WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — A Navajo Nation presidential candidate faces a court decision on whether he's fluent enough in the tribe's language to be qualified to seek the largest American Indian reservation's top elected post.
The tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals will take up the case against Chris Deschene on Friday in the tribal capital of Window Rock.
For most Navajos, the language issue goes beyond the election. It centers on how to preserve what the federal government once tried to eradicate and what parents were ashamed to teach their children.
The Navajo 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.
More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Yes, it's part of the election, but it's an overall big picture of us as a nation, whether we honor our clans, our language, how to incorporate that," said tribal member Jaynie Parrish, 35. "This is a very big turning point for our community."
The appeals office previously dismissed grievances filed by Deschene's challengers in the primary election as untimely. But the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ruled last week that the office must consider the merits of the grievances, saying that speaking fluent Navajo is a reasonable requirement for the presidency.
Deschene has said fluency is hard to define but that he has communicated well with Navajo voters in their language on the campaign trail. He also has said he's working to improve his language skills.
His critics say he lied in his candidate application and shouldn't appear on the November general election ballot.
Deschene faces former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. in this year's general election.
The tribe's election office and the Office of Hearings and Appeals have never had a test to determine fluency. The grievances against Deschene were the first to challenge the language requirement since it became tribal law in the 1990s.
The Supreme Court in its order remanding the case to the appeals office set a standard for fluency that says candidates must smoothly and skillfully speak the language and be able to understand Navajo speakers and engage in a conversation.
Deschene declined to take a fluency test Thursday.
"No one in the history of the Navajo Nation has had to take a proficiency test to be elected," said his campaign manager, Lambert Benally. "And we feel that is discriminatory. It's unfair."
Richie Nez, the chief hearing officer for the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals, said he asked the tribe's Department of Dine Education for help devising a test that would meet the standard of fluency set by the tribe's Supreme Court.
Nez said Deschene was within his rights to decline to take the test, but attorneys for former presidential candidates Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne disagreed.
The 27,000-square-mile reservation is larger than any American Indian land base, and covers sections of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Almost two-thirds of the 300,000 Navajos live on the reservation that has some of the most iconic landscapes in the Southwest and is rich in natural resources.