Editorial: Referendum election will set tone for Navajo Nation's future

The Daily Times editorial board
The Daily Times

Next week, Navajo voters will weigh in on a measure that could drastically affect how the tribe's top leaders are elected in the future. The results of Tuesday's referendum will create a blueprint for choosing Navajo Nation leaders in the 2018 presidential election and subsequent races.

The referendum asks voters to modify the language qualifications for the president and vice president. Right now, candidates must fluently speak and understand Navajo. But, if the referendum passes, that requirement would be softened, allowing voters to determine a candidate's fluency by casting their ballots. While the measure doesn't eliminate the fluency requirement, it effectively skirts the issue.

Without weighing in on the measure — we'll leave that to voters — we'd like to urge tribal members to cast their ballots. This referendum stems directly from the deep dissatisfaction voters and lawmakers expressed during the recent presidential election.

Here's a quick recap: After finishing in second place in the primary election, presidential candidate Chris Deschene was disqualified after he refused — pointing out that he was being singled out — to take a test to determine his fluency in Navajo. This sparked months of legal challenges and a grassroots movement to address the fluency requirement. In March, then-President Ben Shelly signed a bill to authorize the referendum election, and the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors approved the ballot language last month.

As we have said before, we understand that language fluency is a complex issue. Although we said that the time to have a debate on fluency was not during a presidential election, we acknowledged that it's a discussion well worth having. Now the time has come for tribal members to make their voices heard.

While some may be tired of a debate that has lasted nearly a year, we believe the referendum is critical for the tribe. The language is the very bedrock of Navajo culture, expressing world views and religious beliefs. But, at the same time, the number of people who speak the language has steadily declined and sincere efforts to reverse that trend — Diné-focused charter schools, popular films translated into Navajo, summer language camps, to name a few — have failed to turn the tide. The effect is to exclude some good, mostly younger, potential candidates. This question should not be decided by a handful of voters.

We have concerns that weariness and apathy will stop voters from turning out on Tuesday. Last week, a voter registration specialist at the Shiprock election administration office told us that only about 100 people have voted since early voting started on June 22. We hope that's not an indicator of turnout on Tuesday. Early, walk-in and absentee voting ends Friday, and polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at every chapter house.