must consider the complaints' merits.
The tribe's election office and the Office of Hearings and Appeals doesn't have had a test to determine fluency. The grievances against Deschene were the first to challenge the language requirement since it became tribal law in the 1990s.
Nez said he asked the tribe's Department of Dine Education for help devising a test that would adhere to the high court's ruling , which said candidates must smoothly and skillfully speak the language and be able to understand Navajo speakers and engage in a conversation.
Deschene declined to take a fluency test Thursday.
"No one in the history of the Navajo Nation has had to take a proficiency test to be elected," said his campaign manager, Lambert Benally. "And we feel that is discriminatory. It's unfair."
Nez initially said Deschene was within his rights to decline to take the test, but attorneys for former presidential candidates Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne disagreed. Nez later said Friday during the hearing in Window Rock that Deschene either must take the test or could be called to testify on his language ability.
The 27,000-square-mile reservation is larger than any American Indian land base, and covers sections of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Almost two-thirds of the 300,000 Navajos live on the reservation that has some of the most iconic landscapes in the Southwest and is rich in natural resources.