When the polls close Tuesday on the Navajo Nation, voters will finally have put to rest a question that has lingered for five months: who will be the next president?
In the running are Joe Shirley Jr., who previously served two terms as president, and Russell Begaye, a businessman who served one term on the Navajo Nation Council. The winning candidate will lead a population divided by questions about candidate qualifications, election law, traditional values and distribution of power.
The election, which comes with a $317,000 price tag, was originally scheduled for November. It was postponed by a lengthy legal battle that pitted all three branches of the Navajo government against each other and prompted voters and attorneys to declare that the Nation was in a “state of crisis.”
The dispute, which led the judicial and legislative branches to scrutinize election law, also resulted in one candidate being disqualified from the race and the entire Board of Election Supervisors being removed from their posts. Sitting president Ben Shelly, who badly lost his bid for re-election, took the oath of office in January and has served an unprecedented extended term while the Nation decided when to hold the election and who was allowed to run.
While Tuesday’s election marks the end of a controversy over whose names would appear on the ballot, it does not clear up disputes over language fluency and election law – the very things that led to the delay in the first place.
As voters head warily to the polls to decide which candidate will hold the top elected position, a larger question still looms over the 27,000-square-mile reservation: how did we get here?
Election season began more than a year ago when candidates started announcing their intentions to run and paying the $1,500 filing fee. A total of 17 candidates faced off in the August 26 primary, which came as grassroots groups asked poignant questions about government reform and called for widespread improvements in education, infrastructure, housing, health care, public safety and local governance.
Ahead of the primary election, volunteers distributed a 12-page document titled “Blueprint for a Better Navajo Nation” to all of the presidential candidates. Among other things, the document called for the president’s salary to be quadrupled to more than $200,000 in order to attract well-qualified candidates.
A total of 51,300 votes were cast in the primary election, representing about 40 percent of registered voters. Shirley led the polls with 10,910 votes and Chris Deschene, a Marine Corps veteran and former Arizona state representative, came in second with 9,734 votes.
But Deschene’s victory was short-lived. Within days of the primary, two former candidates filed grievances with the Nation’s Office of Hearings and Appeals, alleging Deschene had lied on his application form when he asserted he spoke fluent Navajo – a requirement for the offices of president and vice president, as prescribed by tribal election law.
Deschene, backed by a group of progressive voters, claimed fluency was a matter of opinion and that he would become fluent by the end of his first term. In its initial ruling, Hearings and Appeals dismissed the grievances, saying they were untimely and lacked standing, but the petitioners then appealed the decision to the tribe’s Supreme Court.
Finding the Navajo language is sacred and that fluency is a “reasonable requirement,” for president, the high court remanded the case back to Hearings and Appeals, which disqualified Deschene by default judgment when he refused to submit to a fluency test.
“I respectfully decline to put myself in front of the whole world to answer a test that has not been vetted, has not been approved,” Deschene said in court.
“I am Navajo,” he said. “Let the people decide. I spend each and every day speaking to our people in our Navajo language, Diné Bizaad. This decision transcends the presidential election. It’s bigger than just me. The collective rights of our people must be respected.”
With just days to spare before the general election, Deschene appealed the decision and again landed in front of the Supreme Court. The court did not address the question of fluency, but rather whether a disqualified candidate could remain on the ballot.
Four days before the election, the high court permanently disqualified Deschene and ordered the vote to be postponed. It also ordered new ballots to be printed with Russell Begaye, who came in third during the primary, replacing Deschene.
When the Board of Election Supervisors failed to immediately postpone the election and reprint ballots, the Supreme Court held the nine-member board in contempt and removed them from their positions. The exception was Edison Wauneka, executive director of the Navajo Election Administration and a former presidential candidate who came in fifth during the primary election.
Wauneka, who faced contempt charges and possible arrest, agreed in court to postpone the election, though he verbally disagreed with the ruling, saying Navajo fundamental law allows voters to select their own leaders.
“I have no choice,” Wauneka said during the hearing, while Deschene supporters protested outside the courthouse. “I have to comply with law.”
Yet even after Wauneka agreed to reprint the ballots, controversy lingered over whose names would be on it. The same day the Supreme Court postponed the election, attorneys filed a 162-page motion against Russell Begaye, seeking to disqualify him from the race because of his involvement as a stakeholder with the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company.
The courts later dismissed the motion, clearing Begaye to run, but it took four more months for an election to be scheduled. In the meantime, the 23rd Navajo Nation Council took the oath of office in January, and Ben Shelly agreed to continue as president until an election could be held.
In February, the Supreme Court ordered an election to occur “as soon as possible and without further delay,” and struck down all continued efforts to postpone the vote – including legislation that would have allowed a repeat of the primary election with all 17 candidates on the ballot. In March, the high court ordered the election to take place April 21.
Tuesday’s election comes despite objections from the legislative and executive branches, which both have tried to further stall the election until after a special referendum vote is held to allow the people to decide whether to change the language fluency requirement.
A Divided Nation
The Navajo language, or Diné Bizaad, is a complicated, verb-based language that is inextricably tied to culture. For generations, it has bound Navajo residents together, to their homeland and to their shared legacy.
Now, the language is a divisive force that is threatening to split the Nation into two: the traditional people who believe the top elected officials must speak fluent Navajo to understand the past, and a growing group of young, progressive people who claim the Native language does little to help the Nation compete on a global scale.
With an estimated 169,000 speakers, Navajo is the most commonly spoken of all Native American languages, but it also has been called endangered because many children are growing up without it. Yet immersion programs have cropped up across the reservation and educators are optimistic about revitalization.
But with fewer young people acquiring the language in their homes, the question of whether presidential candidates must be fluent remains a poignant one.
In recent months, President Shelly twice vetoed legislation that sought to address the fluency issue. Both pieces of legislation upheld the fluency requirement, but stated that voters have the right to determine whether candidates can speak and understand the tribe’s language well enough to hold the office.
In his veto, Shelly said the people should engage in a thoughtful discussion about language and make a decision at the polls.
A special referendum vote has been scheduled for June 9.
In a final, eleventh-hour attempt to postpone the election, Window Rock District Judge Carol Perry on Friday ruled that the vote couldn’t take place as scheduled. In her ruling, which came just before the close of the business day, Perry found that the election could not occur before the referendum vote on the fluency issue.
Deschene applauded the decision as a victory for the people. The Supreme Court is expected to take up the matter today.