Navajo Nation Council fails to override language veto

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — Members of the Navajo Nation Council on Thursday failed to override a presidential veto that would have amended the Navajo language fluency requirements for candidates seeking tribal office.

Legislation containing the override failed by a vote of 13 in favor and five opposed. It needed at least 16 votes to pass during a special session in the council chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. On Oct. 28, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly vetoed the bill that would have kept the current Navajo language fluency requirements for candidates seeking tribal office in place and would add that the language proficiency is determined by voters.

In Shelly's veto message to the council, he wrote about the significance the Navajo language has for the tribe and about consulting the Navajo people about the fluency issue. He also wrote that the amendment was intended to only help disqualified presidential candidate Chris Deschene.

The tribe's Supreme Court on Oct. 31 upheld a lower court's decision to disqualify Deschene by default judgment after he declined to answer questions asked of him in Navajo to determine his fluency.

The high court also upheld the ruling made to the Navajo Election Administration to replace Deschene's name with Delegate Russell Begaye, who finished third in the Aug. 26 primary election, and to reprint the ballots reflecting that change.

Begaye did not attend the special session. Earlier in the day, Begaye was at a hearing for a grievance filed against him by former presidential candidate Myron McLaughlin with the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals.

The grievance is challenging Begaye's qualification for the tribal presidency, and the hearing will reconvene at 9 a.m. today in Window Rock.

Begaye's vice presidential candidate, Delegate Jonathan Nez, was excused from the session after he explained that his involvement with the override would be a conflict of interest, which was outlined in a memorandum he received from the Office of Legislative Counsel.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored the override bill, said its passage would "allow healing" and would end the "disenfranchisement" for those who are questioning the tribe's election process.

In a presentation to the council, University of Arizona assistant professor Karletta Chief said the election administration has not defined Navajo language fluency, as well as not developing any assessment to test a candidate's ability to speak Navajo.

She included an analysis for the amount of time each of the 17 presidential candidates spoke Navajo to either answer questions or to make statements during the five presidential forums that were held prior to the primary election.

In her analysis, she reviewed the online video of the forums in Crownpoint and at Red Rock Park near Church Rock.

At both locations, Deschene spoke more Navajo than four candidates, she said.

"It is clear that Mr. Deschene was singled out among at least four candidates," Chief said, explaining that despite hundreds of people attending or viewing the forums online, no grievance regarding a candidate's ability to speak Navajo was filed until after the primary election.

She also added that her analysis shows that the higher an education the candidate received, the less likely it is that they speak Navajo.

"We are in a new era," she said. "These educated young leaders are ready to fulfill Chief Manuelito's advice."

Delegates who voted for the bill were Tsosie, George Apachito, Mel Begay, Nelson BeGaye, Lorenzo Curley, Charles Damon II, Jonathan Hale, Walter Phelps, Danny Simpson, Roscoe Smith, Duane Tsinigine and Edmund Yazzie.

Newly appointed delegate Roland Tso voted in favor of the override.

Tso was appointed to represent the chapters of Blue Gap-Tachee, Cottonwood-Tselani, Low Mountain, Many Farms and Nazlini in Arizona, and is completing the term previously held by former Speaker Johnny Naize, who resigned in September.

Those who opposed the bill were Joshua Lavar Butler, Kenneth Maryboy, Leonard Pete, Alton Joe Shepherd and Dwight Witherspoon.

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