FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajos voted Tuesday to loosen language requirements for tribal leaders, eliminating the need for them to be fluent in the Navajo language and giving voters more discretion in who can hold elected office.
The passage of the referendum also raises the possibility that the Navajo Nation could elect a non-Navajo-speaking president and vice president in the future, starting with the 2018 election. The vote is a victory for Navajos who rallied around Chris Deschene, who was disqualified from the presidential race last year for failing to prove he spoke fluent Navajo.
"It tells me that a majority of the Navajo people would like to see youth back at the leadership table," said tribal lawmaker Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored the language referendum. "It shows the Navajo democracy at work."
Others argued that not having a president speak fluent Navajo diminishes the language that is a defining part of the tribe's culture and that the federal government tried to eradicate.
Unofficial results from the tribe's elections office showed the referendum passing by more than 1,200 votes with all precincts reporting. That means Navajo voters will determine if candidates for president and vice president speak and understand the language well enough to hold office. Previously, candidates had to understand Navajo and speak it fluently, a requirement that could be enforced by tribal courts.
More than 122,000 Navajos were registered to vote in Tuesday's referendum that gave tribal members a rare chance to change tribal law. But turnout was low, around 21 percent.
About a handful of other referendum elections have been held on the reservation, including one that rejected a tribal takeover of federal health care services and three on tribal casinos. The only citizen-led ballot measures resulted in a significant cut in the number of tribal lawmakers and a presidential line-item veto.
More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, but it's not widespread among the younger generation.