Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly approves language fluency referendum

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Navajo voters will decide whether to amend the Navajo and English language fluency qualifications for the tribal presidency and vice presidency before a belated election is held to determine the Nation's next president.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on Monday signed a resolution calling for a referendum scheduled to take place before a special election to determine who will be the next president and fill six vacancies on the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors.

The Navajo language fluency requirement has been a source of contention during the election.

"An issue as important and decisive as this, it is indeed in the best interest of the Navajo people for a referendum to begin the healing process," Shelly wrote in a memorandum to Speaker LoRenzo Bates and the council.

The president urged the council and the election administration to "promptly hold a discussion regarding election events" and to develop a new timeline to include the referendum.

"It is very important that notification of significant election dates is provided to the Navajo people as soon as possible," Shelly wrote.

The referendum presents voters with a proposed modification of the section of tribal law that focuses on the language fluency qualifications for the presidency and vice presidency.

Under current tribal law, the president and vice president must fluently speak and understand Navajo, and read and write English. The referendum would change that qualification to say that both candidates must speak and understand the Navajo and English languages, but their ability to do so would be determined by the people through the votes cast for the candidates.

Last month, the election administration announced that a special election would be held on April 21 between presidential candidates Joe Shirley Jr., who finished first in the primary, and Russell Begaye, who finished third. Earlier, second-place finisher Chris Deschene was disqualified for refusing to take a fluency test.

The announcement of the special election date came days after the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered the presidential election be conducted between Shirley and Begaye.

"This election is still unresolved until the people can vote for two legitimate candidates," Shirley said in an email on Monday. "The action of President Shelly was irresponsible and has created greater disharmony in the middle of an ongoing election process."

The Navajo Nation Council voted 19-1 in favor of the legislation calling for the referendum during a special session on March 13 in Window Rock, Ariz.

Shirley added that the decision by the Supreme Court to have the election between Begaye and himself is "justified" and "fair" for the Navajo people and it is "evident that a minority of council delegates took siege of the entire election process."

"We must end the delay and install credible leadership in Window Rock," he wrote. "Give the Navajo people the opportunity to vote on ballots that are both valid and fair under the law."

Multiple attempts to contact Begaye for comment on Monday were unsuccessful.

The resolution signed by Shelly also states that after the referendum is certified by the election administration, the speaker would call a special session to address the presidential election.

It also authorizes the election administration, with the advice and assistance of the Office of Legislative Counsel and the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, to prepare and finalize the ballot language for the referendum.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who proposed the referendum during the special session, said he was pleased with Shelly's concurrence.

During the special session, Tsosie said the referendum would allow the Navajo people to participate in establishing the qualifications for the top offices as well as addressing the disenfranchisement felt by some voters.

"I think things are finally falling in place for the Navajo voters," Tsosie said on Monday.

When asked whether voter approval of the changes would result in a new candidacy and election process for the presidency, Tsosie said there would be many possibilities and it is possible that candidates who were "so-called non-fluent" may be qualified to run.

The referendum was included in a resolution authorizing $317,891 in supplemental funding from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to the Navajo Election Administration for the special election.

Delegate Walter Phelps, who represents Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Leupp, Tolani Lake and Tsídii To'ii chapters in Arizona, cast the sole opposing vote.

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.