Navajo language fluency is a 'reasonable' requirement for president, tribal Supreme Court says

James Fenton
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — At a hearing in Tuba City District Court on Friday, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court reinstated and sent grievances filed against Navajo Nation presidential candidate Chris Deschene back to the tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals.

The decision by the high court could mean Deschene, who is running against fellow presidential candidate Joe Shirley Jr., will be disqualified from running because he cannot speak and understand the Navajo language fluently, a stipulation of tribal law for presidential candidates.

On Sept. 5, former presidential candidates Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne, who lost in the Aug. 26 primary election, filed separate grievances that were later combined against Deschene over his lack of qualifications to run for the top tribal office. The Office of Hearings and Appeals dismissed the grievances on Sept. 10, on a technicality — the grievances were filed too late.

Tsosie's attorney appealed to the Supreme Court, which has now placed the young candidate's political race — and possibly the timing of the general election scheduled for Nov. 4 — in the balance.

Tsosie, reached by phone on Friday, was happy with the justices' decision and saw it as a victory for the Navajo language and the Navajo people.

"The appeal was reinstated. That's the good part," Tsosie said. "However, the other part that I'm ecstatic about is the preservation of the Navajo Diné language that is historical and something that is very good today that it was determined that if you're going to hold the office, you have to know Navajo and be fluent in it."

Attempts to reach Deschene on Friday were unsuccessful.

On the campaign trail, Deschene made some gaffes while speaking Navajo that have humored some and alarmed others, including Tsosie and Whitethorne. Deschene's opponent, Shirley, 66, who previously served two terms as tribal president, speaks Navajo fluently. Deschene, 43, said he is learning the language and vowed after declaring his run for the high office that he would achieve fluency with the language by the end of his first term.

Now Deschene, a lawyer and former Marine, may not have the chance to fulfill that promise.

The three-judge panel's ruling also issued a rebuke to the Office of Hearings and Appeals for its dismissal of a grievance filed against Deschene calling for his disqualification. The Court ordered the office to hold a hearing no later than next Friday.

Judicial Branch spokeswoman Karen Francis issued a release on Friday that said the court arrived at a definition of Navajo language fluency during Friday's hearing.

"The Court found that the qualification for fluency is a reasonable regulation to a candidate's right to political liberty and that it is the freedom of the people that the sacred Diné language be taught and preserved," Francis said in the release. "The Court also clarified the election law by providing a definition of being fluent in the Navajo language. The Court instructed OHA to apply that clarified law in its hearing to determine whether candidate Deschene meets the fluency requirement."

The three-judge panel based its decision, Francis wrote, on Diné bi beenahaz'áannii, which embodies traditional, customary, natural and common laws. Together, these laws are meant to preserve, protect and enhance the inherent rights, beliefs, practices and freedoms of the Navajo people.

"It was a huge victory for our elders, for us today and for the future, for our kids that are going to be born," Tsosie said. "It's a victory for them, that the language (was) preserved in that way."

Tsosie said he was upset when Deschene's representatives on Friday expressed in court what sounded to him like a dismissive attitude, that the Navajo language was only spoken at chapter houses.

"That's the picture that was painted. It brought me to tears," Tsosie said. "It's very important to learn and know the language because (the president) can go to the chapter house and hear it in the people's heart and he can then reveal what the people are really faced with. It's not just a language in the chapter house. It's a language used to bring life back to the people. Our language should be used as a prayer in the morning to our creator and we need to greet each other in Navajo and today it was determined that we need to continue that way. For that I'm grateful."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.