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Navajo Fluency Referendum Vote is Today

Navajo Fluency Referendum Vote is Today
July 21
10:12 2015

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

But can you say it in Navajo?

Depending on Today’s vote, future Navajo presidential and vice presidential candidates may not have to.

The long-awaited and much debated fluency referendum is here. Early voting had already begun. A simple majority is needed for passage. If the referendum is approved it will be in effect for the 2018 Navajo presidential election.

On July 21 Navajo voters will turn out to the polls to decide if the future trumps the past.

Under Navajo law a contender for the top executive office had to be fluent in Navajo and English. That criteria burst into the spotlight in 2014 when two failed presidential contenders challenged the fluency of primary runner-up Chris Clark Deschene.

Deschene – who has since accepted a job with the federal government in Washington D.C. – is an attorney, engineer and Marine veteran. His strong showing came as a surprise to many. Deschene’s ascendance seemed to signal a rift between the traditional old guard and the younger generation of Navajos.

Older Navajos today who are parents or grandparents were forcibly removed from their homes as children and sent to boarding schools, where they often faced discipline if caught speaking their traditional language. Many returned to the reservation believing their children would have a better life if they spoke only English.

Was Deschene a symbol of that?

President Russell Begaye

President Russell Begaye

When questions about his fluency first emerged, Deschene offered different replies – that he understood it, but was still learning to speak it. Curiously, many of his supporters swore that Deschene was fluent, even as the candidate himself stopped short of saying that.

Eventually Deschene did suggest that he was fluent. But he refused to prove it during a hearing before the Office of Hearings and Appeals, he repeated the same Navajo phrase to every question.

Even his supporters evolved, changing their argument from Deschene is fluent to it shouldn’t matter – the people have the right to choose whomever they want.

A grassroots group backing Deschene tried to delay the presidential run-off between eventual winner Russell Begaye and former two-time president Joe Shirley, Jr. in hopes of holding the fluency referendum before a new president was elected.

Several council delegates even offered legislation to amend Navajo law, striking the fluency requirement, or allowing write-in votes for any candidate.

The Navajo Supreme Court ruled that the issue was too important to be decided by a majority of 24 delegates, and ordered that a referendum be held to allow all the Navajo people to decide.

There was an immediate backlash against Chief Justice Herb Yazzie, which led to his eventual retirement in May.

President Russell Begaye believes the fluency requirement should remain in place. Many agree, noting that the language was a gift from their deities. The Navajo language also played an important role in winning World War II.

Navajo is the most spoken of all American Indian languages. U.S. Census figures estimate that slightly more than half of the 300,000 Navajos speak their native tongue.

Now the day is almost here.

After all, what is in a name? A choonh – say the “oo” through the nose – by any other, would smell as sweet.

Polls are open until 7pm tonight

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