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Candidate in tribal election could lose spot on ballot

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - A candidate for tribal president on the nation's largest Indian reservation could be removed from the ballot just weeks before the election after he refused to show whether he is fluent in Navajo as required by tribal law.

In a hearing that underlined the importance of the language to the Navajo Nation, an administrative court officer said he had no choice but to rule against Chris Deschene.

"I have been pushed into a corner," said Richie Nez, of the tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals, after Deschene repeatedly declined to answer questions in Navajo.

Deschene vowed to appeal Nez's decision, meaning it's unclear whether he will appear on the ballot. He must file his appeal within 10 days to the tribe's Supreme Court, which likely will consider the case on an expedited basis.

No decision will be made on whether Deschene's name will be on the ballot on Election Day until after the appeal period.

Deschene said he is proficient in speaking Navajo and that he has proven so on the campaign trail. He said he should not be subjected to a standard of fluency in a courtroom when that standard isn't well-defined.

"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.

The case stems from grievances filed by two of Deschene's primary election opponents, who cited a Navajo law that requires anyone seeking the tribe's top elected office to be fluent in Navajo. It is the first time a candidate has been challenged under the law, approved by the Tribal Council in the early 1990s.

Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne allege Deschene lied when he attested to speaking the language fluently when he applied to be a candidate.

Attorneys for the two accused Deschene of dodging the issue. Deschene declined to take a fluency test designed by personnel from the tribe's education department and did not answer questions in Navajo in a videotaped deposition earlier this week. On Thursday, he also declined to answer questions in Navajo from Whitethorne's attorney Justin Jones about tribal government procedures.

"It's a fair question. He's a presidential candidate," said David Jordan, Tsosie's attorney. "We're not asking him the Pythagorean theorem in Navajo. We're asking how a resolution becomes law."

The Navajo Supreme Court last month sent the case back to Nez after ruling the Navajo language is sacred and cannot be disregarded as a qualification for the presidency.

The language is a defining part of the tribe's culture, said to have been handed down by deities. It's woven into creation stories and ceremonies, and spoken during legislative sessions, in dinner conversations and during Miss Navajo pageants.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language. Of the tribe's more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.

Deschene said he believes the issue is broader than fluency. He said the Supreme Court also must consider the people who voted for him in the primary, a traditional law that says Navajos have the right to choose their leaders, and whether the grievances were timely filed.

The high court determined the grievances were filed within a deadline and ordered Nez to consider them on their merits.

Tribal officials have said the language dispute was threatening to postpone the Nov. 4 presidential election.

Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. went out Monday. Replacement ballots would have to be sent if Deschene is deemed unqualified, elections official Kimmeth Yazzie said.

The tribe's election office, which certified Deschene as a presidential candidate, said it takes applications for the presidency at face value. Deschene came in second to Shirley in the August primary.

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