WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — Chris Deschene sat before a tribal hearing officer and was asked a series of basic questions, including one about how a resolution becomes law. The catch: He had to answer in Navajo.
Deschene repeatedly refused, saying it was not right that he be singled out and tested on his language ability. He has said time and again on the campaign trail that he is proficient and, therefore, qualified for the top elected post on the country's largest Indian reservation.
"It's a fair question. He's a presidential candidate," said David Jordan, an attorney for one of the people challenging Deschene's candidacy. "We're not asking him the Pythagorean theorem in Navajo. We're asking how a resolution becomes law."
Minutes later, tribal hearing officer Richie Nez said he had no choice but to rule against Deschene because he refused to answer questions in Navajo. In a written ruling Thursday, he disqualified Deschene from the November general election.
Deschene vowed to appeal the decision and must do so within 10 days. The tribe's Supreme Court likely would consider the case on an expedited basis.
Absentee ballots already have been sent out and early voting is under way for the election that is less than four weeks away. Tribal officials have said the language dispute is threatening to postpone the presidential election. If Deschene loses his appeal, the third-place finisher in the primary election would face Joe Shirley Jr.
The dispute has brought attention to a provision in tribal law that requires presidential candidates to be fluent in Navajo. The language is a defining part of the tribe's culture, said to have been handed down by deities. It is spoken during legislative sessions, in dinner conversations and during Miss Navajo pageants.
Tribal members believe that the presidential language requirement is essential to making sure that the language remains a vital part of life on the reservation.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language. Of the tribe's more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.
Deschene has touted a resume that includes being a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a Marine and a lawyer. He said he should not be subjected to a standard of fluency in Navajo that isn't well-defined. His refusals to answer basic questions were actually in Navajo on Thursday, but he would not speak the language much beyond that.
Two of Deschene's opponents in the primary election brought the challenge to his candidacy. Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne said Deschene lied when he attested to speaking the language fluently on his candidate application.
Deschene said he believes the case goes beyond fluency. He said he is hopeful the Supreme Court also considers the people who have cast votes for him and a traditional law that says Navajos have the right to choose their leaders.
Dozens of his supporters gathered outside the hearing, waving signs that read "My Vote Counts" and wearing T-shirts with Navajo-language messages of support.
Attorneys for Tsosie and Whitethorne said that skirts the real issue. Deschene declined to take a fluency test designed by personnel from the tribe's education department and did not answer questions in Navajo in a videotaped deposition earlier this week either.
"The only way to prove whether he speaks it or not is to answer in Navajo," said Whitehorne's attorney, Justin Jones. "At least try."