Navajo high court weighs case on language fluency

AP News
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Posted: Sep 26, 2014 7:35 PM

TUBA CITY, Ariz. (AP) — The decision about whether Navajo Nation presidential candidate Chris Deschene speaks Navajo fluently enough to be on the ballot is headed back to a lower tribal court after a Navajo Nation Supreme court ruling Friday.

The tribe's high court found the Office of Hearings and Appeals shouldn't have dismissed a case against Deschene, and it reinstated grievances filed against him.

The Office of Hearings and Appeals dismissed the case earlier this month, saying the complaints weren't filed within a 10-day time frame and the plaintiffs did not have the legal authority to file them. Now, the lower court must hold a hearing next week to determine whether to disqualify Deschene from the November ballot.

The plaintiffs' attorneys say Deschene lied about being able to effectively communicate in Navajo when he entered the race to preside over the nation's largest American Indian reservation. Tribal law requires that the president speak the Navajo language fluently.

Deschene said fluency is a matter of opinion, and his language skills are progressing.

"They rejected any notion that 'fluency' is too ambiguous," said David Jordan, an attorney representing Dale Tsosie, one of the people who filed the complaint.

Lambert Benally, Deschene's campaign manager, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday afternoon.

Deschene is set to face former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr.

Navajo election officials, meanwhile, are trying to figure out how to proceed. Kimmeth Yazzie, of the Navajo Election Administration, said ballots were supposed to begin printing Thursday in order to meet an Oct. 6 mailing deadline for absentee voters.

"I told the printer: 'Just keep your fingers off that print button for now,' " Yazzie said.

Yazzie plans to spend the weekend thinking of different scenarios his office may have to carry out, depending on what the Office of Hearings and Appeals decides. "The first option is not to postpone the election. But if worse comes to worse, we got to have a plan for it," Yazzie said.

The fluency issue came to a head only recently when several Navajo citizens and presidential candidates filed grievances against Deschene, saying he shouldn't appear on the presidential ballot. The challenges were dismissed as untimely or lacking legal standing. The rulings were appealed to the tribe's Supreme Court.

The grievances filed against Deschene were the first over the language requirements, said Richie Nez, chief hearing officer for the Office of Hearings and Appeals.

Other presidential candidates have been challenged on term limits and residency, though living or having a continual presence on the reservation is no longer required.

The Navajo language is a vital part of the tribe's culture, most commonly spoken among elderly Navajo people as their first language and less so among younger generations.


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