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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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A Question Of Fluency On The Navajo Nation
by Wyatt Orme - High Country News
credits: All photos by Nick Cote for The New York Times

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.

The 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 communication … to our own communities."

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