Chris Deschene, a Navajo Nation presidential candidate, claims he has the qualifications to lead the largest American Indian reservation in the United States, but his critics beg to differ for he lacks one thing – fluency in the Navajo language.
The right résumé
Deschene believes that he is a viable candidate for the presidency of the Navajo Nation because he is a staunch supporter of the Navajos’ tribal traditions. He owns a private law office, is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and has served in the Marines.
Differing points of view
However, his critics are quick to point out his major weakness – his lack of fluency in the Navajo language. They are calling for Deschene to be disqualified from the race, since under tribal law, fluency in the Navajo language is a requirement. For his part, Deschene claims that his language skills are improving each day and that fluency is only a matter of opinion.
Several presidential candidates and a number of other Navajo citizens have filed complaints against Deschene, urging for the removal of his name from the ballot for the November elections. However, the complaints were dismissed last week for lack of standing and timeliness. The plaintiffs can still make an appeal to the Supreme Court of the tribe, if they wish to.
A vital part of the Navajo culture is its language, which is commonly used by the tribe’s elders as their primary language. A presidential candidate in the tribal elections must attest to his or her fluency in the Navajo language, but according Kimmeth Yazzie with the Navajo Election Administration, most fluency claims are accepted without question, as the election officials are not allowed to investigate the qualifications of candidates. The department that is authorized to do this is the Office of Hearings and Appeals, and proof is only required when a challenge is filed within certain time constraints.
Deschene has argued that he never misled the voters into thinking that he knows the language thoroughly. He speaks Navajo in his online ads and whenever he visits the elders’ homes. He added that he is well-versed in traditional ceremonies and songs. Acknowledging that he could improve his language skills, Deschesne has also expressed a personal goal to be completely fluent in Navajo by the end of his first term.
One critic of Deschene’s lack of language fluency admitted that he appreciated the latter’s willingness to learn the language, but he added that Deschene should seek office once he is fluent, maybe in the next election in four years’ time.
No definitive testing of fluency
Michele Kiser teaches Navajo at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. According to her, it is very difficult to determine if a person is fluent in a language. Although teachers can take proficiency tests in writing, reading, and speaking, no defined set of parameters or standards exists for fluency. Approximately 169,000 people still speak Navajo, at least in their homes, but the data do not show how many of them are fluent speakers.
This is the first time that challenges have been filed against a presidential candidate due to language issues. At this point, time will tell if Deschesne’s efforts to lead the Navajo Nation will meet with success.