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Navajos Have Spoken: Voters Will Set Fluency Requirement for Top Leaders

Alysa Landry

The Navajo people have spoken.

Voters on July 21 narrowly approved a controversial change to the election code, which required the Nation’s top two elected leaders to be fluent in the Navajo language. Fifty-two percent – or 13,017 people – voted in favor of amending the code, finally putting to rest the long-simmering debate over the requirement that the president and vice president be able to understand and speak Navajo fluently, and read and write English.

The amended code, which goes into effect for the 2018 presidential election, still requires candidates to speak fluent Navajo, but it adds the provision that “this ability shall be determined by the Navajo voter when he/she casts a ballot.” In the past, fluency was determined by election officials or, in extreme cases, by the courts.

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According to unofficial results tallied by the Navajo Election Administration, 48 percent of voters – or 11,778 people – voted against the change.

“Going into it, the Nation was divided on it,” said LoRenzo Bates, speaker for the Navajo Nation Council. “The Nation is still divided on it, but it’s been decided.”

Only 21 percent of the Nation’s 120,000 registered voters cast ballots in a rare referendum vote that came nearly a year after the language debate was first thrust into the open. Controversy erupted after last August’s primary election, during which 17 candidates squared off for a chance to be the Nation’s eighth president. Former two-term president Joe Shirley Jr., and political newcomer Chris Deschene came in first and second, respectively.

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But Deschene was disqualified following a lengthy legal battle that began when two former presidential candidates complained that he didn’t speak fluent Navajo. The dispute ultimately pitted the Navajo Supreme Court against the Board of Election Supervisors and the Navajo Election Administration.

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Russell Begaye, the third-place finisher in the primary race, triumphed in a delayed general election in April. He and Vice President Jonathan Nez took office in May and opposed a change to the language requirements.

RELATED: Russell Begaye Wins Navajo Election: Time to Unite and Move Forward

In a statement released July 22, Nez responded to the election results and called on the people to prioritize language revitalization, protecting it from becoming extinct.

“We believe that the Navajo people know the importance and the value of the Navajo language as the foundation of our Navajo Nation,” he said. “As the Nation advances, now, more than ever, there will be a revitalization of the Navajo language in our schools, places of work and, most importantly, in our homes.”

The vote was about more than language, however. It struck deeply at the changing ways of life on this 27,000-square-mile reservation, which has remained largely untouched even in the modern era.

Proponents of the referendum cited the changing times and the trends among the young generation to leave the reservation in search of education and career opportunities. Those most ardently opposed to the referendum pointed to desires to preserve a language central to the Navajo culture – and one that, in the case of the Navajo Code Talkers, helped sway the tide of World War II and global history.

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Council delegate Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored the referendum legislation, said the change helps ensure the best-qualified candidates have a chance as the top elected offices.

“This is a good thing for the Navajo people,” he said in a statement. “This means that you are not shutting out a group of young people from becoming leaders.”

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