A cultural debate leaves the
presidency in limbo.
Several days after Election Day, Janene Yazzie
sat in the sand with her 3-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Seleste,
between the towering red rocks outside Lupton, Arizona, on the
Navajo Nation. Her husband, Kern, their 5-year-old son, and her
friend, Kim Smith, the self-titled "responsible auntie," took
turns firing a .22 at a target propped up by a soda can several
hundred yards away. The group was enjoying a respite from tribal
politics. On Nov. 4, Navajo voters at the polls had been instructed
not to select a president. Though candidate Chris Deschene's name
was on the ballot, he had been disqualified for not speaking Navajo
fluently, a formal requirement for office. A special presidential
election was planned, but had not yet been scheduled.
Both Smith, 30, and Yazzie, 27, who are community organizers,
fully support the fluency requirement. "I don't think it is radical
to require the president of our tribal nation (to) understand the
language of the people he's aspiring to lead," Yazzie said, as Smith
took aim at the target.
tribe lacks any legal precedent for determining language fluency,
and the months of procedural drama left many feeling disenfranchised.
The controversy, however, was more than an institutional debacle,
as voters found themselves in a fierce debate over cultural identity
and ideal leadership. Fluency is steadily declining as more and
more Navajos leave the reservation. Deschene, a well-educated 43-year-old
former Marine, was popular with many voters, especially younger
ones, eager to abandon the tribe's old guard. His opponents, though,
found the language question insurmountable.
As Smith, Yazzie and others see it, Navajo leaders should have
a deep understanding of the tribe's unique traditions and values.
Yazzie is tired of hearing that English is as relevant as Navajo.
"We don't have problems with our communication with Washington,
or the state, or the feds," she said. "We have problems with the
to our own communities."