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Navajo Nation president vetoes bill to amend Navajo language

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly vetoed legislation on Tuesday that would have amended the Navajo language fluency requirement for individuals seeking elected tribal offices.

In response, presidential candidate Chris Deschene has "paused" his campaign, calling the future of his candidacy "uncertain" in a prepared statement.

"It's too early to speculate the future of my service to the Navajo people. I have spent my career helping to solve serious problems facing our nation," Deschene said, closing his statement by encouraging people to vote.

In a two-page veto message to the Navajo Nation Council, Shelly wrote that the bill — which the council passed last week — was "only intended to help one candidate who has been disqualified."

Deschene was disqualified as a presidential candidate after he declined to answer questions asked of him in the Navajo language to determine his fluency during an Oct. 9 hearing by the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals.

"The court has ruled on this matter and its decision should not be so easily or hastily disregarded," Shelly wrote in his message.

On Tuesday evening, Delegate Leonard Tsosie introduced legislation to override Shelly's veto.

The bill was posted on the council's website to start a five-day public comment period, which ends Nov. 3. It was assigned to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee and the council, where final authority rests.

The president's veto comes a day after a motion was filed in the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. The motion asks that the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors and the Navajo Election Administration be held in contempt of court for not complying with the high court's Oct. 23 ruling that, in accordance with tribal law, Deschene's name be removed from the ballot and replaced with Delegate Russell Begaye, who finished third in the primary election.

Attorneys for former presidential candidates Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne filed the motion and order to show cause at 4:30 p.m. Monday.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing about the motion for 10 a.m. Friday in Chinle District Court in Chinle, Ariz.

In a special meeting on Monday, the election board maintained it is proceeding with the election as scheduled and is continuing to protect the voting rights of the Navajo people.

Edison Wauneka, executive director of the election office, declined to comment on Tuesday about the motion.

In his veto message, Shelly also wrote about the significance the Navajo language has for the tribe.

"The Diné language is sacred. Navajo leaders should have both language and cultural fluency in order to be qualified. Every society has an obligation to hold onto their traditions. If we lose our language and culture, who are we?" he wrote.

In his message, Shelly added that the Navajo people should be consulted about the fluency issue, whether through discussion or a referendum.

"A thoughtful, deliberative conversation should occur, not a hasty action a week before the scheduled election date," he wrote.

He said the tribe should expect the next administration to take up the issue and implement ways to increase language access and fluency by creating opportunities for elders and youth to interact and share cultural knowledge.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.