By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Voters of the Navajo Nation on Tuesday approved a controversial change to a requirement that the tribe's top two elected leaders must be fluent in the native language in order to hold office, election officials said.
The long-simmering issue has caused divisions in the largest Native American tribe in the United States, comprising more than 300,000 people, at a time when the numbers of Navajo language speakers are reported to be dwindling.
Over a fifth of the more than 122,000 registered voters on a reservation that spans three states cast ballots in a rare referendum election.
Unofficial results based on reports from all 110 chapters showed that members voted 13,017 to 11,778 to let residents decide, at balloting time, if a candidate for president or vice president was proficient enough in the language to hold office.
The vote focused on the desire by some Navajos to preserve a language central to their culture, beliefs and way of life.
Others cited the changing times, with more people leaving the reservation in search of school and career opportunities.
"This is a good thing for the Navajo people," said council delegate Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored the referendum. "This means that you are not shutting out a group of young people from becoming leaders."
In the past, fluency could be enforced by the courts.
The language debate gained traction last year when a presidential finalist was booted from the general election ballot for refusing to prove his Navajo fluency in a case decided by the Navajo Supreme Court.
Candidate Chris Deschene finished second in the primary, but his candidacy was challenged by two losing candidates, who said he lied about his language proficiency.
The dispute delayed the November 2014 election until April. Legislative efforts to undo the removal were unsuccessful.
New president Russell Begaye had strongly supported retaining the fluency requirement, saying it was important for leaders to speak the language.
A spokesman declined comment on the vote late on Tuesday.
The language has a prominent place in U.S. history, with a group of 29 Navajo code talkers developing an unbreakable cipher based on it to help Allied forces win World War Two. The last survivor of the original group died in New Mexico in June 2014.
The Navajo Nation sprawls over 27,000 sq miles (71,030 sq km), across the states of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
(Editing by Victoria Cavaliere and Clarence Fernandez)