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Navajo Court May Disqualify Presidential Candidate Over Language Credential


One of the leading contenders in the Navajo Nation's presidential election this November might be kicked out of the race today. It turns out, the candidate wasn't completely honest about how well he spoke the Navajo language. And that's an issue because many tribal elders speak only Navajo. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Chris Deschene is working on his Navajo.

CHRIS DESCHENE: In Navajo, when I introduce myself, I say, I am from these clans. So I say (speaking Navajo).

MORALES: Last spring, when Deschene decided to run for Navajo Nation president, he took an oath saying he spoke the language fluently. He later admitted his Navajo did need some work. Complaints about Deschene's language skills have gone all the way up to the Navajo Supreme Court. It will rule whether Deschene can even stay in the race. In the meantime, he says his fluency is a matter of opinion.

DESCHENE: Is there a few words that I haven't picked up? Yes. But I wouldn't need a translator.

MORALES: Deschene blames his limitations on what he calls the tribe's cultural destruction. Up until the 1960s, the U.S. federal government forced thousands of American Indians to attend boarding schools - among them, Deschene's mother. While there, she was punished for speaking her native language. The U.S. government later relocated his parents to Southern California, where Chris was born.

DESCHENE: English was a primary language in the home at that point.

MORALES: Deschene says he brings a wealth of experience to the table beyond language skills. He graduated from the Naval Academy, 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.

DESCHENE: Put all that together, what I say is I'm well qualified to be a president of the Navajo Nation.

KERRY THOMPSON: The fact that he's - that he's still learning is very representative of the people that he means to lead.

MORALES: Kerry Thompson is a Navajo tribal member and an anthropology professor at Northern Arizona University. She points out half the Navajo tribe on and off the reservation doesn't speak the language. Still, tribal member and social scientist Manley Begay says Deschene may be able to memorize speeches in Navajo, but that isn't good enough.

MANLEY BEGAY: How you use a Navajo language really is very closely tied to one's heart. So when you speak in Navajo, you know, you basically see from the heart.

MORALES: In the primary, 17 people vied for the presidency. Voters cut that number down to two - Deschene and his opponent, Joe Shirley, Jr.


JOE SHIRLEY: (Singing in Navajo).

MORALES: Shirley often sings traditional songs like this one on the campaign trail. He says he does it to instill a sense of pride.

SHIRLEY: This is Navajo land. This is Navajo people. So if we sing our song, that's how we relate. And we do it all in Navajo. Like I said, 99 percent of how I relate to my people is Navajo language.

MORALES: Shirley is fluent in the language and has served in public office for many years, including two terms as Navajo president.

SHIRLEY: I think it's very important that the presidency serve as a role model and carrying on that way of life and that culture. If there should be a non-speaking Navajo to take the helm, I'm not exactly sure where that person is going to take us.

MORALES: Whoever takes the helm will face some stiff challenges, including a 50 percent unemployment rate on the reservation, a critical housing shortage and a suicide rate that's twice the national average. For NPR News I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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