Election for language referendum set

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A date has been scheduled for the referendum election to decide whether to amend the language fluency qualifications for the tribal presidency and vice presidency.

Edison Wauneka, executive director of the Navajo Election Administration, confirmed on Friday that the referendum election will be on June 9.

Wauneka said tribal law mandates a referendum election take place 60 to 90 days after the resolution containing the referendum is signed by the president. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed the resolution authorizing the language referendum into law on March 16.

"So it's based on the election code that we set the date, so it's by law," Wauneka said.

The April 21 special election to decide the president is proceeding as scheduled, he said. Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye and running for the seat.

The election administration is working to address an $84,000 funding shortfall for the special election, Wauneka said. He declined to explain how that is being addressed.

The referendum asks Navajo voters to modify the language fluency qualifications by having a candidate's ability to speak and understand Navajo and English be determined by voters when they cast ballots.

Under current tribal law, the president and vice president must fluently speak and understand Navajo, as well as read and write English.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who proposed the referendum during the council's March 13 special session, said he was "OK" with the June 9 date.

"This fluency question has to be resolved. Let's resolve it once and for all," he said.

Tsosie explained that when he proposed the referendum, an attempt was made to hold it within 30 days after the president signed the resolution, but tribal law prohibits such action.

He said he is "not too crazy" that the special election to determine the presidency is taking place before the referendum, despite the resolution stipulating that the referendum election take place first.

The tribe's Supreme Court ordered the election administration on March 20 to proceed with the special election.

Despite the special election continuing as planned, Tsosie said it is important for the Navajo people to reconnect with the language and one way to achieve that is by providing funding for programs that focus on language revitalization.

He added he is thinking about sponsoring legislation to establish a Navajo language commission.

When the high court ordered the special election to continue as scheduled, the justices also ordered the controller's office to allocate $317,000 in supplemental funding to the election administration to pay for the election.

That move has been challenged by Shelly and the council, who both say tribal law for supplemental appropriations must be followed.

As of Friday, the Supreme Court had not taken action on the filings submitted by Shelly, the council and the tribe's Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice is asking the high court to clarify how the acting controller can appropriate funding to the election administration without violating tribal law.

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.