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Navajo court delays presidential election in language dispute

Navajo Nation presidential candidate Chris Deschene speaks to supporters in Window Rock, Ariz., on Oct. 9. He lost another round in a language fluency dispute, and the top court has delayed the vote.
Navajo Nation presidential candidate Chris Deschene speaks to supporters in Window Rock, Ariz., on Oct. 9. He lost another round in a language fluency dispute, and the top court has delayed the vote.
(Felicia Fonseca / Associated Press)

The Navajo Nation’s top court on Thursday postponed the tribe’s presidential election to allow officials time to print new ballots without the name of a candidate who was disqualified because of questions about his fluency in the native language.

The ruling follows a decision Wednesday tossing Chris Deschene off the ballot because other contenders had disputed that he was fluent in Navajo. Tribal law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in the language.

“This is a matter of our sovereign right to exist as a Nation with its own language,” the justices wrote in the decision. “Our sacred language defines us as individuals and as a Nation.”

The latest ruling came as more than 100 people attended the regularly scheduled Navajo Nation Council meeting and scores of people concerned with the language issue protested outside the government building in Window Rock, the capital of Navajo Nation, the largest territory of a sovereign Native American nation in North America.

With its scenic rock formations, Window Rock is also considered a spiritual place, reached by a stretch of road named Navajo Code Talkers Highway, in honor of the Navajos who were crucial communicators in World War II. They spoke in Navajo, in effect a code that could not be deciphered.

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For many of the demonstrators Thursday, the Navajo language continues to hold a special place and the requirement that the president speak it is an important cultural touchstone.

It is also a tradition at odds with some of the billboards along the road into Window Rock that carry slogans illustrating the linguistic reality of the modern world for the next generation: “Climb the ladder,” “Go Out Into the World” and “Learn English.”

Wayne Claw, 65, a businessman, said his children don’t speak Navajo, nor do his grandchildren, who wonder whether they will be barred from voting at some point because of their linguistic shortfall.

“How far are you going to take this?” Claw said, quoting some of his family.

Deschene has maintained that he speaks Navajo, but he has refused to demonstrate that he can speak it fluently. That led to his disqualification, which he has fought through the tribal agencies and courts.

On Wednesday, the same Supreme Court ruled against Deschene, who finished second in the August primary. The person who placed third will be elevated to the final ballot.

Election officials were scheduled to meet with attorneys on when to schedule the vote.

Follow @latimesmuskal and @jglionna for national news

Muskal reported from Los Angeles and Glionna from Window Rock.


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