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Language Becomes Key Issue In Navajo Presidential Race

Joe Shirley Jr. (left) and Chris Deschene (right)
Joe Shirley Jr. (left) and Chris Deschene (right)

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Language Becomes Key Issue In Navajo Presidential Race

Language Becomes Key Issue In Navajo Presidential Race

Joe Shirley Jr. (left) and Chris Deschene (right)

One of the leading contenders in the Navajo presidential election this November might be kicked out of the race later this week.

Why? Because he didn’t tell the complete truth about how well he spoke the Navajo language.

That’s an issue because many tribal elders speak only Navajo. However, some voters are saying it shouldn’t be an issue at all.

Chris Deschene is working on his Navajo. When he introduces himself, he identifies his clans in the native language.

Last spring when he decided to run for president he took an oath saying he spoke the language fluently. He later admitted his language skills did need some work.

Complaints against Deschene’s alleged embellishment of the truth have gone all the way up to the Navajo Supreme Court. It will rule later this week on whether Deschene can even stay in the race.

In the meantime, Deschene says his fluency is a matter of opinion.

"Is there a few words that I haven’t picked up? Yes, but I wouldn’t need a translator," he said.

In addition Deschene blames his limitations on the tribe’s cultural destruction. Up until the 1960s the United States government forced thousands of American Indians to attend boarding schools, including Deschene’s mother. While there, they were punished for speaking their native languages.

The U.S. government later relocated his parents to southern California, where Chris was born.

"English was a primary language in the home at that point," Deschene said.

There may be questions about his mastery of the Navajo language but Deschene said he brings a wealth of experience to the table. He graduated from the Naval Academy and served as a Marine officer. He has a law degree and a master’s in engineering. And he served one term as a state representative.

"Put all that together, what I say is I’m well qualified to be a  president of the Navajo Nation," he said.

Kerry Thompson agrees. She’s a Navajo tribal member and an anthropology professor at Northern Arizona University. She too moved off the reservation to go to school and find work.

"The fact that he’s still learning is very representative of the people that he means to lead," Thompson said.

In fact, about half of the Navajo tribe doesn’t speak the language.

But Manley Begay says the leader of the nation should speak Navajo fluently.

Begay is a tribal member and a social scientist at Northern Arizona University. He said Deschene may be able to memorize speeches in Navajo but that isn’t good enough.

"How you use the Navajo language is really very closely tied to one’s heart. So when you speak in Navajo you basically speak from the heart," Begay said.

Language aside, it’s been a competitive race.  In the primary election 17 people vied for the seat. Voters cut that number down to two — Deschene and his opponent, Joe Shirley Jr.

Shirley prides himself on being fluent in the Navajo language. He often sings traditional songs on the campaign trail. He said he does it to instill a sense of pride in his people.

"Singing a song with grandpa and grandma, this is Navajo land, this is Navajo people, so if we sing our song that’s how we relate," Shirley said. "We do it all in Navajo like I said 99 percent of how I relate to my people is through the Navajo language."

Shirley has served in public office for many years including two terms as Navajo president. He proposes a three-month immersion program for those who need help speaking their native tongue.

"I think it’s very important the presidency serves as a role model in carrying on that way of life and that culture," Shirley said. "If there should be an unspeaking Navajo to take the helm I’m not exactly sure where that person is going to take us."

On Friday the Navajo Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case challenging Deschene’s fluency and his eligibility to run against Shirley.

But whoever wins the election will face some stiff challenges, including a 50 percent unemployment rate, a critical housing shortage and a suicide rate that’s twice the national average.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.