Navajo voters are in election limbo as the tribe continues wrestling with questions about whether one presidential candidate meets the minimum requirements to hold office.
With less than four weeks to go before the general election, the tribe’s Office of Hearings and Appeals disqualified Chris Deschene when he refused to take a Navajo fluency test or answer basic questions in Navajo. Hearing Officer Richie Nez based his decision on tribal election law, which requires presidential candidates to speak fluent Navajo.
The office found “clear and convincing evidence” that Deschene “could not meet the standard of fluency,” Nez wrote in the final ruling October 9. “Respondent does not have the right to refuse to answer simple questions by the petitioners.”
The ruling means Deschene’s name may be removed from the ballot, even though early and absentee voting have already begun, said Edison Wauneka, director of the Navajo Election Administration. The tribe also may be forced to hold a special election to choose a president – and it is not yet clear whose names will be on the ballot, he said.
Everything is on hold until October 19, allowing Deschene 10 days to appeal the ruling to the Navajo Supreme Court. Deschene, 43, has consistently pointed to traditional laws that say Navajos have the right to choose their leaders. He also claims fluency tests are unfair and target him specifically.
During the hearing October 9, Deschene declined to answer questions about where he was from, what his clans are and whether he could describe in Navajo how a resolution becomes law.
“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,” he said in court.
In a statement released after the hearing, Deschene vowed to appeal the decision.
“I am Navajo,” he said. “Let the people decide. I spend each and every day speaking to our people in our Navajo language, Dine Bizaad. This decision transcends the presidential election. It's bigger than just me. The collective rights of our people must be respected.”
A former Arizona state representative, Deschene served in the Marine Corps and earned a law degree before running for president of the nation’s largest American Indian tribe. He ran against 16 other candidates in the August primary, coming in second to Joe Shirley Jr., who formerly held the office for two terms.
Although he struggled with the language as he campaigned, Deschene promised to become fluent by the end of his first term. Yet two of his opponents in the primary election, Hank Whitethorne and Dale Tsosie, filed grievances claiming Deschene lied on his candidate application when he attested to speaking fluent Navajo.
The Office of Hearings and Appeals initially dismissed the grievances, saying they were untimely and lacked standing, but petitioners appealed the decision to the tribe’s Supreme Court. The high court on September 26 sent the case back to Hearings and Appeals after ruling that the Navajo language is sacred and fluency is a “reasonable requirement” for president.
According to U.S. Census data, more people speak Navajo than any other Native language. Of the tribe’s more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.
The case against Deschene is the first time a candidate has been challenged under the election law, which was approved by the tribe’s legislative branch in the early 1990s. No decision will be made on whether Deschene's name will be on the ballot on Election Day until after the appeal period is exhausted.
Should the Supreme Court uphold the ruling, Deschene will be disqualified from the election and Russell Begaye, a businessman and Navajo Council delegate who came in third during the primary election, will face off against Shirley.